Trump is not an academic. He isn’t poised, erudite nor serpentine. In 2016 he got elected with three catchy phrases: lock her up, drain the swamp, build the wall. His speeches and the positions he chose to adopt were very far away from the more cautious ones defended by his contenders, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or the last surviving competitor, Ted Cruz. The anti-establishment, anti-elite campaign Trump ran doesn’t remove him from the political spectrum. His discourse, that some tried to paint as brand-new, is part of a long story. His economical and social measures are embedded in American traditions and so is his geopolitical volition.
First let’s shatter one of the most prevailing myths in American history: isolationism. Some have argued that Trump is a dangerous isolationist that wants to break the ties America has with close allies. America’s Declaration of Independence goes back to 1776, after a few decades of soul searching the newborn nation fought Britain again from 1812 to 1815. Few years later (1823) the Monroe Doctrine was enacted, right after Brazil’s independence from the Portuguese crown. A lot of former Spanish colonies had already declared their independence too. This doctrine assumes that no European power should ever be able to hold important territory in the Americas again, considered the United States’ backyard.
Napoleon III would try to encroach on the Americas to curb the mounting power of the United States. Maximilian, an Habsburg of all things, was Napoleon’s choice to be Mexico’s emperor. More broadly this can be seen as a Catholic attempt to counter the Protestant Republic to the north, one could even argue that the French didn’t lose their primacy in 1815 at Waterloo but in 1866 when they pulled their troops out of Mexico. The United States would grow unchecked and this would dramatically change international politics as Carl Schmitt brilliantly shows in his Nomos of the Earth.
A country that fought in the Atlantic with the British Empire since its inception, surreptitiously aided the Republicans against the Monarchists in Mexico, expanded during the 19th century from the Atlantic to the Pacific, snatched the last Spanish strongholds during the Spanish-American war, came to Europe (and beyond) during World War I and World War II and had a global containment strategy against Communism till 1989 cannot – in any way, shape, or form – be considered isolationist. Trump cannot be isolationist even if he wanted to be, reality wouldn’t allow it.
Geopolitically speaking Trump is a realist, not an idealist. When he is criticized as being isolationist it is a very poor choice of words, his critics don’t master the vocabulary they’re using. What they mean to say is that he doesn’t uphold the universal enlightenment values of idealism. This idea of the Universal Republic was only ever held by two nations, The United States of America and France. The Americans and the French assumed that the fate of Humanity relied on their actions, on their words, on their armies. This remains true, to some extent, regarding both countries. Trump is guilty – according to the intelligentsia – because he thinks otherwise.
So the question arises; how does he see the world?
One way to put it would be what John Mearsheimer names as offshore balancing. Trump thinks America should be around but from a safe distance, put differently: he doesn’t see the point of boots on the ground. That military presence costs an exorbitant amount of money, reaps lives and leads to long entanglements, a great example would be Iraq. We shouldn’t shy away from mentioning that it can also lead to an anti-American sentiment, because no matter how good intentions are, men judge things by results. Machiavelli taught us exactly that many moons ago.
Trump is a wild card, a dark horse. The establishment cannot accept that someone who doesn’t abide by what Alain Minc called the “circle of reason” (cercle de la raison) is the president of the USA. Let’s examine one example. The pinned tweet of Anne Applebaum, one of the first and most vociferous adversaries of president Trump, reads as follows: “After this is all over, I never, ever want to hear again about how businessmen would run the government better than politicians.”
Said tweet encapsulates the state of mind of most intellectuals, scholars, bureaucrats, diplomats, politicians and journalists. They still haven’t been able to swallow Trump’s victory and they see his mandate as a nightmare that shall be over one day. Even if he is reelected it will be over after his second term. The most terrifying thought they carry is the possibility of Trumpism surviving Trump himself, carried by someone else. This sheds light on what has gone wrong regarding the Western systems, those that have comfortable positions have forgotten that one of the key aspects of a voting system is the ability to change route, to steer the ship elsewhere. In order to fully grasp this it is fundamental to read Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.
The grand American strategists grapple with one question, and one question only: how can America retain world predominance throughout the 21th century?
To answer this question successfully one must harken to a tale of the past century. We were in the early 70s, Richard Nixon was the president, and his foreign policy helper was called Henry Kissinger. The latter orchestrated the rapprochement with China to amplify the rift between Moscow and Peking. Just as in the past Germany and Russia couldn’t coalesce into an harmonious organism, so now the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic couldn’t either. That would endanger the preeminence America held.
Today most analysts agree that the main threat is no longer Russia but China, for a myriad of reasons that we won’t dwell upon here but let’s at least say that demography is certainly one of them. Broadly speaking two paths can be taken by any operative American administration. A proud standalone stance or a compromising divide and conquer (divide et impera) one. The clash between idealism and realism.
The idealist approach sees China and Russia as two relentless foes, describing them as fundamental enemies of American superiority. The realist approach sees them differently and wants to make a deal with Russia to curb the rise of China. Trump belongs to the latter. For the idealists Putin and Xi Jinping are tyrants. For the realists the former is a dictator, the second a tyrant. The partisans of idealism see Putinism and what’s left of Maoism as totalitarian regimes. The adepts of realism see Putinism as autocratic and the Chinese system as totalitarian. This dichotomy could go on endlessly, pointing even more differences between both schools of thought.
Kissinger was lucky enough to operate in an epoch that was more secretive than ours. In a century that is obsessed with transparency the art of statecraft becomes harder, when Trump tries to reach out to Putin in order to block his coalescence with China he is viciously attacked by a cohort of purists. What Trump lacks is his own Kissinger. Trump may well end up removed from office like Nixon, but it is extremely unclear if such action would fortify America and enfeeble its enemies as many seem to suggest…
Alphonse Moura is a geopolitician, he holds an MA in Political Science and International Relations; specialist of power struggles and founder of the Burgundian School of Geopolitics, based upon the Holy Trinity of Realism – Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes.