Friday, February 2, 2018

What Trump did not say about foreign policy

Mohammed Cherkaoui,

Image from article, with caption: US President Donald Trump gestures as he delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of the US Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC January 30, 2018

In his first State of the Union address, Trump ... took a page from the Cold War playbook and resurrected the idea that the US is the protector of global freedoms. Just like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon frequently did in the 1980's, he shaped the sections of his speech that deal with foreign policy around advocacy of freedom and American morality. He told the gruelling story of North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, and equated his yearning for freedom on the other side of the globe to the construct of freedom that is deeply rooted in America's exceptionalism and historical collective memory. He asserted it was "that same yearning for freedom that nearly 250 years ago gave birth to a special place called America." He also mentioned the recent protests in Iran against the government, and emphasised that "America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom."

Trump has perpetuated this pro-freedom narrative for more than one purpose. First, by presenting himself as a protector of human rights and freedoms, he implicitly countered his critics' argument that he is undermining the values of American democracy by his nativist, racist, misogynist, and Islamophobic positions. After all, there is growing conviction in the international community that Trump's America has relinquished its commitment to human rights and other liberties.

Second, by taking a pro-freedom stance in his first State of the Union speech, Trump sought to affirm his extreme right-wing and Evangelical base's attachment to the idea of American exceptionalism, and ultimately positioned himself on a high moral ground close to his idol Reagan, who once said "Freedom is not the sole prerogative of a chosen few; it is the universal right of all God's children." Of course, Trump's moralistic call for freedom in Iran and North Korea was contradictory to his anti-globalist motto of "keeping America first", but it seems irony is lost on his supporters. ...

Trump's realpolitik mindset that was apparent throughout his address showcased his preference for muscle-flexing military superiority as a deterrence strategy. By stating that he believes "weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense", the president clearly demonstrated his inclination to focus on his country's "hard power" capabilities, and to neglect its considerable "soft power" resources. In his address, Trump expressed his intention to "modernise and rebuild our nuclear arsenal" and asked Congress to "fully fund" the US military, even though the US military spending - at 16 percent of the federal budget - already exceeds the military spending by China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined. However, he refrained from mentioning cultural and educational exchanges and other forms of public diplomacy between nations. The decades-long practice of soft power by certain agencies, such as the State Department, the International Institute of Education, and the Smithsonian, has already been waning after he imposed a 40 percent cut on international programs at the State Department. ...

He advocates for a sharper, defensive realism, but does not seem to have a coherent foreign policy strategy beyond simplifications based on us vs them dichotomies. ...

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