Donald Trump’s foreign policy: the “logic of an illogical mind”
Interview with Ardeshir Mehrdad.
Ali Damavandi: In part one of our interview (with Barabari TV) you covered the background to the ascent of Trump to the presidency of the United States. Can we now turn to foreign policy? How do you see the trajectory of Trump’s foreign policy over the next few years?
Ardeshir Mehrdad: These are early days and one can only draw general and tentative conclusions, particularly considering the rather erratic personality of Trump. However some of the overall policies he is likely to adopt can be deduced from his inauguration speech, the nature of his appointments and the preliminary acts committed by his administration, particularly from the spate of executive orders he signed almost from day one.
The Trump administration defines a huge about turn in the foreign relations of the country as practiced in the past few decades. In the most optimistic interpretation we can regard the approach to foreign policy as revisionist.
The characteristic of the Trump project is revision or rejection of previous commitments, treaties, alliances, coalitions, economic and commercial blocs in which the USA was a partner. In a more realistic note, Trump has began process of tearing up whatever is standing and secure in the world. The list is long:
NAFTA out; World Trade Organisation under attack; International Monetary Fund under threat; Trans Pacific Partnership torn up; Nuclear Disarmament (START) vanishing; an independent Palestinian state out; seventy five percent of regulations to protect the environment into the bonfire. Under question are the Paris Climate Agreement, NATO, the nuclear accord with Iran, Taiwan as part of China… just keep on counting.
When building a foreign policy, Trump’s first statements was of thick tall walls. Missing are any clear plans for gates and bridges. We can thus conclude that the main planks of Trump’s foreign policy are chauvinistic and isolationist. This is the first characteristic.
In place of diplomacy we have an amalgam of techniques, tactics, and gimmicks, breaking up the rules of the game, manoeuvring round the weak points of the opponent, bullying, blackmail, causing divisions, psychological warfare, recourse to military threats, and even barring nuclear teeth. This is the second characteristic.
With three generals occupying the three most important posts in foreign policy and security we can safely say that the foreign policy of Trump has been openly militarised. This is the third characteristic.
AD: Isn’t a foreign policy with such characteristics strange for a global super power, one that has been called the most powerful empire in history, one whose geographic boundaries are limitless, one that regardless of land or sea, considers the entire world as its zone of interest?
AM: It is strange. But this is the joke of history. Behind what passes as foreign policy lies a superpower which has run out of breath and is insanely struggling. Behind these commotions there is a logic: the logic of a mind in disarray.
This is a United States that is suffering from a crisis of hegemony. No one is listening to its directives and commands. Even the lowly emir, the subservient king, is questioning its legitimacy. This is a global power thrown from the centre of a uni-polar world order into a multi-polar one; an imperialist power fearful of the emergence of rivals who are demanding a bigger share.
Trump claims that he can give life and strength to this creature on the decline. But his magic at this stage is no more than recourse to the power of “negations”. To stand under the shadow of “denial”. To deny the validity of everything. To simply cheat.
AD: Even considering the foreign policy of Trump within this framework we should be able to have some idea of the fears and challenges that shape Trump’s view of the world and the outside.
AM: That is correct. The scene in front of us is still murky and to separate reality from make-belief and real players from phantoms is not easy; nevertheless we can get hints of their overall plans from the statements made by Trump and his team, the makeup of his proposed cabinet, his inauguration speech and the various executive orders he has signed to date.
Beyond the rhetoric against terrorism and political Islam, or the dust created by the escalating tensions with the Iranian regime (which are in my view in part tactical prioritizing, though not less real for that), It is possible to see two clear lines that seems to define Trump’s foreign policy strategic goals: these are China and the European Union.
These are the two opponents whose interests are at the core of the main challenges to the supremacy of America (read the interests of US corporations). The way I see it, the weakening of these two rivals, and ultimately to subdue them, are priorities that define the key aspects of Trump’s foreign policy. These are priorities that are irreplaceable. The extreme right of the Republican Party that has now assumed the reins of power has decided to go beyond the cold war, to tear up the alliances that defined that era. From this viewpoint it would be understandable most other issues and challenges, such as Russia, will take second place.
AD: Why China? It is true that China is a rival, but it is also a close economic partner of the United States, and both have benefited from this partnership. Moreover the economic ties between the two are tightly intertwined. With this in mind, what purpose would be served by Trump and his regime in confronting China?
AM: In the strategy of Trump’s administration, or any other administration that might have taken power in his place, none of the considerations you highlighted would be ignored. But only until the earth hadn’t begun to shift under their feet and a looming storm not disturbed their sleep,
In this historic juncture, politics has entered a phase that you could name the “logic of an illogical mind” or, if you like, “mad logic. The economic downturn that began in 2008 and has lasted well beyond what they had imagined and has resisted all attempt at remedy is expected, in the eyes of many experts, to end up in another acute crisis. This was a global order that rose out of the ashes of the second world war, and now, with the decline of that order many monsters that have grown within the body of capitalism are emerging and are now breaking their chains. The major powers are falling at each other’s throat for a new division of global resources and markets. Regimes who until yesterday were servants and agents of the major powers, now claim dominion over some region. Any king, or emir or petty-ruler, any tribal chief, charlatan or demagogue comes out its corner and dares a challenger.
Let me just touch on current developments, as far as I am able, briefly .
China is not only the second economic power in the world, but enjoys a growth rate that allows it to narrow the gap with the US and possibly overtake it in the not too distant future. China is a dangerous rival because of its agility in creating spheres of influence. It lies at the centre of rapidly growing economic blocs that encompass half the world’s population and a third of its gross product. Among these are the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (India, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan … economic, security and cultural … cooperation), and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (rivalling the World Bank and IMF).
With a military budget three to four times that of Russia, and greater than the entire EU, China is a rising military power. Its military industries are expanding with a high level of technology and a huge productive capacity. From this standpoint China today is an unrivalled global power, and one of the main poles of our present multi-polar world. China today is a real challenge, on the one hand, to the unrivalled domination of America on Asia and the Pacific region, and on the other hand, for that current that is attempting to return to a uni-polar world.
These attributes have occupied the attention of American strategists of whatever political party or tendency. Trump has left no doubt that subduing China is on top of his foreign policy agenda.
AD: How does trump propose to deal with China?
AM: In my view, efforts to control China started with Obama, before Trump entered the political arena. Regional disputes between China, Vietnam, the Philippines and … over control of the South China Sea began long ago. But with the approach of Trump to the White House these conflicts took on a new dimension. Trump uses a many-sided pressures to push China into a defensive posture.
The first was to heat up the issue of Taiwan; to put under question the 1979 agreement by the Carter administration according to which Taiwan was recognised as being part of China and not as an independent government. The phone conversation between the Taiwanese president and Trump so soon after accession to the presidency was very meaningful and was taken as a danger signal by China. Taiwan as an independent country is not recognised by any international institution, has no UN seat and few countries have a diplomatic representation there (the Chinese reaction was that the independence of Taiwan ends attempts to peacefully integrate the latter into China proper). The English language Chinese paper Global Times described Trump as a “rookie” and elsewhere: “this inexperienced president-elect probably has no knowledge of what he is talking about, he has overestimated the US capability of domineering the world … and fails to understand the limitations of US power in the current era”.
And then there are also attempts to break up the important economic bloc of five countries (BRICS) by trying to create rifts between Russia and Brazil on the one hand and China on the other.
Trump’s flirtation with Russia could also be seen in the context of US relations with China. Indeed Trump is using his skills in divide and rule which he perfected in his capacity as real estate magnet. He used these skills in pretending to support the white working class which helped him into the White House. Similarly his economic regionalism of “buy American, employ American” can be used to cause rifts in BRICS.
Emmanuel Wallerstein puts it this way : “As both Robert Gates and Henry Kissinger have pointed out, he is using the Nixon technique in reverse. Nixon made a deal with China in order to weaken Russia. Trump is making a deal with Russia in order to weaken China.” Wallerstein doubts if this will work for the simple reason that Russia and China will independently follow their own interests successfully: “This policy seemed to work for Nixon. Will it work for Trump? I don’t think so, because the world of 2017 is quite different from the world of 1973.” The main difference might be the deeper level of the recession and economic constraints.
Finally we should note the military encirclement of China, showing the barrel of the gun. According to John Pilger, the well known journalist: “Today, more than 400 American military bases encircle China with missiles, bombers, warships and, above all, nuclear weapons.” Pilger continues “From Australia north through the Pacific to Japan, Korea and across Eurasia to Afghanistan and India, the bases form, says one US strategist, ‘the perfect noose’”.
AD: You also spoke of the European Union as another priority for Trump and the challenges of Trumpism. Can you elaborate?
AM: Germany, with its enormous financial and manufacturing base that has been rapidly increasing over the last two decade is the main power in the EU. Thanks to its huge financial power, and through the huge loans it made to countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Italy, it has been able to impose its political will on them and has evolved as a powerful political player in the world arena. Germany has also benefited from well-trained cheap labour after the incorporation of Eastern Europe into the EU, which it has used as its reserve labour force and as a tool for controlling its own working class. This resulted in vast accumulation of capital through surplus profit.
Germany today is a rapidly rising imperial power and a real rival to US corporations, both in manufacturing and trade. It has been able to use open borders and the facilities of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to take an increasingly large share of the financial and industrial global markets and even develop a positive trade balance with the US. The disagreements between the EU and America in the WTO remained unresolved during the last few presidents and the imbalance against the US persisted. In other words, the US was unable to impose a one-sided free trade deal on the EU.
Through these developments Germany has risen into one of the poles of global power resulting in deeper gulf between the EU and the US. The desire to come out from under the support-control of America has sharpened the inter-imperialist tension between the two blocs. This is why I believe the relation with EU has become one the main challenges facing the Trump regime and one that is at top of his agenda.
AD: Am I right in thinking that the way Trump deals with the threat of Europe will be different from the way he tackles China?
AM: I actually don’t believe that in their essence the two challenges are different, seeing that both relate to the power of controlling the general conditions of production on a global scale, the issue of which power bloc controls the levers of reproduction of global capital and under what relations of power. Whether in the final analysis Trump is able to impose his will on the rivals and get them to consent to each and every morsel he wants to pull out of their mouths, I am sceptical. It seems, however, Trump aims at the breakup of the European Union.
But I am in agreement with you that the way Trump deals with the two main rivals will be different. While Trump has made absolutely clear his desire to break up the EU, he will pursue different tactics to achieve this goal. The obvious one is to incite the rise of the centrifugal nationalism in the different components of the EU (it is worth noting that Trump began his inaugural speech by not only thanking the people of the United States but the people of the world – a curious addition that was clearly directed at the likes of Farage, Le Pen, Orban, Wilders and others). These nationalist forces will, he hopes, act as a Trojan horse, spiced with a touch of ridicule for the ruling elite, questioning their legitimacy. You will recall his jibes at Angela Merkel on her policy on refugees.
Next will follow an attack on the rivals’ source of income by putting large tariffs on goods manufactured by them, especially on such profitable products as motor cars. It was recently that he invited the CEOs of Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and others plus a handful of Japanese car makers into his office and promised them all the assistance they needed, provided of course that they manufactured in the US. He promised to scrap two thirds of the laws relating to protecting the environment: anything to lower production costs and to bolster their ability to compete.
Do not worry about the labour force, he reassured them. There is a surfeit of white workers in the rust belt. When there is no sign of labour laws or labour unions and minds are stuffed full of religious superstitions, then what you pay them depends of your generosity. A high rate of profit will be secure in Trump’s paradise. Hurry up and build factories anywhere you like, no one will stop you. You want a licence, we will deliver it in a flash.
Trump had barely crossed the threshold to the White House when he banned the Environmental Protection agency (EPA) from acting in social media. He shut them up before they could possibly criticise his next moves.
Other than construction companies, who salivated at the billions due to be given them to rebuild the US infrastructure, and Exon-Mobil and other oil cartels who are given the go ahead at full speed to exploit the earth whatever the cost to the environment the other ears that heard the news were German companies such as Volkswagen, Mercedes, Audi, and Porsche. They were the first European companies to see the flash of Trump’s sword.
And finally we have NATO. You want security? Fine, pay for it. Then we will see if you can compete in the market for durable goods. We do not opposed NATO and even support its extension even to the borders of Russia. We will be happy to let Europe sort out Ukraine. Even Georgia! This will turn Europe into a swamp, escape from which will entail a heavy cost.
Moreover, with Russia and Europe locking horns there is a good chance that US oil companies will widen their foothold in the huge Siberian gas and oil deposits. In conditions when Germany and Europe will come under increasing pressure for oil and gas, US companies will tighten their strangle-hold on these vital resources.
This is translation of an interview given in Farsi to Barabari Television in early February 2017