“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” – Herbert Stein, chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisers under Nixon and Ford
As has been true for most administrations over the past century, the new Trump regime came to Washington promising to change everything about the way the place worked and the policy outputs it produced. Over the past 100 years, only FDR and Reagan truly managed to do this. As such, it should come as little surprise that, with Trump’s slew of foreign policy about-turns on China, Nato, Russia, and Syria, the amateurish America Firsters’ reign at the top of US foreign policy lasted mere weeks, as their naïve view of the world could not withstand contact either with the Washington establishment or the verities of what is actually happening in the world.
Like many insurgencies, the America Firsters – epitomised by campaign svengali Steve Bannon and erstwhile national security adviser general Michael Flynn – have a good story to tell. Years of a gormless, utterly unaware American elite – the people I meet at swish conferences who are breathtakingly, wilfully unaware of the true damage they have done both in the sands of Iraq and to the global economy post-Lehman, and still think they are somehow entitled to run the world – running down the American lower middle class has given them a huge political opening. But if their narrative of elite incompetence is unerringly on the money, their practical policy alternatives have always amounted to little more than dangerous pixie dust.
For the American Firsters are, despite their conservative cloaking, genuine revolutionaries. They do not want to reform an establishment desperately in need of it, but rather to throw the baby out with the bathwater and over-turn a global system which has safeguarded American dominance for the past 70 years and managed (just, thanks to JFK’s adroitness) to see off the cataclysm of another World War.
But here is where the real world kicks in. Gravity cannot be wished away, any more than the objective power realities of the present multipolar system. And, just as with gravity comes the affirmation of certain physical laws, so with the multipolarity of today comes structural political realities which just this past week reasserted themselves in terms of overall American foreign policy.
Not seeing that the perils of radical Islam – upsetting as they surely are – amount to a second order global problem that was under-studied before 9/11 and is over-studied now, the Bannonites have made its destruction the centrepiece of their foreign policy thinking, which inevitably leads to disastrous geostrategic results.
Much like the anarchist movement of the late nineteenth century – so wonderfully dissected in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent – radical Islam can kill and maim and even (in the case of the anarchists) bump off the odd Russian Tsar (Alexander II), American President (William McKinley), or Austrian Empress (Sisi). But it has nowhere near the power either to change the overall nature of the global system, or to replace the United States as the dominant power on earth. It is a real, vexing, terrible problem but not what geostrategists should be concentrating on.
From this mistake about the true nature of the world, all other America First strategies amount to being fruit from this poisoned analytical tree. Russia is not worth cosying up to for a whole host of reasons (Assad, Ukraine, meddling in western elections) as the aid it gives the West in fighting a soon-to-be extinct Isis isn’t remotely worth the price. Russia is a weak, declining power, an ageing gas station with nuclear weapons, but it is a far cry from being America’s new joint partner in combatting radical Islam.
Likewise, China – which along with rising democratic powers such as India is where American strategic attention absolutely ought to be – is not the villain of the piece. Instead, with the help of the only power which in a generation might emerge as a peer competitor to America, the Trump White House can master the hornet’s nest of the nuclear ambitions of “the crazy fat kid” in North Korea (as senator John McCain has so memorably dubbed him), keep the global economic system on the road, and sooth tensions in the South China and East China Seas, preserving stability in the undoubted global engine for future economic growth.
In other words, in the world we actually live in (as opposed to the alternative reality populated by Flynn and Bannon and their henchmen), China is worth engaging, Russia is worth opposing, and radical Islam (while important) is worth taking a deep breath over.
All of this happened this past memorable week as gravity returned to international relations, and the Trump administration pivoted back to reality. Thank God.