Rejection of multilateralism, aggressive strategic competition, trade wars, nationalism, questioning of traditional alliances and the commitments of his predecessor: Donald Trump has decided to revolutionize American politics and diplomacy.
Donald Trump and His Assumed Break in the Political Career
The internal affairs of a power like the United States weigh on the destiny of the rest of the world. This is why the presidential election of November 2016 and the coming to power of the 45th President of the United States have generated so much interest and commentary. His predecessor, Barack Obama, the first black guest at the White House, had also benefited from strong exposure.
Nevertheless, more than any other, Donald Trump occupies the media, with which he maintains complex and most often heated relations. Whether he ulcerates or fascinates, and sometimes both simultaneously, his personality saturates the screens and darkens the columns. The oldest member of the White House is also the only one who has never held political responsibility before. But Donald Trump is an outstanding show man.
A late star in reality TV, the businessman has a perfect command of the codes and knows that effective communication can be performative. Unsheathing his twitter account faster than his shadow, he is almost a medium on his own. Author of The Art of the Deal, he is now also the author of an impressive amount of false news and untruths.
Like any populist leader, he likes direct relationships. Social networks offer him the possibility of expressing himself instantly and without filter. He can thus give free rein to his impulses and, the spontaneity of which is sometimes questionable. Donald Trump cannibalizes all discourse on the United States, which has become this country whose king is an old child. Beyond this media fever, his accession to the supreme office reflects a certain state of the country, in the grip of doubt about its future despite a position still unmatched.
United States is Politically and Socially Fractured States
The election of Donald Trump has served to reveal the division of America and its political forces, reflecting deep social divides. It is with reluctance that the Republican Party has finally agreed to make the real estate mogul its champion. The “disruptive” outsider, the latter had never shown any particular inclination for the “elephant party”. On the contrary, he had flirted with the Democratic Party in the past, even considering in 1987 to run for the White House under its colors.
His victory, in November 2016, nevertheless gave him all the anointing necessary to secure the support of the Republicans. It has aroused an opportunistic loyalty, bolstered immediately by good economic indicators. The conservative movement, however, remains deeply divided between a traditional wing, hostile to ” big government “, regulation and the tax burden, and an anti-establishment wing, nationalist and favorable to a protective and protectionist state. Only, no doubt, cultural questions can serve as a cement for these two tendencies. The mid-term elections, on November 6, 2018, did not mark the collapse of the Republicans (favored, let us remember, by the electoral division of 2011). They nevertheless confirmed their lack of ideological unity.
Although in opposition, and having won a majority in the House of Representatives in the last election, the Democratic Party is also ideologically fragmented. The centrist wing represented by Hillary Clinton during the last presidential election, economically liberal and culturally committed to the defense of minorities and identities, clashes with a left wing, progressive, embodied by Bernie Sanders, very critical with regard to elites and free trade. Several of its members, nicknamed the Herbal Tea Party, in reference to the protest movement of the Tea Party born to the right of the Republican Party in 2008, were elected in November 2018. If the detestation of Donald Trump is a unifying element, it cannot take the place of a global political project to win back part of the lost white middle classes. Facing Donald Trump, as the 2020 presidential election looms, no leader seems to emerge.
These fault fields are the reflection of a fractured society, beset by violent racial tensions and glaring social inequalities. For several years now, a growing number of Americans have felt a sense of abandonment in the face of globalization and its effects. It is this context (as well as the particularities of the electoral system) that explains Donald Trump’s success. Elected by a minority, he does not seek to unite but on the contrary, through his outrageous populist rhetoric, to polarize the debate to secure the support of his Republican base.
Already, his anti-immigration and anti-ecology positions have caused dozens of cities, including New York and San Francisco, and four federal states to dissent. Among them, the powerful California which, with its 40 million inhabitants, provides 20% of American growth. His attorney general filed his 46th lawsuit against the Trump administration in March 2019 to oppose the declaration of a state of emergency at the US border, leading the President to cut federal funds for the high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
US is Still the World’s unrivaled Power hub Both Economically and Militarily
The electoral slogan of the Republican candidate for the White House, ” Make America Great Again “, which Ronald Reagan had already adopted, says a lot about an America for which the future is no longer to be invented but to be found in the quest of a bygone golden age.
To be sure, today’s America is no longer the triumphant America of 1945 or even that of 1990 which had overthrown its Soviet adversary. In competition with China, it remains an unrivaled power in the field of defense, as in those of innovation and the economy, the dollar allowing it to control the rules of the game for its own benefit.
No country can compete with the United States militarily. They alone account for 40% of world military spending. With a defense budget of $ 677 billion, 1.4 million military personnel and 800 military bases around the world, they have unparalleled resources that have guaranteed Pax Americana for years. In the mirror of this commitment, even if it has increased its efforts, China remains a dwarf with its 177 billion dollars in military credits (2018).
All of the ” Big Five “, these companies born at the dawn of the 21st century and known by the acronym GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft), but also more recently NATUs (Netflix, Airbnb, Tesla, Uber), in other words the largest companies in the digital economy, omnipresent in our daily life, are American. The United States remains the El Dorado for high-tech industries, which find favorable conditions for their development there.
This capacity for innovation of the United States and this economic strike force is also served by the dollar, which rules over world trade, and, more generally, by the control of legal rules. They have the ability to exclude from the feast table anyone who does not have the good fortune to please them, starting with their competitors. A number of French companies (Alcatel, Alsthom, BNP Paribas, etc.) have been prosecuted by the American courts for cases of corruption or of circumvention of an embargo under what is called “the extraterritoriality of American law”.
Recently, the tensions with Iran give the full measure of an undivided hegemony: in disagreement with Washington, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, co-signatories of the nuclear agreement concluded in 2015, find themselves unable to honor it and their companies must give up trading with Iran.
With growth of 3.2% in the first quarter of 2019 and unemployment at its lowest (less than 4%), the results of the American economy lead Donald Trump to multiply the bulletins or rather the tweets of victory, and the man does not have the modest triumph. Everything seems to be going for the best in the best of all Trumpian worlds. These successes consolidate the President of the United States in his orientations and give him the means of a unilateral and aggressive foreign policy, based on a simplistic mercantilism and on the rejection of any cooperative logic.
An Uninhibited but Precarious Hegemony
The discreet hegemony that marked the Obama presidency has given way to an uninhibited hegemony not devoid of imperialist temptations. However, times have changed and so has the unipolar world of the 1990s. Therefore, one wonders how long the United States will be able to maintain its supremacy.
A supporter of lost greatness, Donald Trump is also a supporter, through the other slogan, ” America First “, of absolute American primacy. Barely elected, he demonstrated, to everyone’s surprise, that he had no intention of respecting the commitments made by his predecessor, breaking with the prevailing rule of the continuity of the State, and that no relationship, even the old and privileged, could not escape an obsessional revisionism. He did not hesitate to declare the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), whose 70th anniversary is being celebrated, “obsolete”.
If in this area, for obvious international security reasons, Donald Trump was satisfied with words, he took action in other areas. He decided to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership or Trans-Pacific Free Trade Treaty (TPP) from the Paris climate agreement (COP 21), from the Vienna agreement on Iranian nuclear power, and from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He did not hesitate either, trampling on UN resolutions and mortgaging a possible peace plan, to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In Asia, after threatening to destroy North Korea and embarking with Kim Jung-un in a duel of offensive tweets, he agreed to meet with the North Korean dictator to negotiate the pacification of the Korean Peninsula. Obsessed by Chinese industrial competition but also by the flood of German cars circulating in the streets of New York, he engaged in all-out commercial arm wrestling, certainly targeting China but also the European Union and its partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This last treaty, which he had promised to “tear to pieces”, was finally renegotiated, renamed to exclude the term of “free trade”, but renewed. As for the wall between the United States and Mexico,
Impulsive and iconoclastic, Donald Trump ignores all the rules of diplomatic decorum. His style of Comedy of art stands out. However, behind the mask and theatrical rhetoric, his policies are less revolutionary than they claim to be.
Although inexperienced and not very attentive to his advisers, easily dismissed, the President does not govern alone and his political action has its roots in the history of the United States. As, two centuries ago, the Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton nicknamed “the Great Colbert”, Donald Trump is a follower of commercialism and does not believe, in terms of trade, in the positive sum game. He sees protectionism and isolationism as the only way to defend American interests.
Its program, America First, itself has a populist and nationalist background. It was that of Andrew Jackson then of the Republican Party at the end of the 19th century, which added ” the rest of the world afterward” to it. Used in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson who was running for a second term and wanted to guarantee the electorate the American non-engagement, it was taken over in 1940 by an ultranationalist organization of which the Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh was an active member.
The isolationist current has always existed in the United States. It was even the rule until the vote of the Vandenberg resolution on June 11, 1948, which allowed the US government to forge military alliances in peacetime. It largely transcends partisan divides between Democrats and Republicans. From this point of view, even if Donald Trump has been pleased since the start of his mandate to unravel the work of Barack Obama, he is continuing the policy of withdrawal started by his predecessor.
Likewise, the United States did not wait for Donald Trump to exempt itself in Iraq and Afghanistan from international commitments considered too restrictive. The list goes on from the Kyoto Protocol to the International Criminal Court to the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel mines. Between 1984 and 2003, the United States had already withdrawn from UNESCO, and in 2011, Barack Obama briefly suspended American financial participation in the UN agency. The capacity to derogate combined with that to universalize its standards are the prerogative of power.
However, the American interest has not always been seen as necessarily contrary to the interest of the world and vice versa. “A great lord, bad man is a terrible thing”, according to Molière, but a great benevolent, capable of guaranteeing a certain order, can be a good thing. Multilateralism, in particular in the commercial field, put in place from 1944, was wanted by the Americans for their benefit, certainly, but also globally for that of the world economy.
If it experienced a period of questioning between the 1970s and 1980s, in a context of competition from the European Economic Community (EEC) and especially from Japan, the 1990s and the collapse of the communist regimes marked its revival, notably through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its dispute settlement body. Several presidents, including George W. Bush, were able to hide behind his decisions to calm the protectionist ardor of Congress. This is no longer the case. The United States is now engaged in a proper destruction of the WTO by blocking the appointment of new judges to the appeals body.
The unilateral and isolationist policy of the United States is nothing new but it takes on, under the leadership of Donald Trump, an unprecedented color by its scale, by the denunciation, erected as a system, of any international organization in the literal sense of the term and, finally, by the outbreak of an economic war without exception, which paradoxically targets first America’s historic allies at the very moment when it is showing insolent health.
The denial of any Western solidarity and the business man’s stated preference for dictators of all stripes and muscle contests are new and deeply destabilizing. Let us add that American foreign policy is singularly lacking in coherence. The doctrine of withdrawal does not adapt well to the bombing of an air base in Syria, to the sustained intervention in Venezuelan affairs, or even to the recent announcement of the deployment of forces in the Strait of Hormuz to exert pressure on Iran.
Like Barack Obama before him, Donald Trump experiences the grandeur and the miseries of the United States’ global status. It is always perilous for the hegemon to withdraw from the game. Nature abhors a vacuum; other state actors could enjoy. Behind the demonstrations of force point the fear of decline and the will, to counter it, to continue to outclass its rivals in all areas. They also mask weaknesses that make US imperialism precarious.
Some structural data could have serious consequences. The trade deficit has reached an unprecedented level for ten years, as well as the federal public debt which represents 78% of the GDP. And the rise of the dollar, if it facilitates and encourages imports, handicaps exports. The poor state of infrastructure in the United States is also a problem, as is the increase in social inequalities which threatens the cohesion of the nation. On the other hand, COVID-19 has made the economic challenge even more stubborn and most likely US is suffering a lot.
The United States still remains the true Middle Kingdom. But by refusing to assume the leadership of the Western world and the values it embodies, for the benefit of a brutal hegemonic policy, they achieve short-term success but undermine their position in the longer term. American nationalism slung over the shoulder awakens others. Breaking with the skills of smart power, the United States is depriving itself of auctorial and soft power which nevertheless remain major components of modern power. This is probably not the best way to escape the “Thucydides trap“. China has understood this well, which is trying to follow the opposite path.
Finally, Donald Trump’s arsonist attitude and his systematic logic of climbing to extremes are not without risks. Beyond the uncertainty they generate, they could trigger chain reactions and lead to general destabilization.