Europe and the Trump Doctrine
If Donald Trump is such a disastrous president, why is America not suffering, wonders Paul Demarty?
Readers cannot, of course, have missed the drama. Having spent most of his European tour insulting his hosts and briefing against them in the media, the time came for the president to visit his Russian counterpart. Trump, as is his wont, has blown hot and cold in his relations with the Kremlin, but likes to be seen as having successful meetings with foreign leaders, and so - after hours alone with only an interpreter each - the two presidents came out to announce unspecified breakthroughs in Russo-American relations.
From the point of view of Trump’s enemies, Putin is not just another world leader. He is the evil genius, who suborned American democracy in order to get his man - one DJ Trump - into the White House. So there then ensued the event that caused such a farrago - Trump was asked directly what he thought of the opinion, unanimously held in the ‘intelligence community’, that the Russian state had interfered in American elections. He replied that he had heard it said, but then Putin had just denied it at length in their private conversation, and he “didn’t see why” the Russians “would have” behaved in that way. The whole universe went apeshit for a moment, until the president’s office ‘clarified’ that he had meant to say “wouldn’t have”. This seems to be good enough for congressional Republicans, although not anyone else. It looks, for all the world, like Trump has brassed this one out too.
Nobody ought to be surprised. We have been ‘saying goodbye’, relieved, to The Donald more or less since the moment in June 2016 when he first descended the Trump Tower escalator to the press conference to announce his candidacy, capping the event off with an absurd racist tirade against Mexicans that had the punditocracy quite convinced that his presidential ambitions were stillborn.
So much for that; and for the subsequent hundred supposed meltdowns on the primary campaign trail; and for the attack on bereaved soldiers’ families, and ‘Pussygate’, and the other things that were supposed to deny him the presidency; and the equivocation over neo-Nazi rallies, and the internment of children … It is almost as if the American political mainstream is completely adrift from the actual state of the body politic. Trump is not popular on the left, of course, or among liberals. Elite conservatives, also, find him distasteful. His approval ratings among Republican voters, however, remain high. ‘Decent’ anti-Trump candidates for office - even sitting congressmen - find themselves in danger of losing primaries if they take a stand against him. With many prizes up for grabs this autumn, Republican tongues are easily stopped. (It is not off the point, also, that the latest barrage of indictments related to ‘Russian interference’ - of Maria Butina, Paul Erickson and others - suggest that the Putin regime’s interest in the American right long predates Trump’s rise to power, and puts many more Republican figures in the frame.)
It is easy - too easy by half - to take the epiphenomena of the electoral cycle at face value. It so happens that Trump is popular, all things considered, among the people who matter. Why? Are they simply stupid? Racist? Are 63 million Americans actually, as it turns out, merely Russian Twitter spam bots? Or is there something else going on here - something with its own rationality?
Let us return to the world stage, where the president is such a striking performer. Trump has spent the last fortnight doing the wrong things, according to the collective folk-wisdom of the state department/intelligence apparatchiks whom Barack Obama nicknamed The Blob.
The Blob is focused on maintaining America’s global supremacy, as it currently exists. That means hegemony over western Europe, control of global petrochemicals and strategic dominance of ‘the heartland’ - principally via the management and encirclement of Russia.
Obama was too ‘sensible’ for his own good, and so it got its way most of the time, but nowadays The Blob faces off against The Donald - a walking, tweeting, ranting disproof of every game-theory exercise the Rand corporation ever put on. The interesting thing is that the negative consequences have not come to pass. There are no meaningful signs that Europe is able to pursue a foreign policy independent of the US, even as the latter treats the former with insults and contempt.
As to the fears of Putin running rings around Trump, perhaps that will come to pass, but we doubt it. At the end of the day, Russia is not a real or potential military threat to the United States. Even its cyber-warfare capability, with tales of which Brookings wonks scare their children, are trivial compared to America’s.
The swingeing trade tariffs, meanwhile, are supposed to decimate the US economy. Yet jobs, wages and growth are all up.
It seems that Trump was right all along, as he fumed about “bad deals” like a shopkeeper scorning a child for paying over the odds for a pint of milk. The US-led world order turns out not to be in the interests of the US. Trump, inasmuch as he is capable of grand strategy, pursues a world in which the grand military and economic alliances that held the ‘free world’ together under American dominance against the Soviet foe have been replaced by a hub-and-spokes system, in which America maintains separate bilateral relations with everyone. This, so the thinking goes, will leave everybody individually weaker than they presently are, and allow the US to bully everyone more effectively. Remarkably, the Trump doctrine - pithily summarised by some anonymous White House aide as “We’re America, bitch” - is already paying dividends.1
And, indeed, why shouldn’t it? Trump’s diplomatic antics have the effect of, to use the jargon of macroeconomics, scaring the shit out of the markets. Money flows to where it is safest - which is to say, to the place with the biggest guns - Trump’s America. The original rationale for the pre-existing diplomatic infrastructure - keeping the Soviet Union at bay - is clearly gone today, so it is not entirely implausible that keeping Nato, the European Union and all the rest afloat represents ‘good value for money’ for the American state. The laughable mismatch between the defiant words of European leaders and their feeble deeds tells a story. We could not do a better job than Yanis Varoufakis did, commenting on last month’s G7 meltdown:
[Trump] cannot possibly lose a trade war against countries that have such high surpluses with the US (eg, Germany, Italy, China), or which (like Canada) will catch pneumonia the moment the American economy catches the common cold.2
America’s allies can huff and puff, but as long as the United States controls the reserve currency and the military capability to reduce anyone to irradiated dust, they will just have to suck it up.
Meaning of Trump
There was a brief fad in left letters for short books seeking ‘the meaning of’ some proper noun or another - Alain Badiou, at the height of his modishness, sought The meaning of Sarkozy, and Richard Seymour followed up with The meaning of David Cameron.
If there is a ‘meaning of Trump’, it is something like the return of the repressed. What was concealed under genteel professionalism, religiosity and patriotic bromides in various proportions under Obama, Bush and Clinton goes naked in the Trump era. Mass deportations of migrants are no longer a dirty secret, but a game of ostentatious cruelty. Communalist-patriarchalist ideology no longer comes in the garb of the southern Baptist preacher, but in a red trucker hat and a confederate-flag tattoo.
So it is with Trump’s global strategy of tension. His open insults to world leaders are more or less without recent precedent (although John Bolton did a pretty good job of it under Bush). However, the net effect of at least the pointy end of US global policy in this whole period - its series of wars of intervention - have achieved nothing except the spread of chaos and anarchy. Trumpism merely introduces the spirit of Fallujah - if not yet the exact methods - into the courtly dance of imperial diplomacy. Where there currently stands a punch-drunk EU, Trump wants to see a pack of disaggregated nations fighting like hungry dogs for the scraps from America’s table. The greatness to which he wishes to restore his country is a very relative matter - it is enough to reign in hell.
If Trump is, in that sense, the truth of neoconservatism and the Laputan ‘realism’ of The Blob - those ideologies pulled inside out, to hide the utopian and pseudo-scientific bullshit and reveal the bloodlust and violence within - there arises the question of why nobody tried it before. Here we must at least admit the grain of reality in the mainstream critique of the Trump doctrine. It may work well enough for a good Republican outing in the midterms, or even a second glorious term for the great helmsman himself in 2020. Yet the economic stimulus on offer is a short-term bonus. Likewise, it is absolutely certain that the other major powers are not now in any position to challenge American supremacy. But those powers have had no reason even to try terrifically hard to challenge American supremacy, for it was a ‘good deal’ for them.
If Germany and other Nato laggards cough up 4% of GDP towards their militaries, in response to Trump’s demands, he will no doubt hail it as another great victory for the ‘master of the deal’, but there is a paradox there, for a build-up of military strength reduces the bullying leverage America has. Admittedly, the Germans and such will have to put a lot more than that into their military budget to even irritate the Pentagon; but rising powers need not fight hegemons head on to cause difficulties. As Blob-realism would no doubt remind the geniuses around Trump, the western Roman empire did not fall to any rival that had exceeded it in military strength: it collapsed because its near abroad contained enough potentially hostile powers with good enough military capability that fighting them all at once was impossible.
A ‘Roman’ end to the American empire, of course, is hardly an attractive prospect - not least due to the unimaginably greater destructive power of modern weapons. Yet, within the zero-sum game of inter-state rivalry under capitalism, no other end is imaginable, and even that one is far enough off. A breakthrough for the proletariat, especially in a global region capable of sustaining itself, like Europe, provides a different way out, and the possibility of a ‘better deal’ for American workers - even that sliver of them targeted by the Trumpites - than the current occupant of the White House can presently offer.