US foreign and military policy is thoroughly fused. The cliches which assert that: military postures are designed to shore up diplomacy and, the other favourite; articulated by the US in virtually every situation:- “all options are on the table”; do not dilute this fact. The key consequences of this are: the US is always at war; expects this to be the case; favours wars of choice; when needed, constructs the reasons for them. The positive news is that others see this reality, are making their own calculations and, are going their own way. Australia should begin to see it too.
At almost two thirds of the way through the first Trump term, four main features of and about current US foreign policy, are clear:
1. No serious, capable leader, places any reliance on the pronouncements of Trump. They clearly recognise that what he says and tweets are curiosities, and they appear to know that, almost in their entirety, Trump’s outpourings give expression to prejudices; often do serious violence to established facts; are directed at his domestic political base; usually have no durability and, thus, are likely to change in a breathtakingly short time.
2. Major policy decisions which have been taken have been designed by people around Trump, sometimes to give effect to political demands he has made; such as to neuter any agreement done by President Obama. The key examples of this phenomenon have been the US departure from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and, the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
It is fatuous in the extreme to believe that Trump has any informed knowledge of those agreements. This has not prevented him from repeatedly misrepresenting them.
Figures well established in conservative Republican institutions have drawn up these policy perspectives and fed Trump the minimal arguments required for him to voice, when announcing his decisions.
It has become very clear in recent time, that the key figures running US foreign policy are: National Security Advisor Bolton, Secretary of State Pompeo, and, in a less detailed, more of an ideological/cheer leader role, Vice President Pence
But, more importantly Trump’s people have seen in Trump’s infinite malleability and his addiction to smashing things, the opportunity to pursue a thoroughly self centred, unilateralist policy stance. To say this is not to merely affix labels from the jargon of academic international relations studies. These descriptions are real. They describe an astonishing rejection of the overwhelming trend and tide in contemporary international relations: the tide of interdependence.
Whatever fantasies Trump and his coterie might hold, they will be as successful as King Canute was with the incoming tide.
Incidentally, while interdependence is being challenged by the current surge in nationalist/populist political movements it is not being sidelined by that challenge.. The results in last week’s EU Parliament elections showed this. The centre did well and, where parties like LePen’s in France also did well, it was partly as a consequence of her moving the party towards the centre
3. The factual, evidential base, for US policy development has been dismissed. Trump and his circle have made clear that they will not be constrained by any findings, analysis, judgement or advice based on such work, offered by US intelligence and analysis Agencies. If that work contradicts what they want to believe, their prejudices, it will be ignored. This should be seen as having major implications for the determination of Australian foreign policy.
4. Negativity. The level of current official US negativity towards any projects based on international cooperation; UN or Non-Governmental, indeed on the part of USAID and US based charitable organisations, seems to be at an unprecedented level.
This is proving to be very destructive, in many parts of the world and very often plainly cruel. Trump and company may think that this suits the America First crowd but, the fact is, they are wrong. Philanthropy and care of the needy is ingrained in so many Americans.
What are we seeing on the ground today, resulting from this set of determinants of US policy? Here are a few examples:
1. The Administration is moving to sell some $8 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, when this has been blocked by Congress on the grounds of their being used in the Saudi war on Yemen; and, in the light of the Saudi murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump will invoke emergency powers to by- pass Congress. The Saudi war on Yemen, including its children, is in fact, a war with Iran and Trump/Bolton approve of that.
2. The US has threatened Iran with varying degrees of devastation because it claims Iran is mobilising forces to attack US or allied forces in the Persian Gulf region. For this purpose, the US has sent a second carrier battle group to the region and, additional troops, bombers, missile systems. The US has sought support for, or at least understanding of its actions, from European and Gulf allies but has so far, failed to provide evidence convincing to anyone, of its contention that Iran is moving down the path of aggression.
This situation clearly has subterranean layers: the US/Saudi/Israel Alliance against Iran; the proxy war in Yemen between Saudi and Iran; the final disposition of Syria after the last province outside central Government control (Idlib) falls and the associated power play amongst Syria/ Russia and Turkey/US, with respect to the future of Syria.
Bolton, of all people, a fabled hater of the UN, has suggested that the UN Security Council take up the issue of Iran’s threatening activities. Will anyone in the Council demand from him to know why there are US military installations in the Persian Gulf, in the first place?
But then that could have no end: why are the Russians in Syria; why did the US invade Iraq in 2003, on the basis of fabricated intelligence and in contravention of international law; didn’t that start this whole sorry period in the Middle East?
All difficult issues which, clearly, the Security Council will take a pass on.
The question at issue today is, where will the current US administration propose the Council should go, at a meeting it has called for, on seeking to ensure stability, peace, in the Gulf region and, bring an end to the war in Yemen.
3. The unending Trumpist policy of so called trade wars, especially but not exclusively, with China; (in the last 24 hours, he has threatened Mexico, again ).
None of what is occurring is new. The world community’s attempt to create an even playing field in trade began, in 1947, with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Those efforts have also always included attention being paid to particular needs, such as those of farmers, and very poor people and countries. The evolution towards today’s WTO, has been and, remains, complex. The things at issue are vital to so many people and huge, in magnitude.
Trump has boasted endlessly of his determination to achieve the maximum result, in financial terms, for the US. But the interdependence of states and trading systems of which the US/China relationship is an outstanding example, makes it essential for there to be compromise, if there is to be agreement.
The US and China have made progress towards levelling- off some of their imbalances but this hasn’t yet given Trump the “win” he craves so he’s been imposing new tariffs and now technology bans, such as that on Huawei.
There is serious argument about the truth of the matter on Huawei. Would it in fact be threatening to national security to install Huawei 5G systems. The US says it would. But to what extent is this, in fact, a commercial/competitive stance? Where would such an approach lead. What technology supplier: Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, does not rely on an extended international supply chain?
There is another, a 5th factor, which is not directly in the foreign policy mix, but which has immense bearing on it: The state of affairs domestically, within the US.
The US polity is polarised, conflicted, to an extent that has not been seen previously, in the modern age. The economy is yielding mixed benefits and certainly in key areas, nothing like those Trump promised when running for election. The national physical infrastructure is in widespread distress. And, this is to say nothing of the relentless corrosion of the notion of truth in public discourse and the idea that high officials can and should be held accountable for their conduct of their office, in the service of the people.
The President is enmired in investigations of his conduct in possibly obstructing justice and, other possible illegal conduct.
His 17 minute outburst, yesterday, against Robert Mueller, the day after Mueller had made brief public remarks, upon ending his office, was widely seen as unhinged and riddled with lies.
Where this relates to foreign policy is that: such domestic distress could: distort decision making on foreign policy issues; lead politicians to seek to divert attention from their domestic failures through foreign expeditions, possibly extending so far as to go to war.
The cast of mind which underpins these circumstances was on vivid display in the speech made, a week ago, by Vice President Pence, to the graduating class at the West Point Military Academy. He told the graduates that:
“It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life… against radical Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq…on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacfic… an increasingly militarised China which challenges our presence in the region… in Europe, where an aggressive Russia seeks to withdraw international boundaries by force… some of you may even be called upon to serve in this hemisphere”.
Pence’s speech was not simply philosophical, implying a pop historicist notion that war/ conflict is inevitable. He was telling the graduates that the invasion of other countries or sailing into waters near them or, obviously flying over them, was the right of the US, if it deemed US interests required such action. It clearly asserted that the US has a right to go anywhere in the world or take any action it chooses to take.
It is unsurprising to hear this enunciation of US imperial power. We have seen it in action since the Second World War in some 70 countries.
Our Government must reflect more deeply than it has for at least 30 years, since we disengaged from the Vietnam venture, on what this means for us. In particular, as implied above, we must examine much more rigorously the information and analyses which are passed to us under the “Five Eyes” agreement. The Trump apparatus seems to have no compunction in trashing the expert analysis that US professionals put to it, if it doesn’t fit with its prejudices, such as Bolton’s at least three decade old hostility to Iran. Should we take it seriously or, crucially, fail to be aware of the possibility that, as they did with respect to Iraq, the US may manufacture intelligence to fit its already determined military purpose.
We need our own mind, our own analyses of relevant materials, so that we can develop an independent Australian foreign policy, based on Australian values and interests and, targeted closer to our home and neighbours.
Richard Butler AC is a former Ambassador to the United Nations.