A bit more than a week ago, one of my interlocutors asked: “When are you going to get around to thanking Trump for not getting us all into another war where innocent people are going to be slaughtered while talking heads get to waste our time forcing their opinions on us and santizing mass murder.” (Her spelling, her punctuation, not mine.) “PresidentTrump,” she said, “has said he doesn’t believe in unnecessary war. And all those who think its remotely reasonable to push issues unnecessarily until there is a war, are the problem.“
Now, in Foreign Affairs, the distinguished American scholar and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Professor Charles Kupchan, takes up the cudgels for that case. “If U.S. President Donald Trump’s address before the UN General Assembly on Tuesday is remembered for anything,” he writes, “it will be for what was not said. Despite the recent attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations, which the U.S. government has traced to Iran, Trump avoided talk of retaliatory strikes. His tone was subdued and devoid of the bellicose flourishes that are his trademark. Indeed, compared with Trump’s previous speeches at the UN, this one was unusually measured and his style of delivery less abrasive and confrontational.“
Professor Kupchan says that “Trump’s unwillingness to beat the war drums on Iran was a product of more than his domestic tribulations. His speech again displayed his neo-isolationist conviction that the United States must shrink its obligations abroad. “We want partners, not adversaries,” Trump said. “America’s goal is not to go with these endless wars, wars that never end.” Trump’s reluctance to take military action against Iran lines up with his determination to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and Afghanistan. As he heads into his bid for reelection, the president is intent on demonstrating to voters that he is ending wars, not starting them. His choice of the slogan “America first” is not coincidental in this respect: the refrain is an explicit callback to the interwar isolationists who fought so hard to keep the nation out of World War II.” The United States State Department’s Office of the Historian, says that the American isolationists in the 1930s “were a diverse group, including progressives and conservatives, business owners and peace activists, but because they faced no consistent, organized opposition from internationalists, their ideology triumphed time and again. Roosevelt appeared to accept the strength of the isolationist elements in Congress until 1937. In that year, as the situation in Europe continued to grow worse and the Second Sino-Japanese War began in Asia, the President gave a speech in which he likened international aggression to a disease that other nations must work to “quarantine.” At that time, however, Americans were still not prepared to risk their lives and livelihoods for peace abroad. Even the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 did not suddenly diffuse popular desire to avoid international entanglements. Instead, public opinion shifted from favoring complete neutrality to supporting limited U.S. aid to the Allies short of actual intervention in the war.” It was only that Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, in December 1941, that persuaded Americans to enter the war on the allied side.
Charles Kupchan writes that President Trump “has generally been adept at delivering on his campaign promises, pulling out of pacts, reining in free trade, and clamping down on immigration. The main exception is on the retrenchment front, where Trump’s pledges of ending endless wars have fallen short. Whether foiled by the Pentagon or by his hawkish former national security adviser, John Bolton, Trump has failed to get U.S. forces out of Syria and Afghanistan …[but] … Now that Bolton is out of the way, Trump could well be pivoting toward delivering on retrenchment. The muted tone and absence of bellicose talk in Tuesday’s address may signal that Trump intends to head into the election season determined to make good on his promises to pull back.“
But in his United Nations speech, President Trump held firmly to his well-established themes: “Trump’s subdued tone and cautious stance on Iran notwithstanding,” Professor Kupchan notes, “he did keep his usual “America first” rhetoric front and center in his UN speech. One of his central messages to the General Assembly—that globalism needs to be replaced with nationalism—reprised the main theme of his two previous UN speeches. In Trump’s words: “If you want freedom, take pride in your country. If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty. And if you want peace, love your nation. . . . The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations.” My, personal sense is that message will resonate with tens of millions of Americans who must wonder why their young men and women and being killed far away places in which America seems to have little direct interest. It is a message that Pierre Trudeau sent to Canadian in 1970 when he radically altered Canadian foreign policy away from the St Laurent-Diefenbaker-Pearson ‘leading middle power‘ ideal to a far more isolationist model.
Charles Kupchan concludes that “The “America first” nationalism, the unilateralism, the anti-immigrant fervor, the China bashing—these are all trademark Trump. They have become the new normal … [but] … What most stood out on Tuesday were the parts of the speech that pulled in the opposite direction—namely, Trump’s understated stance on Iran and his palpable desire to distance the United States from far-flung military conflicts. Now that he is eyeing reelection and surrounded by a foreign policy team that consists of loyal foot soldiers, Trump is going to be Trump. That means he is going to avoid military conflicts and extract the United States from what he sees as an excess of foreign obligations … [thus, while] … Trump may not like the United Nations or the internationalism it stands for. But, ironically, he may in the end further one of the body’s main objectives—to reduce the incidence of war.” Of course, the desire to “avoid military conflicts and extract the United States from what he sees as an excess of foreign obligations,” harks all the way back to President George Washington’s farewell address in 1796 when he warned against “foreign entanglements.” But like it or not, the world has, figuratively, shrunk in 223 years since George Washington issued that warning and many observers are worried that as America tries to withdraw, back into its “homeland,” the Chinese, under the increasingly bold Xi Jinping, will try to move in. They are doing so, now, inside the United Nations, in ways that might be inimical to the interest if the USA and the US-led West.
Although I believe that American leadership, for the past 75+ years, has been broadly and generally good for the world and for America, I have reservations about the wisdom and utility of American military
strategy adventurism since about 1960. I believe that many and various Indo-China, Latin America and the Middle East conflicts in which America has engaged have weakened America and the West. I also believe that a major, internecine, conflict will break out and will encompass most of North Africa, the Middle East and South-West Asia. I fear that the destruction will be huge; I hope that the US-led West will stand aside … selling arms and buying oil, but not taking sides, except Israel’s. I hope that Donald Trump might be the president who makes Americans see the wisdom of standing aside, sometimes.
My guess is that the deep divisions in America will continue for, at least, a generation. I suspect that President Trump will be reelected in 2020, which means that I think he will survive an impeachment attempt and use it to his partisan, political advantage and that even after he is gone the Trump Party will continue to appeal to the tens of millions of Americans who are instinctively isolationist and who feel hard done by because of globalization.
For Canada, I believe that the new Trump Doctrine will not lessen threats to our vital interests in the world. In fact, I believe that President Trump will continue to pressure Canada, and other allies, to take a larger and larget share of the burden of our own defences, especially in NORAD and NATO. He will allow Iran and North Korea to continue to develop and field nuclear weapons and delivery systems because they will know that he will not go to war to stop them. He (and/or his successors) will, very likely, challenge Canada’s arctic sovereignty claims and he will not step in when Russia does so. That’s the down-side of his isolationism.