By Batur Ozan Togay
After a series of sloppy debate performances and further inappropriate remarks, Republican Party nominee Donald J. Trump will presumably not become the 45th President of the United States. Although Trump’s chances of winning are now much higher than they were a week ago, such temporary changes in the race cannot affect the substance of its content (since it has not underestimated Trump’s impact in the first place) .However, his stance on foreign policy will not simply fade away with his undoing, for they weren’t created by Trump in the first place.
A major portion of Trump’s foreign policy vision points at the same direction. Summarised as “America First” by the Republican nominee himself, he supports opposition to the Iraq War (despite his original position) and strategies of regime change and nation-building, letting Russia lead the fight against ISIS, Brexit, elasticity for the spread of nuclear weapons, and even termination of military support to allies defended by the US…
Reasons Behind the Resurgence of the Non-Interventionist Impulse
The United States has predominantly shaped the new world order and encouraged the acceleration of the process of globalisation throughout the world. However, its own convictions have arguably started doing a disservice to the country; many American companies have moved their facilities overseas where the low-skilled workforce is much cheaper. (Similarly, the incoming cheap immigrant workforce has also pressured the working and middle class Americans; and therefore, played into the hands of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric.)
When this impact merged with the ever-increasing income equality and the ongoing effects of the financial crisis of 2007-08, it reflected on both ends of the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, unexpectedly managed to become a viable candidate against Hillary Clinton and shift the Democratic Party platform further left, mainly addressing income inequality. On the other hand, Donald J. Trump, a political outsider, became the Republican nominee. They have both been vocal in opposing TPP and NAFTA, as well as criticising the US’ free trade conditions in general. Not only in the area of international trade, but also in foreign policy, have the two seemingly antagonistic candidates found common ground. While Sanders had constantly reminded the American people he voted against the Iraq War and rarely mentioned foreign affairs in his popular addresses, Trump also recurrently condemned the Iraq War.
Historical Context of American Non-Interventionism and Trump
“We cannot be the policemen of the world,” says Mr Trump, but the United States’ international role hasn’t always been the same. In fact, non-interventionism is deeply rooted in the political genes of the US and had been the norm of foreign affairs in the country for more than a century. “In regard to foreign nations,” the first President of the US, George Washington, declared that the US should “have with them as little political connection as possible.” President Thomas Jefferson underpinned Washington’s words in 1801 by stating that one of the “essential principles” of the US government was to refrain from “entangling alliances”. The policy of American non-interventionism was consolidated when Secretary of State William H. Seward declined the French Emperor’s call for the US to “join in a protest to the [Russian] Tsar,” pointing out that the American people must forbear “at all times, and in every way, from foreign alliances, intervention, and interference.” During World War I, although President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany after nearly three years of neutrality; the US’ isolationist tendencies were displayed after the war when the Republican-dominated Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles. (Therefore, the United States was unable to join the League of Nations, originally proposed by President Wilson amongst the Fourteen Points during the war.)
Notwithstanding its non-interventionist history; after World War II, the United States not only became actively engaged in world affairs but also led the Western Bloc during the Cold War against the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc, followed by an era of US unipolarity after the Cold War. These roles of leadership have often included the responsibility of undertaking continuous military and economic aid to its allies, as well as maintaining the established order through practices such as the containment of communism with the aids of the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, experiments of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, and annually providing tens of billions of dollars’ worth of economic and military assistance to foreign countries. All of the stated policies are now subject to interrogation or criticism by Donald Trump, demonstrating proximity to the country’s foreign policy in the 19th century (even if Mr Trump is indifferent or unaware).
Differences with the Past
Even though Trump’s foreign policy proposals are in harmony with the US’ non-intervention principles of old, there are also major differences when it comes to affairs regarding the foreign world, especially in terms of outlook on trade and immigration. In fact, in the given quotes stated by Washington and Jefferson on non-interventionism, both have acclaimed commercial relations with foreign nations within the same sentences. The two former presidents respectively said, “the great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations,” and “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations”. Furthermore, one of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points directly demanded “the removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers”. Moreover, of course, the United States have been a country of immigrants and welcomed millions of immigrants throughout its history. Hence, Trump’s protectionist and nativist language and proposals against free trade and immigration are essentially, as Bernie Sanders said, “un-American”. Still, if we further delve into Trump’s stances on immigration and trade, our already wide subject area will inconveniently diffuse; thus, since we have displayed Mr Trump’s dissociation from past US trade and immigration policies, let us analyse the inconsistencies amongst his vision for foreign policy.
Trump’s Inconsistencies in Foreign Policy
“Why are we knocking ISIS and yet at the same time we’re against Assad? Let them fight, take over the remnants. But more importantly, let Russia fight ISIS, if they want to fight them… Let Syria and ISIS fight. Why do we care?”
“And yes, I will also quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS.”
Seems hard to believe, but these contradictory statements both belong to Donald Trump. They not only showcase serious incoherence in Trump’s thought-world but also a conflict between interventionism and isolationism. The first one is compatible with his non-interventionist viewpoint presented throughout this article. However, his pledge to bomb “the hell out of ISIS” reflects Trump’s utilisation of the US’ modern role as a hegemonic power to connect with the right-wing voter base.
“The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defence – and, if not, the US must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
“And we must only be generous to those that prove they are our friends.”
Donald Trump had actually been quite precise about the countries that “should be paying us”; as he repeatedly listed Germany, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, he also called for sole generosity for the US’ allies, reciting the country’s one of post-World War II principles.
“We are getting out of the nation-building business, and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.”
“End the current strategy of nation-building and regime change.”
Again, Mr Trump is stuck in the middle, this time on the topic of nation-building and regime change. Although he has harshly condemned the Iraq War in his speeches and the debates, and opposed nation-building and regime change; both his past support for interventions in Libya and Iraq, and his ongoing backing of reinvigorating Western institutions around the world render his arguments dissonant.
“We’re going to finally have a coherent foreign policy,” said Mr Trump in his foreign policy speech; however, it is apparent that his vision lacks the necessary consistency to be transformed into the field of foreign affairs as a coherent foreign policy.
Danger of a Non-Interventionist United States
Since Trump will probably not become the President of the United States there’s no point examining his temperament and its consequences if he had his finger on the nuclear button. It is, however, crucial to study what would happen if his non-interventionist ideas were put forward by a superior candidate with a greater chance at winning. Even if we ignore Trump’s anti-immigration proposals such as the Muslim ban (which could further radicalise the Muslim youth both in the Middle East and the West) or protectionist approaches in trade against developing countries such as China and Mexico, his non-interventionist and arguably isolationist foreign policy vision will likely be enough to induce immense effects on the international system.
There is already a delicate balance of powers between the US and Russia; and unlike during the Cold War, the network of alliances is much more ambiguous. Therefore, a prospective contraction of international US influence, causing a global power vacuum, would result in a highly unpredictable and possibly a catastrophic world (also considering his ease about nuclear proliferation); for even power vacuums on smaller scales (e.g. the fall of Saddam Hussein and the breakup of Yugoslavia) have resulted in fatal aftermaths. The US, undoubtedly, has not been an outstanding example as a superpower. But with Iran expanding its sphere of influence throughout Middle Eastern countries with sectarian strives, China putting a disproportionate pressure on its neighbours about territorial disputes in Asia, and Russia posing a growing threat to Eastern Europe, such a major shift in the balance of powers could easily lead to a disastrous outcome.
All in all, Donald Trump’s non-interventionist foreign policy vision – despite its inconsistencies – enjoys a strong historical background and a present-day appeal as a reaction against globalisation. Hence, it is independent from Trump’s flawed presentation and arguably premature timing, and retains the potential of coming to the fore in a more suitable environment and posing a challenge to the international system.
Image by IoSonoUnaFotoCamera via flickr.