Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News
How did Donald Trump come to speak for western civilisation? This wasn’t what his campaign promised. Candidate Trump put America First. He proposed a creative solution to the problem that has confronted every president since the collapse of the Soviet Union, namely that the United States lacks an adversary against which to define itself and orient its foreign policy. In place of a single enemy, Trump offered the world. He laid into everything and everyone from Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] to China to Nato allies to immigrants, albeit with the notable exception of Russia.
Six months into his presidency, America First nationalism has not gone away. But President Trump has increasingly organised his foreign policy around another principle, codified in his July 6 speech in Warsaw, Poland. No longer the aggrieved victim he portrayed during the campaign, the United States has morphed into the proud leader of the West, embedded in a “community of nations” sharing a common “way of life.” The outlines of a Trump doctrine are emerging: The president has pledged America to the “defence of civilisation itself.”
Back home, the foreign policy commentariat glimpsed the maturation of a presidency. A foreign policy oriented around defending western civilisation may be uniquely capable of squaring the circle between Trump’s base of voters and the national security grandees who formed the backbone of the Never Trumpers. The base hears blood-and-soil rootedness: “the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are,” as he intoned in Poland. The elites thank heavens that the president is talking about shared values and committing to global alliances.
Indeed, Trump’s is beginning to sound like a conventional foreign policy. Presidents throughout the 20th century identified America’s vital interests with the survival and expansion of “western civilisation,” which they claimed were threatened by Soviet-backed Communism from the East and disorderly rogues to the South. As Dwight Eisenhower declared in 1959, the true purpose of Nato was to “protect the spiritual foundations of western civilisation against every kind of ruthless aggression.” Trump is shaping up to be no less committed to defending the West — a rallying cry particularly for neoconservatives, whom he increasingly resembles. It’s no wonder he has changed US foreign policy in evolutionary more than revolutionary ways, where he has changed it at all.
Would Trump maintain the global alliances the United States inherited from the Cold War? This was the acid test, and he has answered in the affirmative. In Warsaw, he explicitly endorsed Nato’s collective defence commitment after months of bluster. His personal relations with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany seem destined to be frosty, but he cemented his Atlanticist turn while watching Bastille Day military parades with President Emmanuel Macron of France. Nor has the Trump administration relinquished any responsibility for upholding defence commitments in Asia. To the contrary, Trump has vowed to “solve the problem” of North Korea’s nuclear threat with or without the help of China. The president may decry globalism, but he assigns the United States no less global a role than his predecessors.
If anything, Trump’s civilisational framework makes more sense of America’s forever war in the Middle East than did Barack Obama’s language of surgical strikes. As much as Obama liked to parse the verbiage and conduct of the “war on terror,” the fact remained that he prosecuted it aggressively and widened it geographically. Trump has largely continued these policies but suggested that America is in the Middle East to police enemies of civilisation. “Lawless savages,” he calls Daesh, evoking the worldview of European imperialists and their American admirers like Theodore Roosevelt.
The right to decide alone
One result was the most surprising action of Trump’s presidency to date: his strike in April against a Syrian government airfield in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons on civilians. Centrists raved that Trump might at long last be enforcing universal norms of the liberal international order. But the president implied something else in his public justification: retaliation for a “very barbaric attack.” In the process, he established another attribute of those who act in the name of civilised humanity — the right to decide, alone, who and what lies beyond the pale. In 2013, Obama declined to enforce his “red line” on chemical weapons after failing to gain approval from Congress or Britain’s Parliament. Trump, by contrast, may have seen the very unpredictability (and dubious legality) of the strike as an opportunity to send a message to the world that he would act, and bomb, as he liked.
The flip side of this fondness for civilised law and order is revealed when Trump extols the “unbelievable job” of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has orchestrated the extrajudicial killing of thousands on the grounds of fighting a war on drugs. Certain non-white, non-western strongmen, it seems, can be brought into the magic circle of civilisation if they are stamping out savagery. America First nationalism isn’t dead, though. It lingers in the background. The administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord was pure America First, replete with paeans to Pittsburgh over the centre of French civilisation. The president may yet mount a serious effort to restrict trade, despite a lull after he scuttled the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Nonetheless, “civilisation” seems likely to continue to occupy the fore of foreign policy under the Trump administration. It may be the only doctrine able to reconcile Trump’s material commitment to America’s global primacy with his ideological aversion to liberal universalism.
All this makes Trump something other than either the narrow realist that his critics fear or the passing oddity for which his critics hope. Like it or not, the emerging Trump doctrine has deep roots in American tradition. Six months in, the time has come for advocates of American world leadership to own up to a fact: Trump is one of you. To be precise, Trump appears to be evolving into a kind of neoconservative. Before becoming associated with George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda”, many neoconservatives reviled Soviet Communism but were less than enamoured with the goal of exporting democracy and human rights. Scorning the flabby norms of the liberal international order, they placed their trust in the muscular assertion of American power, deeming it the real guarantor of their country’s interests and the world’s civilised values alike.
Like earlier neocons, Trump looks at the world and sees unceasing threats that experts understate. In the 1970s, prominent neoconservatives formed a ‘Team B’ to challenge the CIA’s estimate of Soviet capabilities and reinvigorate the Cold War. Later, George W. Bush’s administration created an intelligence unit that hyped the Iraqi threat. Trump, too, mistrusts professionals in the State Department, whose funding he seeks to slash, and in the intelligence agencies, whose honesty and competence he has impugned. Like neoconservatives, he glorifies martial values and seeks to build up the military. Unsurprisingly, this foreign policy has received recent praise from neoconservatives like Elliott Abrams, an erstwhile critic and former Bush and Reagan foreign policy staffer. The commentator Charles Krauthammer, a frequent Trump critic, conferred the gold standard on the Warsaw speech: “Reaganesque.”
Even so, one should not expect Trump simply to replicate the policies of neocons past. Under the banner of civilisation, he gains the flexibility to cast Russia not only as an eastern enemy but alternately as a western ally, standing tall against terrorist barbarism and secular decadence. Such an image, promoted by President Vladimir Putin himself, has turned Russia into the north star of right-wing authoritarians on both sides of the Atlantic.
But Trumpian civilisation may be less accommodating of Iran, North Korea and, most important, China. These powers — non-white, non-Christian — are susceptible to being expelled from its ambit. It remains for the Trump administration to answer how far the blessings of civilisation extend beyond what Stephen K. Bannon, a key Trump adviser, has called “the Judeo-Christian West.”
Bonds of identity
As for that West, Trump has taken up its mantle just as the West has recoiled from him. He is detested in Western Europe. A mere 11 per cent of Germans have confidence in the American president to do the right thing in world affairs. Similarly rock-bottom ratings among the British, French and Spanish resemble the lows at the end of the Bush years — even as majorities expect relations with the United States to stay about the same.
The trouble, plainly, isn’t what Trump has done; it is who he is. Hence the irony of Trump proclaiming, “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” He is the one who might yet shatter the bonds of identity that form the West’s “will.”
Trump enjoys better prospects for defining the future of the American right. In policing threats to civilisation, he may have stumbled upon a framework for a truly post-Cold War, right-wing foreign policy, in which the United States no longer promotes its political model against any rival. For all that’s familiar about the defence of civilisation, past presidents have linked that cause to the forward march of liberal democracy. In the 19th century, the United States appointed itself the guardian of the New World against the monarchical Old. In the 20th century, it led the Free World against the totalitarian netherworld. And in immediate decades after the Soviet collapse, American presidents were not about to abandon the formula that appeared to have won the Cold War.
But when Bush waged a disastrous war in Iraq, he discredited his freedom agenda for a generation, and counting. By the Obama years, a growing segment of the right came to perceive radical Islamic terrorism, white demographic decline and cultural pluralism as threats to western civilisation — and autocrats as its foremost defenders. Trump capitalised on this politics of civilisation, and he is forging a foreign policy in its image. He may not be the last.
— New York Times News Service
Stephen Wertheim is a historian at King’s College, University of Cambridge. He is writing a book on the birth of American world leadership in the Second World War.