Our foreign-policy future in a Trumpian world


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Humane capitalism has been replaced by the savage capitalism that brought us the financial crisis. National democracy has been replaced by a crony-capitalist network of global elites. Traditional virtue has been replaced by abortion and gay marriage.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.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Facebook comments: April 22, 2018
Facebook comments: April 22, 2018

As reported by the American-Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove, Alex Jones and InfoWars have been sued by the parents of children killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. The lawsuit centers on Jones suggesting the death of their children was a “hoax.” Tilove wrote the case “could be a landmark Austin...
Herman: Taylor dealing with its train spotting problem
Herman: Taylor dealing with its train spotting problem

Back in January 2017 one of my favorite columnists at this paper, reporting on an Amtrak trip, wrote this about the first stop north of Austin: “Bless Taylor’s heart,” I wrote, “the Amtrak view of the city isn’t what you’d call a chamber of commerce dream. The downtown view from the train features a building...
Commentary: We’re suing to stop the hijacking of Travis County votes
Commentary: We’re suing to stop the hijacking of Travis County votes

After seven years — and three election cycles — of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the Texas congressional redistricting lawsuit against then-Gov. Rick Perry and the state of Texas beginning this week. As two of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, we sought to reverse unconstitutional gerrymandering and minority voter disenfranchisement...
CASTILLO: Why the ‘hyphenated Americanism’ comment triggered outrage
CASTILLO: Why the ‘hyphenated Americanism’ comment triggered outrage

The recent decision by the State Board of Education to approve an elective course for Mexican-American studies in Texas high schools should have triggered triumphant celebrations among the scholars and advocates who worked for years to make the curriculum a reality. Instead, many came away feeling like they were history’s losers once more. &ldquo...
Facebook comments: April 22, 2018

As reported by the American-Statesman’s Ben Wear, Austin is in the midst of a scooter war, as companies offering dockless scooter rentals have sprung up in Austin. Bird Rides put out its scooters April 5. Some were impounded by the city through April 12, then returned to the company and appeared back on city streets. LimeBike then released more...
More Stories