Foreign policy oftentimes is conceived and formulated by experts and specialists. The heads of states then accord legitimacy on a particular foreign policy decided upon by these experts. However, the nature and course of a particular foreign policy bears the ingress of the ideological predilections of a particular administration. Given this, what will be the nature and direction of American foreign policy under Trump and his administration?
Usually, foreign policy, as the nomenclature suggests, is predicated upon interstate relations and how various states in the system interact, engage or confront each other. There is very little(if any) domestic component to it. This is what international relations theory and even practice suggests. But, there have been changes at both the structural and systemic levels in international relations. The domestic, at times, melds into the foreign and foreign policy then integrates various levels in both formulation and execution. The somewhat blurring of the domestic and the foreign(international) is more salient and poignant in America during Trump.
Trump’s ascension to power amid controversial and deeply contested elections, which exposed the deep and polarizing faultlines in America, was premised mainly on his pledges to the American people to “Make America Great Again”. Among other things, this meant a broader retreat of the country from its international role(s) and responsibilities – a kind of quasi-isolationism which also entailed an aversion to globalization.
The inexorable march of globalization had entailed a dilution of the Westphalian concept of sovereignty and the primacy of the nation states. Flows-financial, economic and people- defined globalization and constituted a kind of a challenge to both sovereignty and the nation state. In combination, these factors and flows affected America and many people in the country attributed the various ills that defined the country to globalization and America’s overseas commitments. The pithy coinage, “ Make America Great Again” even though in the nature of a slogan resonated with many Americans and they then voted for Trump.
If taken on face value, the slogan of making America great again means , in effect, rolling back the architecture of world politics and order thereof enunciated and reified after the Second World war. By and large, this order , benefited the United States , its allies and even countries like China which opened up and bought into it in the late seventies. But China, employed this order to its advantage in terms of economics but maintained its political nature and character. The question is: can Trump actually roll back this order?
The answer is not clear cut but if Trump’s pronouncements at the United Nations are any indication and clue, he is rooting for a return to the ideas and concepts embedded in the Westphalian notions of sovereignty and the primacy of the nation state. The world view and the practice that flows from this recidivism of sorts, corresponds to the realist paradigm and tradition of international relations and world politics. Roughly speaking, the cardinal premise of realism is sovereignty and the centrality of the nation state. And , foreign policy that emerges from realism is that of an interest and not a values based one. Among other things, this means that human rights, and what goes within states will not be the focus of America’s foreign policy anymore. In terms of economics and political economy, it might even mean and imply some form of mercantilism and protectionism.
What, the question now is, would be the implications for other states and peoples?
The major one could be that while America might honor its security commitments to its allies but there will be a revisiting and perhaps even revisionism of global economic bargains with other states. It is pertinent to mention here that when King Jong un was busy shooting missiles over Japan and threatening South Korea and thus presented a foreign policy challenge to Trump, the American president took to twitter and his administration’s top officials invoked responses of a military nature, he despite the crisis called the South Korean president to renegotiate a trade deal with the country. The Trump administration also has Iran in its cross- hairs. The implication that flows from Trump’s assessment and understanding of the nuclear deal with Iran and having Iran in America’s cross hairs is that diplomacy will not be priority for him and his administration. This is reinforced and validated by the marginalization of the State department and funding cuts to it.
In terms of ethno-political disputes , Trump’s assertion for respect for sovereignty means that America will take a detached view of these conflicts and will neither intervene nor mediate in these. Respect for human rights and aversion to their violations will be either a tertiary or even negligible interest for the Trump administration. Under conditions of anarchy in the international system and structure and a weak global governance architecture, the responsibility would devolve on the United Nations, which burdened with structural problems and other issues, would be unable to cope up.
But , as Trump makes America correspond to his view of the world, he will discover that the world has actually moved on and it will be extremely difficult , if not impossible to roll back globalization and its contents; he will also discover that the world is not a neat place; it is, in reality , messy. While the insights of realism do hold, most of the times, the prosaic fact is that the world is a complex place where realism’s neat insights and prescriptions do not entirely and neatly hold.
In the final analysis, the post War political and economic architecture served America pretty well and afforded it leadership , power and influence. But after many foreign policy blunders or even disasters which included the Second Gulf war, the ups and downs of the global economy, and then the assumption of power to the highest office in the United States by Trump, among other things, it would appear, that Trump, by his omissions and commissions, might be leading the United States towards decline. This, above all, might be the key take away of American foreign policy under Trump.
—The author can be reached at: [email protected]