Trump and the traditions of American foreign policy (part 2)

MMGAThe Jacksonian foreign policy call to arms, as we argued in part one, isn’t driven by the moral underpinnings of the Wilsonian tradition or the quest for an ‘open door’ world of the Hamiltonian tradition. Rather it’s instead animated by the instinct, in the first instance, to protect members of the ‘folk community’ from threat. The influence of that attitude can be seen in a variety of historical and contemporary examples.

For instance, Jacksonians were against the US intervention in Bosnia, due to limited threat this posed to direct American security interests, but were accepting of the push for US intervention against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, as the Iraqi dictator’s move was perceived as a threat to world oil supplies, and hence, a potential threat to the economic well-being of Jacksonian America.

Similar rationales have been evident in Jacksonian support for American interventions in both World Wars. Here, it wasn’t the atrocities committed by the Central Powers, the Nazi’s nor the Imperial Japanese army but rather the sinking of American ships in the Atlantic and the attack on Pearl Harbour that assisted presidents Wilson and Roosevelt respectively to overcome the ingrained American aversion to ‘foreign entanglements’.

In the latter case, as FDR biographer Jean Edward Smith has documented, the President, during the tense US–Japanese diplomacy prior to Pearl Harbour, was ‘like Lincoln prior Fort Sumter’ in wanting ‘Japan to be perceived as the aggressor’ in the event of open conflict.

That desire to be seen as the righteously aggrieved party to a conflict also speaks to the importance Jacksonian’s attach to the protection of ‘national honour’ and ‘reputation’:

‘Honor…is not simply what one feels oneself to be on the inside; it is also a question of the respect and dignity one commands in the world at large. Jacksonian opinion is sympathetic to the idea that our reputation – whether for fair dealing or cheating, toughness or weakness – will shape the way others treat us’.

Such reputational calculus has been evident throughout the history of American foreign policy from Robert Kennedy’s assertion in his memoir, Thirteen Days, that he advised his brother, President John F. Kennedy, against a Pearl Habour-esque ‘sneak attack’ against Soviet missile sites in Cuba, to the Jacksonian opprobrium directed at President Obama after he failed to follow through on his ‘red line’ statement regarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

All of those key themes—protection of the community from direct threat, narrower definition of the ‘national interest’ and protection of American ‘honour’ and ‘reputation’—have been evident in Trump’s various public statements on foreign policy.

Take for instance Trump’s ‘plan’ to ‘bomb the shit out’ of ISIS and ‘take their oil’. That speaks both to the Jacksonian desire to protect its community from direct threat (construed in this instance as both physical and economic) and Jacksonian conceptions of ‘honour’ (ISIS are an inherently ‘dishonourable’ adversary and therefore the US is justified in utilising any means to destroy them).

Such themes pose problems for those who would have us believe that Trump is a ‘Nixon-Kissinger realist’. The Jacksonian tradition isn’t entirely consistent with even Nixon and Kissinger’s rather narrow conception of foreign policy ‘realism’. Indeed, we would do well to recall here that Nixon and Kissinger themselves spent much of their time in office assuaging (or to be unkind, pandering) to Jacksonian opinion as they attempted to extricate the US from Vietnam without losing ‘credibility’ with adversaries and allies alike. It wasn’t a coincidence that Nixon and Kissinger framed their strategy of withdrawal as ‘peace with honor’.

Jacksonians are also predisposed to be bloody-minded once the US is engaged in a conflict and resistant to rationales for their resolution short of ‘total victory’. Additionally, once adversaries are defined as an ‘enemy nation’ (for instance, Iran since 1979) it becomes extremely difficult for Jacksonian opinion to be swayed to support efforts at normalisation. Conversely, Jacksonian opinion, in the absence of direct threats to American security is likely to advocate a minimalist or, in the words of George W. Bush during the 2000 election campaign, a ‘humble’ foreign policy.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has rightly lambasted Trump’s disparate statements on foreign policy as ‘dangerously incoherent’.

Yet simply labelling such Trump assertions that the US should abandon long-standing alliances such as NATO if allies don’t ‘pay their own way’ or that it wouldn’t be a bad thing for South Korea and Japan or Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons as ‘dangerous’ doesn’t directly address the Jacksonian sentiments that underpin their appeal to Republican voters.

Clinton, along with the foreign policy establishment in Washington, would do well to recall Max Weber’s observation that while ‘Interests (material and ideal), not ideas, dominate directly the actions of men’ the ‘images of the world created by these ideas’ have very often served as switches determining the tracks on which the dynamism of interests kept actions moving.

Thus far in Trump’s rise as standard bearer for the GOP it’s clear that the Jacksonian tradition has been the ‘switch’ that has determined the tracks on which his foreign policy will run. Hillary Clinton and the foreign policy establishment ignore its influence at their peril.