When US President Donald Trump graduated from the twitter and his impromptu media remarks to take to the podium of the Congress on Capitol Hill to make his annual address, it became a moment the international community had been waiting for. Trump’s speech on Tuesday can be viewed from there angles.
How far did he deviate from his campaign pledges or the positions he’d articulated in the run-up to his inauguration on January 20? Are there any new elements? And, thirdly, what could be the expectations in the period ahead from Trump on the foreign-policy arena?
For the international community, of course, it is the last question regarding the trajectory of US foreign policies that will attract most attention. But then, the heart of the matter is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to sequester Trump’s ambitious domestic agenda from his foreign policies – or vice versa.
The two are inextricably linked in a way that is unprecedented in modern American politics. Therefore, America’s engagement with the world through the coming four-year period needs to be co-related with the historic nation-state that Trump puts at the centre of all his policies.
In a nutshell, Trump did not make major deviations in his speech from his earlier pronouncements on US foreign policies. There is remarkable consistency too.
Immigration and trade are high on his timetable, as he’d pledged all along. He underscored that «a new chapter of American greatness» is now beginning; that «integrity and the rule of law» must be restored at America’s borders»; that strong measures are needed to protect America from «radical Islamic terrorism».
He reiterated emphatically that this «vile enemy», ISIS, must be extinguished from the planet; that the «unbreakable alliance» with Israel will be preserved. He qualified that «free trade» should also be «fair trade».
Equally, Trump stressed that resources cannot be squandered away abroad wastefully, «national rebuilding» being the priority, and the US’ allies must meet their financial obligations.
He’s mostly stayed on message. Trump jettisoned a handful of extreme positions that he might have taken in the hurly-burly of politics but informed opinion moved in – shifting the American embassy to Jerusalem, declaring China as currency manipulator, vocally supporting Taiwan, or, voicing indifference to Japan or South Korea going nuclear.
So, at the end of the day, what sort of foreign policies can be expected under the Trump presidency? At the very outset, what can be said is the most obvious – Trump simply did not bother to either claim that the world community is clamouring for America’s leadership or that being the global leader is America’s tryst with destiny, as his predecessor Barack Obama had insisted all through his eight fine speeches on Capitol Hill.
No doubt, Trump too feels it in his blood and feels along his heart that America is a great nation. But he doesn’t claim it is an exceptional nation with a global mission based on «values». He’d leave it to the US’ allies to decide whether America should lead.
Indeed, if they so decide, then, they must also be prepared «to pay their fair share of the cost – have to do that» in terms of the mutual obligations of the partnership.
The punch line comes in three crisp sentences. Trump says: «Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people, and America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path. My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America».
The above dramatically sets apart Trump’s foreign policies. This is not a cadence that the world community ever heard before in any of the US’ post-Cold War presidencies. The US’ post-Cold War triumphalism, the «unipolar predicament», which began with Bill Clinton presidency, is apparently being given an unceremonious burial by Trump.
Trump then goes on to explain, «America is better off when there is less conflict, not more. We must learn from mistakes of the past».
It is a fair assumption to make that Trump is willing to turn his back on the US’ interventionist policies of the quarter century, as they’d manifested in various avatars – under the rubrics of «humanitarian» impulses (Yugoslavia), «colour revolution» (Georgia and Ukraine), «regime change» (Iraq, Libya and Syria) or «war on terror» (Afghanistan).
How is this reconcilable with Trump’s intention to increase the military budget significantly and to eliminate the so-called «defence sequester»? He himself acknowledged that is going to be «one of the largest increases in national defence spending in American history».
Trump rationalizes this way: «Finally, to keep America safe, we must provide the men and women of the United States military with the tools they need to prevent war — if they must — they have to fight and they only have to win».
The important element here is that nowhere in his speech Trump proposes to fight new wars. The Pentagon expenditures do not necessarily portend greater US interventionism abroad. It is understandable, arguably, that in such extraordinary times in American politics – Trump just accused Obama of instigating media leaks and protests against him – the powerful US military-industrial complex can rest assured that their corporate interests are safe even if there are no interventionist wars abroad.
To be sure, Trump has redefined the terms of engagement of America with the world community. He said the foreign policies of his government will seek «direct, robust and meaningful engagement» but will be based on «vital national interests».
A significant feature of Trump’s speech is about what he omitted – America’s big-power relationships. He said nothing about Russia and almost nothing about China. Evidently, change is in the air.
It was habitual on Obama’s part to badmouth Russia on any and every occasion – even to the extent of bracketing ISIS and Russia in the US’ «threat perception». Trump’s speech confirms that demonizing Russia is no longer US policy.
In the case of China, there have been early indications already that he is speedily moving toward engagement, while with regard to Russia, it may turn out to be a slow process due to the hurdles that are being created on his path almost on daily basis.
Trump says China’s WTO membership cost the US economy 60000 factories during the period since 2011. But he said this not as a stand-alone accusation but by way of illustrating a «series of tragic foreign policy disasters».
This is where the best hope lies that under Trump, the US may career away from the trodden path of imperialism and global hegemony. Simply put, Trump’s foreign policies become a grand bargain since nation-building will be impossible amidst waging foreign wars.
To reinforce the point, Trump came up with the staggering figure that the US’ Middle Eastern wars have cost $6 trillion «while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With the $6 trillion, we could have built our country twice, and maybe even three times, if we had people who could negotiate».
Trump’s speech testifies to his intense awareness that his domestic political base has not eroded despite the relentless, vicious attacks on him by an unforgiving opposition that lost the election. Indeed, it is to that base that he will have to return to seek a renewed mandate in 2020. He understands that his agenda to make the foreign policy serve as a tool to rebuild the country enjoys popular support.