“Every good citizen makes his country’s honour his own.” – Andrew Jackson, seventh US President
Donald Trump’s overall foreign policy views are not the mystery the highly-discredited commentariat presently make them out to be. He largely hews to what Walter Russell Mead calls the Jacksonian nationalist strain of American foreign policy, long a minority (if important) view in both parties.
Espousing a form of realism, the Jacksonians believe that the US should pursue a very limited but overriding view of the American national interest, seeing that every US foreign policy initiative furthers American interests to the exclusion of all other competing imperatives. For example, during the campaign Trump questioned whether global warming was objectively true, wondering aloud if this was merely a Chinese plot to economically castrate the United States.
What Trump is getting at is that he is not in favour – given the perilous economic condition of the Springsteen Democrat base which just elected him – of shelling out significant American funds to pay for the lion’s share of a global problem.
The idea that America is somehow impelled to “lead” on this as the global ordering power strikes Jacksonians as dangerous claptrap of the highest order, just another example of global elites caring about esoteric issues (global warming, pandemics, nuclear proliferation), all the while ignoring the concrete economic plight of their own workers.
As such, Jacksonians are deeply distrustful of alliances, fearing the US too often allows itself to be shackled to the wishes of others, who may have quite different interests from those of America. Here Trump (rightly) notes that Europeans’ failure to ever meet their defence commitments in Nato is scandalous, and that Americans should not continue to be taken advantage of, footing the bill so Europeans can retire earlier while Springsteen Americans suffer at home. While Jacksonians are not against Nato or any other alliance per se, they are only for such commitments in transactional terms, if America “gets a good deal” out of them.
The idea of sharing values with Europeans (which the gormless Chancellor Merkel brought up in her hysterically pompous statement “congratulating” Trump on his victory) would strike a Jacksonian as the height of hypocrisy, a way to either change the subject away from obviously deficient European defence spending or (even worse) to use such platitudes to ensnare America in an alliance to do another’s bidding.
In either case, Chancellor Merkel had better learn fast about Jacksonian thinking, for her tired old rhetorical song and dance – perfectly, blandly acceptable to the old American foreign policy elite – is simply not going to work anymore. Jacksonians are not isolationists; they will do things in the world that they believe suit them and their interests. To ask them to do anything beyond that – as America regularly has as the global ordering power for the past 70 years – is not going to happen anymore. At its essence this is what Trump means when he talks about “America First”, a laser-like focus on American national interests to the exclusion of all else.
Jacksonians favour using force, but only when it is clear that a winning strategy is at hand, and never in the interests of esoteric goals, such as “upholding the international community”, “humanitarian intervention”, or to “nation-build” others. Any nation building that occurs ought to be for the Springsteen Democrats, rather than (rightly in my view) wasting literally trillions of desperately-needed dollars in swamps like Iraq around the world. Again, with his focus entirely on American nationalism, Trump – weirdly echoing the very different Barack Obama – wants nation-building to begin at home.
However, should America decide that the use of force is in its interests, Jacksonians are for prosecuting the war, regardless of what others – including international institutions like the irrelevant UN or the smug and hopeless EU – might say. As Jacksonians believe so fervently in American nationalism, they readily accept that other countries might also wish to use force, and are not over-worried by that reality, as long as American interests are not threatened.
Hence, Trump’s blithe unconcern for whatever President Putin gets up to in either eastern Ukraine or Crimea. America has no primary interests in either place so Jacksonians like Trump – to the horror of the international rules-loving Wilsonian elite – simply don’t care. To put it mildly, this Jacksonian tilt will force the rest of the world to think about America again, in a way few have bothered to do over the past several generations, as Jacksonian precepts, world view and policy prescriptions are so entirely novel to European eyes.
But the world has just changed; to be successful analytical thinking must catch up with it.