US President Barack Obama’s often spoken “Obama Doctrine” is about to be upended by the new thought on the block – Trumpism.
In his eight years as the most powerful leader on earth, Obama has consistently resisted the idea of armed intervention unless circumstances threaten the very security of the United States. He has stood steadfast by his policy even in the face of opposition from the hawks in his own team, and held that diplomacy and negotiations must serve as the bulwark of international relations. The use of armed force has to be the last resort and only in the face of a direct and existential threat.
In the emanating debate, Obama has been harshly criticized, especially in the case of Syria, where humanitarian concerns and the genocide perpetrated by the Assad regime has turned world opinion against him including European allies of the US.
Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, admitted after resigning office in 2012 that the vacuum created by the failure of the US to produce a plausible response (using rebel factions) in Syria, was filled by the Islamic State jihadists. In his perception the President felt the only credible threats to the US were Al Qaeda, the irresolute Israel-Palestine question and a nuclear Iran. Putting at risk his own credibility and the power of his office, he encouraged the deal with Iran to ensure a more benign foe than an out rightly belligerent one. In more than one instance he has exhibited his reticence in getting embroiled in more Middle East wars, which according to him more often than not, serve to exploit US muscle for the sectarian gains of Arab allies.
President Obama’s focus on Asia was articulated by Hillary Clinton when she spoke of the Asia Pivot. However critics have pointed to the lack of a suitable supportive action after the articulation of a policy thought that has only served to weaken the American position in the region. To his credit Obama saw the Chinese and the Russian equations in the harsh lens of realism, and proceeded to deal with them as such.
In the aftermath of the US presidential election and its apparently disastrous result many theories have been extended to explain Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House. Trumpism, as the term goes, is hard put to explain by way of normal electoral politics or the range of policy option oscillations that were witnessed during Trump’s campaigning. In what could only be termed as gutter level politics and a no- holds barred contest, he has managed to emerge the winner, and it is now up to myriad analyses to justify this twist in the tale.
In his 1960 book, Constitution of Liberty, Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek marked the transition from conservatism to neo-liberalism. He rejected the ideas of political freedom, equality and universal rights, and his sole focus remained the absolute freedom from coercion, with competition as a defining axiom in human relations. Since any impediment in the form of regulations, taxes or state provisioning found itself counted as counter productive, his theories found sympathetic audience in the form of millionaires on both sides of the Atlantic willing to fund its expansion by way of lobbying vociferously in government circles.
This theory soon entrenched itself in the form of various adaptations such as Thatcherism and Reaganism and saw the paradigm shift from social democracy to a fresh belief and assurance in the form of neo-liberalism. Similarly, alterations of the same theme were employed by successive leaders both in the US and UK, having no substantial political thought of their own.
In that, and enigmatically, lies the explanation of Trump’s advance — it is the very lack of political alternatives that he has cashed in, and indeed he is a perfect example of the ‘independent’ postulated by Hayek. Most have given up trying to understand as to how a man so devoid of moral constraints, who has thrived simply on inherited wealth and repeatedly lost what he sought to create, gross beyond reason in his political conduct, could still ascend to the highest office in the US and in fact the world.
More importantly and as the specter of a Trump Presidency grows, analysts across the globe are scrambling to figure out what his foreign policy is likely to be and how it would affect them. Contrary to the realism exercised by Obama, will Trump tend toward an isolationist approach, or will his be an era of naked self interest cloaked in the garb of liberal interventionism? Or, and albeit without too many takers for it, will he stand by existing international norms and therefore strengthen multilateralism? The problem faced by most analysts is the same; ‘The Donald’ has made so many contradictory statements and adopted such widely oscillating stances that Trump has managed to stump everyone as to what is coming.
In strategic circles today, there exist a manifest confusion as to what Trump the President is going to do. This is compounded by the sheer inadequacy of his transition team, most of whom are stark novices on issues of governance, policy and international intrigue. To that end, and much to the relief of strategists, an odd Reince Priebus or Michael Flynn seem as the saving grace in the otherwise maddening amalgamation. They do agree on certain precepts though. That there is chaos in the world, more so because it is governed by varying yardsticks and discordant principles. That there is an emergent requirement to pare down chaos in key regions in the world. That there is an incessant demand for a more comprehensible and intelligible world order. So then what, if anything is Trumpism going to do about it? Some of the more sane voices in the Trump camp have also scrambled – scrambled to put some amount of meaning in to what their presidential candidate made an utter hash of in the run up to the elections.
If one were to go by what Trump said during his campaign, he is unlikely to accept the deterioration of the US economy for reasons of foreign policy. Only that much seems clear. He has repeatedly stressed upon the inadequate contribution of most key US allies in maintaining the security status quo across the globe. In Europe, it is the NATO allies. In east Asia, Japan and South Korea seem to have not done enough of their share.
With a recalcitrant and belligerent Russia in the east, NATO is left wondering what the new US stance is going to be. Those who put their money on the humanitarian crisis fomented by the Assad regime in Syria and then propped up by Russia, it is a question whether the US will now support them on these concerns, and therefore in an armed intervention in the war? Trump’s statements about Putin have left key allies such as UK, Germany and France confused about what the equation is likely to be in times to come.
Similarly the far east seems a potential trouble spot with the Chinese dragon flexing its biceps. This leaves Japan and South Korea wondering what their courses of action are going to be. In the eventuality that the US does rescind its own responsibility in these areas, the most obvious deduction is steep militarization in these zones. A host of other countries who have started to tilt toward the US such as Vietnam, India and Myanmar have expressed uncertainty. The example of the Philippines is being touted as the likely outcome if the US fails to stand by its commitments in the region.
Undoing some of the damage done by the fickle Mr Trump, two of his key policy advisors, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro have sought to word succinctly what Trumpism would mean. They outline two tenets of his (likely) foreign policy, one that the US will no longer sacrifice its economic interests on the altar of foreign policy, and two, that the US will focus on peace through strength.
As such, some of the key alliances of the US may be asked to increase their share in sustaining the presence of US troops. This will invariably result in rubbing some of them the wrong way. However if those allies were to look at things pragmatically, it may be a better idea to increase percentage of GDP spends, rather than look at long term and expenditure heavy militarization.
The principle would be true both for NATO and South Asia. Coupled with Trump’s plan to build up the US Navy from 274 ships at present to 350 ships, an increase in spending would see a much more secure region. At the same time it would continue to drive home the message of the US as the traditional guarantor of a liberal world order. The allies could feel reassured of the commitment of the US, while the foes would find it hard to scale up their presence under the pressure that would be brought to bear on them.
Again based on the way the Trump team seems to be shaping up, where the first concern was of novices trying to deal with issues probably beyond their comprehension or capabilities, the second concern holds as much weight. This concern is to do with the known views of the few experienced people he has picked up.
Inside the US it is a matter of how badly the very principles on which the US has made its position in the free world are likely to get mauled. Whether it is an Attorney General who is deemed too racist for the job, or or a Chief Strategist who is an alleged white supremacist, and possibly a front for neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, these people worry the nation which comprises a sizeable proportion of Asians, Hispanics, African- Americans and Jews. The level of indignation is evident from the number of Republicans who have openly opposed such appointments. Similarly, a National Security Advisor who is known for very stringent anti-Muslim views augurs ill for relations with the Muslim world. The equation is further compounded by the turmoil that the Muslim world is witnessing, and that many of the countries are allies of the US from an earlier dispensation.
During the campaign Trump has repeatedly reminded people of his business acumen, and that he intends to use the same to rid America of her economic woes. Without entering in to the discussion of his business acumen, which is questionable at best, some of the more alarming issues emanate from his dislike for immigrant communities which form the backbone of the American work force. If he were to indeed insist on American jobs for Americans, firstly, would they be up to the task?
The fact that immigrant communities have filled positions in the work force is fairly indicative of the average American standard of education. Moreover the Americans may never be able to produce the same resilience exhibited by these communities.
Secondly, what of the huge populations of immigrants living in the US. Trump has denounced Trade Deals which according to him are disadvantageous to the US, such as the NAFTA or TPP, or even allowing China’s entry in to the WTO. How he intends to tackle these is still not clear. In either case, he has been voted to power on promises of restoring the supremacy of the white American, but his modus is not clear in any lucid form. If fans of Jack Ryan (Tom Clancy’s hero in an entire series) were to recall, stringent trade measures forced the other guys so far against a wall that they lashed out resulting in a war. In a globalized economy that scenario is quite plausible in today’s times. However, this is not fiction, and Trump is definitely not Ryan.
The United States will witness some sea changes from the realism exercised by President Obama to (possibly?) a liberal interventionism based on naked self interest by Trump. As the inauguration draws closer, the transition will be clearer. One thing is, however, crystal clear, the world is going to be a very different place than we know today.