Trump, mill-ponds and dropped wrenches
13 Apr 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user EvgeniT.

Despite last week’s cruise missile attack in Syria, the outlook for the strategic policy of the Trump administration is still deeply uncertain. After all, one missile strike doesn’t make a strategic policy. And US declaratory policy remains confused. Charitably, some commentators have simply decided that the ‘Trump doctrine’ involves a deliberate decision to forsake doctrine. Well, that’s possible. But it’s hard to explain why, in that case, Trump went to such lengths to articulate an explicit doctrine in his Inaugural Address—namely, a doctrine of ‘America First’.

True, in the days since that address, the doctrine’s been blurred by messages of continuity in US strategic policy emanating from the vice-president, and the secretaries of State and Defence. But those assurances have been proffered with no attempt to reconcile them with the president’s earlier vision. And Trump seems now, much as he was on the campaign trail, to be just as hostile—or at best indifferent—to the principles of liberalism that have defined US global leadership since World War 2. Those principles include free trade, international institutions, and support for democracy and human rights. Moreover, he seems at best a reluctant ally, categorising others as free-riders and the alliances themselves as obsolete. (News flash: After meeting the NATO Secretary-General at the White House overnight, President Trump has declared that NATO’s no longer obsolete because of new efforts it is making to counter terrorism.)

But the problem’s not just one of declaratory policy. The influence ‘webs’ around the president are both unsettled and unsettling. Where do Messrs Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, Kushner and Bannon all fit, let alone the president’s daughter? What weight can be given to statements by one of those? Decision-making within the administration is essentially a black box. Media with some access to Washington sources currently offer us a post-event description of how a particular decision unfolded, but frequently disagree on the key decision point. And there’s a new game of ‘spot the influencer’ being played out where photographs of particular events are subject to exegetical analysis, much in the manner of the CIA’s assessments of ranking within the Soviet politburo during the Cold War. What should we make of the seating arrangements for Trump’s dinner with Xi Jinping? Or of Bannon’s presence in the Mar-a-Lago Situation Room during the attack on the Syrian airfield?

Then, of course, there’s the question of context. US (and broader Western) relative strategic weight in the world is in gradual, long-term decline. The aggregate GDP of the five BRICS countries is now larger than that of the G7 (in purchasing power parity terms). At the level of individual countries, China’s GDP is larger than America’s. An era of uneven multipolarity looms, with the former Leviathan being less omnipresent. That doesn’t mean that the current order will quickly fade. Even a waning superpower makes a good strategic partner. And none of the rising powers has yet articulated a more compelling global vision. Still, the world’s changing, and we’d do well to remember it.

What tangible actions could the US take to assure allies and partners? Well, allies are looking for evidence of consistency in the administration’s foreign and strategic policy. Ideally, they’d like that consistency to reflect broad continuity in the US global role, and continued US engagement at the key strategic fulcrum points around the Eurasian rimlands. That’s where global order’s set. Short of that goal, US allies can live with the sort of US policy we’ve got now: transactional, but—apparently—willing to tackle individual crises on an ad hoc basis as they arise. Such a US role in the world wouldn’t be ideal, but it would be manageable.

In Canberra, there are two views of the Trump administration: there’s a ‘mill-ponds’ school and a ‘trouble-at-mill’ school. ‘Mill-ponds’ fans say Trump’s interested primarily in trade, immigration, and terrorism, and suggest that we should expect broad areas of stability and continuity (i.e. mill-ponds) to prevail elsewhere. ‘Trouble-at-mill’ schoolers say Trumpian uncertainty will be found across the broader policy settings, and suggest that we should steel ourselves for an age of ad hoc transactionalism. Members of that second school are acutely conscious of the extent to which a wrench dropped, even accidentally, into the machinery can disrupt production at the mill. They worry that there’s an ample supply of wrenches close to hand, and that the biggest wrench of all—America First—has already been dropped.

At the moment, the second school seems to tell a more credible tale than the first. The mill-ponders seize upon every flicker of continuity with an almost desperate urgency. The trouble-at-mill folk are more inclined to take broader discontinuity in their stride, prizing instead specific US actions and commitments—all the while maintaining an eye on the opportunities provided by a more multipolar order. Of course, even if the second school is telling a more compelling narrative than the first, we’ll still need, more than ever, a clear hard-headed strategic policy as Australia struggles to cope with a more complex world.