Trump’s foreign policy: reactionary, predatory and imperialist

Donald Trump

This is a problem which has been challenging governments across the world. It’s not clear that Donald Trump himself has a straightforward answer. His 25 September speech to the United Nations General Assembly gives up a few clues. Trump claimed that the United States had a policy of ‘principled realism’: ‘America’s policy of principled realism means we will not be held hostage to old dogmas, discredited ideologies, and so-called experts who have been proven wrong over the years, time and time again.’ Trump has mentioned this ‘policy’ before on four or five occasions, but this was the most prominent. What is he talking about?

To answer this, we need to understand how the ruling class thinks about foreign policy. There are two main schools in bourgeois theorising about international relations. One is variously called ‘liberalism’, ‘utopianism’, ‘idealism’ and similar terms. The other is called ‘realism’. Both set out to promote the interests of imperialism. Both have various sub-schools which expand in somewhat different directions on the basic theories. Liberalism, which acknowledges the 17th-century philosopher John Locke as a major influence, sees the world as constituted by well-intended individuals, capable of rational co-operation, organised in states and intergovernmental organisations, such as the United Nations. Realism, which traces its roots to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, and also Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, sees the world as anarchic, organised in competing states, which endeavour to use power to survive and thrive. Liberal policy prescriptions, striving to ‘make the world a better place’, tend to emphasise the need to spread liberal democracy and respect for human rights. These are to be enforced by the exercise of power, preferably sanctioned by international institutions, if diplomacy fails. But these policies frequently backfire. The Vietnam war, the continual crises in the Middle East, and the Ukrainian civil war were all presented as liberal attempts to promote ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’. Realism generally judges internal regimes purely by its consequences for the security interests of a particular state, the US for example. Although accused by their liberal critics of being warmongers, realists largely opposed the US interventions in Vietnam and Iraq. Liberals proceed from ideal principles, while realists pride themselves on starting from reality.1

What is ‘principled realism’?

Is it a mix of liberalism and realism? Is it a refinement of liberalism? It seems to have been first formulated in an after-dinner speech 30 years ago by John C Whitehead, Deputy Secretary of State during the second Reagan administration. Referring to US foreign policy, Whitehead argued against ‘utopianism’ and in favour of ‘realism’. While ‘the spread of democracy throughout the world is a good thing for the United States’, liberals believed that simply planting democracy in a country was sufficient, but realists recognised that ‘a growing democracy requires care and nurture in a climate of safety and encouragement’. It follows that the United States should create such a climate. Hence (he instanced) US intervention in the Middle East, the Philippines, (South) Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Panama, Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Cambodia. This approach he termed ‘principled realism’. In fact, this is clearly just a rebranding of classical liberal thinking, basically to justify intervention. True realists would be appalled by the catalogue of unnecessary (from their point of view) interventions.

The attraction of realism to conservatives is obvious: it is the opposite of liberalism. ‘Realism’ sounds, well, realistic: it is not the starry eyed idealism of the liberal. The term suggests unsentimental hard-headedness, a willingness to use force where liberals would hesitate, emphasising the interests of a particular state – such as Trump’s ‘America First’ – rather than a mythical common international interest. This interpretation of ‘realism’ appeals to a bully’s mentality – such as Trump. Why ‘principled’? This suggests a strong commitment to ‘American values’, the defence and promotion of ‘democratic government’, ‘democratic values’, the ‘American Way’ and the ‘American Dream’. How warming to the heart of an American patriot! In fact, upon close examination, it is clear that this ‘doctrine’ is nothing more than a high-sounding marketing slogan, not a thought-through approach to foreign policy.

This is very clear from Trump’s UN speech. Just minutes after claiming that ‘The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship’, he did the exact opposite, declaring ‘All nations of the world should resist socialism and the misery that it brings to everyone’! To drive home the point that the US will tell the rest of the world how to live, Trump went on to announce that the US is taking a hard look at foreign assistance. ‘We will examine what is working, what is not working, and whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart…we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.’ It is clear from the speech that for all the talk of rejecting ‘old dogmas, discredited ideologies, and so-called experts’, Trump foreign policy is just a variant of the traditional imperialist interventionism: the speech is a long list trumpeting US meddling in the Middle East, disruption of global trade patterns, the predatory Monroe Doctrine, and reactionary activities of all kinds throughout the world.

Liberal criticisms

However, this hasn’t endeared Trump to advocates of a liberal foreign policy. They are dismayed that Trump has attacked ‘all three pillars of American post-World War II foreign policy: alliances; free trade; and the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.’2 The alliances include the Five Eyes surveillance network (which Trump has accused of spying on him), NATO (Trump has questioned the need to maintain it), Japan and Korea (neither compensate the US adequately for the military protection they receive). Trump has assaulted free trade with ‘enemies’ such as China, slapping tariffs on just about everything imported from there. But he has also put tariffs on imports from ‘friends’ in the EU and South America, opening further rifts with ‘allies’. The president’s own disrespect for ‘democracy, human rights and the rule of law’ is legendary. The liberal solution? More of the same old policies: ‘Renewing American leadership and deepening the partnership with friends and allies’ (Daalder and Lindsay); ‘There is still a liberal world order to be salvaged, if the American people decide it is worth salvaging.’ (Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back)

A variant of this view is the belief that Trump’s foreign policy is a continuation of previous administrations’ foreign policies rather than a sharp break. These policies have all been based around the notion of ‘American Exceptionalism’ which has characterised the history of the United States since its foundation: the idea that the nation has a messianic, divine destiny. This exceptionalism has taken many forms – the slaughter of America’s native population over the centuries, ‘Manifest Destiny’, the Monroe Doctrine – as demanded by the contemporary needs of the nation – ‘One Nation under God’. Trump is just the latest incarnation of exceptionalism. The particular threat that he represents is unsettling though: ‘a new and vulgar strain of American exceptionalism’, according to Jeffrey Sachs.2 It embraces ‘naked nationalism’, racism and ‘economic populism’; it is addressed to some of the poorest people in the US, benefits the rich, and obscures this by blaming foreigners for stealing US jobs and for conducting unfair trade at US expense. ‘For whose benefit is America First?’, asks Sachs. He answers: ‘the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, Big Oil and Big Healthcare’. Perhaps socialism is the remedy? Perish the thought. ‘The real answers lie in global co-operation; a boost of critical investments at home in education, skills, technology and environmental protection; and more help for the poor, paid for by more tax collections…and by savings from a bloated military budget’, basically a return to traditional liberal policies. How this fairy story programme will get implemented, in the face of what Sachs acknowledges is ‘the overarching political power of the main corporate lobbies’, he nowhere explains.

All three of these books were reviewed sympathetically in the Financial Times, by its chief foreign affairs correspondent, Gideon Rachman (4 October 2018). As the paper notes, these books ‘displaying an abhorrence for Trump’s foreign policy still leave readers hoping for an explanation of the president’s world view’.

How to explain the president’s world view?

Liberalism cannot explain the president’s world view – it inhabits a mental universe light years distant from his; its very premises are rejected by the president. Realism is totally ahistorical – it claims to be able to analyse any international situation from warring Greek slave states in the fifth century BCE, to that of socialist Cuba today…and therefore also Trumpism. Up to a point it can, but Trump is operating in a particular class society, at a particular stage of imperialist development. Only by examining Trump’s foreign policy in those particular contexts can it be adequately understood. For both the Liberals and the Realists, Trump has just ‘happened’, popped up all of a sudden, out of the blue. Marxists and Leninists recognise that imperialism is in a crisis where it is experiencing great difficulties making an adequate profit; that all the imperialist states are ‘roaming across the globe, probing every nook and cranny, searching thirstily for profit… Combined with resurgent inter-imperialist rivalry [due to the fall of the Soviet Union], the crisis of profitability is forcefully driving imperialist powers into competition’3 with one another. As the US Department of Defense recognises, this ‘Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security…Failure to meet our defense objectives will result in a decreasing US global influence…and reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living.’ That is a succinct summary of the problems facing US imperialism.

Trump’s bullying, fascistic instincts are ideal qualities in a US leader at this time: the imperialists are prepared to put up with his vulgarity, bigotry and unpredictability as long as he delivers appropriate policies for US imperialism. Domestically, he has slashed taxes on corporations, and is cutting public expenditure by reducing departmental budgets – except for the military. Internationally, he is revamping and refocusing the US military for more vigorous support of US imperialism, breaking treaties and abandoning alliances which conflict with ‘America First’, and walking away from multilateral institutions. As one of his academic supporters has argued, ‘Trump has sent the message that the US will now look after its own interests, narrowly defined, not the interests of the so-called global community, even at the expense of long-standing allies.’4 For that author, Trump’s policy is ‘fundamentally realist in nature’. For us communists, Trump’s foreign policy is simply an adaptation of traditional imperialist foreign policy to changed circumstances. Although different in form, it has the same roots and aims as earlier phases of US foreign policy – it is neither ‘liberal’ nor ‘realist’, but simply reactionary, predatory and imperialist.

Steve Palmer

  1. Ivo H Daalder & James M Lindsay The Empty Throne – America’s Abdication of Global Leadership (New York, 2018).
  2. Jeffrey Sachs A New Foreign Policy – Beyond American Exceptionalism (New York, 2018).
  3. ‘Trump stirs it up again’, FRFI 265 August/September 2018.
  4. Randall Schweller Foreign Affairs

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 267 December 2018/January 2019