The deep-seated argument taking place within the US polity, partly but not only because of the mess being presided over by President Trump, makes even more urgent the need for a thorough-going review of Australia’s foreign policy, including how we conduct ourselves within the alliance.
Last week President Trump sent to Congress his preliminary proposals for the 2018 Federal Budget. It covers discretionary, not mandatory spending. What Congress eventually approves is likely to be well distant from these proposals. There will be extensive negotiations within Congress. But, Trump’s proposals set a framework for those negotiations and, reveal the administration’s priorities.
The highlights of the proposals are: reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (-31%), State Department and USAID (-29%), Agriculture (-21%), Labor (-21%), Health and Human Services (-18%), Education (-14%). Increase funding for: Defense (+9%) and Homeland Security (+7%).
Robert Reich served in three US administrations, most recently as Secretary of Labor under President Clinton. He has written that “the theme that unites all of Trump’s initiatives so far is their unnecessary cruelty” – to the poor, migrants, refugees. He contends that Trump’s health insurance plan as presently proposed will cause 14 million to lose their health insurance and 24 million by 2026. Tax breaks over the next decade will give a windfall of $600 billion to wealthy Americans.
Reich asks why is Trump doing this?
“He has no compelling justification. Unemployment is down, and we have fewer undocumented workers in the US today than we did five years ago” He concludes:
“Trump is embarking on an orgy of cruelty for absolutely no reason. This is morally repugnant”.
Reich’s question: why is he doing this, is the right one and is one of interest and concern to Australia. Answers could lie in two fields: the psychological and the political.
The psychological front is, of course complex and subject to imprecision, but it is surely important.
Trump’s record identifies him as a person: for whom material values, expressed as money and properties, are paramount; who has demonstrated repeatedly by his conduct, that he is without personal sympathy for the underdog, for “losers”; who has virtually zero relationship to the truth of any matter, especially those which hold the prospect of disadvantaging him; who believes he will always get away with it, will always win.
Describing Trump in this fashion is just that – a description of a palpable reality displayed repeatedly. It is not advanced as a moral judgment, but rather to suggest factors, which will shape his actions, and provide an important clue as to what may unfold in the political future.
In that future, lies the conflict which seems inevitable, between his material interests and those of his wealthy supporters, on the one hand, and the political base which brought him to his office, on the other. He promised, lavishly, relief to the poor, angry and alienated, particularly in rust belt States. But it is already clear that he will not deliver this but instead will deliver even more advantage to those who are already rich.
He is already the least popular President in recent history, at this stage of a presidency, but where he will stand when the economic facts I have just referred to become clear to his base is hard to know. They might just wake up to the fact that they have been conned, and being made feel “Great” again and wearing the red baseball cap, may not cover it. This could lead to conflict, or at the least serious anger within the US. Trashing expectations can do that.
In three recent articles (Pearls and Irritations: 27th January, 3rd February, 5th March, 2017), I argued that Trump was a sideshow to the wider political construct within the US, or at least it was an error to ignore the other Republicans who had been elected last year. With the recent return to work of the Congress, with its vain and deeply ideological factions, whether Trump fully appreciates this or not, this reality is now upon him. And, this is to say nothing of the role of the independent judiciary, and an intelligence and investigative apparatus, which he has repeatedly maligned.
The Republican leadership in the Congress has entered into a Faustian bargain with Trump. Whatever they may say about him in public, they know exactly what he is, and not much of it is pretty, but they believe, for now, that he can give them what they have wanted for a long time: a deregulated economy and environment, extreme capitalism, military muscle, including more nuclear weapons, global arms and aerospace sales, and, perhaps above all, gerrymandered electorates. They have no serious interest in the poor, as the tragic Mitt Romney accidentally told us all when he blew his shot at the top job, in 2012.
This list is not short, and it has flaws, a really odd one of which is Trump’s apparent carelessness with, or possible dishonesty about his relations with Russians, the Republican’s preferred mortal enemy.
Dr. Faust gave Mephistopheles too much, and just as Trump’s reckoning might come when his base finds themselves short changed, the Republican heavies in Congress will likely encounter a set of circumstances, closer to next years Congressional elections, in which they will judge that the cost of Trump is no longer bearable. Maybe the FBI will help them solve the problem.
For those of us looking on, our major concern is, perforce, with US foreign policy. And, what a mess that is.
Trump’s “America first”, proclamation is meaningless other than as an authentic shout of selfishness which is, of course, consistent with his own psychology and tastes.
No serious leader in today’s world fails to recognize the profound facts of interdependence. They don’t rail against it, as Trump does, but try to work it to advantage, with others. By the way anyone who has worked with the US government, over the years, including in the warmest and friendliest of circumstances, will not be unaware of the impulse, “America first”.
There are so many examples, in only two short months, of the depths of Trump’s ignorance of international relations, and it seems of his staff as well. The most recent was his stating, while Angela Merkel was his guest, that Germany owed the US expenses for its participation in NATO. There is no such arrangement for “expenses” in NATO. One can only imagine how alarming Trump’s high- level visitors have, in fact, found him to be.
With respect to the Alliance it is far too early to know what the proposed cuts to the budgets of the State Department and USAID will mean. In the first instance, they may not eventuate. The very influential Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican, warned immediately that they would be “dead on arrival” in the Senate. In proposing them, Trump is relying on populist xenophobia which has always stalked these budgets. For years, surveys have shown that a high percentage of Americans believe the US routinely spends some 25% of its national budget on foreign aid, when it has always been far less than 1%.
US contributions to the UN, both assessed and voluntary are covered in the State Department budget. Other than a decision already taken to remove US contributions to women’s health related organizations, for the reasons already given, it is too early to know where US support to the UN will land. (see: part 1 of this article).
As an Alliance partner, our interests are best served by a well funded and capable US diplomatic effort and by constructive development assistance programmes. US “soft power” is widely regarded as far more productive in most situations than the exercise of military power and threats.
It would be consistent with Trump’s relentless belief in muscularity for him to judge our usefulness to the Alliance by the extent to which we are prepared to further militarise our foreign policy. We have surely seen enough of that and paid too high a price by responding to US pressure to accompany them on their now multiple military expeditions far from Australia, with dubious, and in the case of Iraq, plainly disastrous results.
In the review of our foreign policy, currently underway, it will be even more essential than ever for us to examine deeply the costs and benefits of the Alliance. This must be freed from sentimentality about the “anglosphere”. There are so many reasons for this, not least our demography and geography. It must also involve consideration of the state of the US polity, and where it’s fissures and obsessions could lead.
Our own self- respect dictates that we leave the Brexit-ers and the Teaparty-ers to their own joyful introversion.
Writing this week in the New York Review of Books, (April 6th, 2017) the very thoughtful and experienced Michael Tomasky, in an article entitled “Trump: The Scramble”, described the: “stupefying parade of announcements and events and tweets and leaks” that portray an undisciplined White House, and went on: “It is a spectacle such as we have never seen, but attention must not be trained solely on the White House” but also on, “how the Republicans could have permitted this. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and all the rest of them surely know that Trump isn’t fit to be president. They surely understand the danger of giving him the enormous war-making authority a president has.”
We have a great deal of thinking to do. Julie Bishop’s stated faith in the combination of the US version of democracy and the rules–based international system, isn’t enough. We need to rely more on our own understanding of the contemporary world and its rules, and pursue an independent, distinct, Australian foreign policy.
Richard Butler AC was Ambassador to the United Nations and later, Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, and a Professor of International Relations at NYU and Penn State University.