Behind Donald Trump’s “America First” trumpet there are more coherent forces pushing for a redrawing of the international order. Trump may seem incompetent, but there is a logic to many of his actions – whether it be destabilising NATO or embracing Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
A couple of US ideologues, professor Daniel Quinn Mills (long-time professor at Steve Bannon’s alma mater, Harvard Business School) and Steven Rosefielde (anti-Communist economics professor in North Carolina), laid out the vision in a little noticed 2017 book published in Singapore.
In The Trump Phenomenon and The Future of US Foreign Policy, the two argue that the post-World War II “Western world order” is dying, with institutions like NATO proving more a burden than a help for the US empire. At home, the country is in a state of “decay”. The dynamics of “population growth, immigration, and the politics of inclusiveness,” they claim, “are weakening the nation state.”
Their solution? America has to shift away from “international cosmopolitanism” toward a nationalist and explicitly imperial policy to assert its power in the world. In an updating of the realpolitik of the 1970s, the US should seek a “Cold Peace” of competition with Russia rather than a “Cold War” mind-set rooted in the NATO alliance. The assumption is that Putin is following such an outlook, and by doing likewise, war between the two powers can be avoided and American capitalist interests can go about their business while other challengers to US power, specifically China, are contained.
And in dealing with other smaller countries, progress can be made by backing similar nationalist and anti-cosmopolitan forces. (The authors’ repeated critiques of cosmopolitanism and high finance bear a resemblance to older anti-Semitic propaganda that is hard to miss.)
There are also divisions within the capitalist class at work here. Remember that the globally-oriented US financial sector, for the most part, was never in favour of Trump’s nomination and election. They’ll take the tax cuts and deregulation he offers of course, but someone who is regularly threatening to restrict free trade is not the first choice of international banks. The turn toward a more unilateral, great power approach is more in line with the interests of energy, natural resource, and (some parts of) manufacturing capital in the US.
Trump often seems to be reading from the script written by Mills and Rosefielde, but his own election tie-ups with Putin and the Russian state often overshadow any ideological analysis of what’s going on. The easy explanation is just to say Putin helped him win, so Trump toes his line.
But there is a bigger attack on democracy underway here, as well as the pursuit of an agenda belonging to particular sectors of the capitalist class. And while the dismantling of NATO and a re-ordering of the world in favour of peaceful relations and the end of militarism would be a good thing, that’s probably not the kind of outcome planned by Trump or Putin. In other, more transparent circumstances, it might even be possible to welcome such diplomatic overtures between long-time nuclear-armed adversaries (as was the case with North Korea).
Despite the uproar over his stage show with Putin there were developments that came out of his trip to Europe that Trump can mark as personal achievements.
He had the opportunity to further boost the emerging nationalistic, xenophobic, and militaristic global right-wing alliance everywhere he went. At the NATO meeting in Brussels, he argued for a ramp-up in military spending, pushing for ever more financial resources in Europe and North America to go toward war preparations. In Britain, he put the spotlight on the buffoonish anti-immigrant politician and former cabinet member Boris Johnson, suggesting he’d make “a great prime minister.”
And in a nod to the rhetoric of neo-Nazis and white nationalists across the continent – as well as in the US – he lamented how Europe was “losing its culture” because of immigrants: a call to “Make Europe Great Again”.