It’s becoming clear that for the next few years American foreign policy will be shaped by the struggle among Republican regulars, populist ethno-nationalists and the forces of perpetual chaos unleashed by Donald Trump’s attention span.
The Republican regulars build their grand strategies upon the post-World War II international order — the American-led alliances, norms and organizations that bind democracies and preserve global peace. The regulars seek to preserve and extend this order, and see Vladimir Putin as a wolf who tears away at it.
The populist ethno-nationalists in the Trump White House do not believe in this order. Their critique — which is simultaneously moral, religious, economic, political and racial — is nicely summarized in the remarks Steve Bannon made to a Vatican conference in 2014.
Once there was a collection of Judeo-Christian nation-states, Bannon argued, that practiced a humane form of biblical capitalism and fostered culturally coherent communities. But in the past few decades, the party of Davos — with its globalism, relativism, pluralism and diversity — has sapped away the moral foundations of this Judeo-Christian way of life.
Humane capitalism has been replaced by the savage capitalism that brought us the financial crisis. National democracy has been replaced by a crony-capitalist network of global elites. Traditional virtue has been replaced by abortion and gay marriage. Sovereign nation-states are being replaced by hapless multilateral organizations like the E.U.
Decadent and enervated, the West lies vulnerable in the face of a confident and convicted Islamofascism, which is the cosmic threat of our time.
In this view, Putin is a valuable ally precisely because he also seeks to replace the multiracial, multilingual global order with strong nation-states. Putin ardently defends traditional values. He knows how to take the fight to radical Islam.
“We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what (Putin) is talking about as far as traditionalism goes,” Bannon said, “particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.”
Last week’s intelligence report on Russian hacking brought the Republican regulars, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, into direct conflict with the ethno-nationalist populists. Trump planted himself firmly in the latter camp, and dragged Fox News and a surprising number of congressional Republicans with him.
If Trump were as effective as Putin, we’d probably see a radical shift in American grand strategy, a shift away from the postwar global consensus and toward an alliance with various right-wing populist movements simmering around the globe.
But Trump is no Putin. Putin is theological and cynical, disciplined and calculating, experienced and knowledgeable. When Bannon, Michael Flynn and others try to make Trump into a revolutionary foreign policy president, they will be taking on the entire foreign policy establishment under a leader who may sympathize with them, but is inattentive, unpredictable and basically uninterested in anything but his own status at the moment.
I’m personally betting the foreign policy apparatus, including the secretaries of state and defense, will grind down the populists around Trump. Frictions will explode within the insanely confusing lines of authority in the White House. Trump will find he likes hanging around the global establishment. In office he won’t be able to fixate on ISIS but will face a blizzard of problems, and thus be dependent on the established institutions.
The result may be a million astounding tweets, but substantively no fundamental strategic shift — not terrible policy-making, but not good policy-making, either.