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Review: The Trump Phenomenon and the Future of US Foreign Policy / Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World

The RUSI Journal, 3 April, 2017

The first month of President Donald J Trump’s administration has been as tumultuous as any in US domestic politics. Headlines have concentrated on the immigration ban, on British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit, Trump’s subsequent affirmation of his country’s support for NATO, and various controversial aspects of Trump’s diplomacy with Mexico, Australia and Russia. As many have noted, the real question on his foreign policy has been to separate Trump the election campaigner and Trump the president. The fact he continues to view himself as outside the ‘Washington establishment’ means that he relishes unorthodox policies and unorthodox ways of communicating them. His brusque telephone calls with some world leaders, his continued reliance on Twitter and the seemingly amateur nature of his communications team have served to muddle the line of what is likely to be one of the US’s most epoch-changing presidents.

These two books – Daniel Quinn Mills and Steven Rosefielde’s The Trump Phenomenon and the Future of US Foreign Policy and Peter Navarro’s Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World – provide crucial insights on this question. While Navarro’s work was published two years ago, this is more than made up for by the fact that he is a close associate of the president and has been selected to head the newly formed National Trade Council. Taken together, the two books provide a useful framework for understanding the new administration’s domestic drivers and its foreign policy approach in Asia.

Mills and Rosefielde are both prominent public intellectuals. Mills, a professor at the Harvard Business School, has strong connections with Asia, and has written on the different leadership styles in Asia and in the West. Rosefielde, a Harvard graduate and economics professor at the University of North Carolina, is a Sovietologist-cum-Russia expert. His 2009 book Red Holocaust is a comprehensive study of the death toll as a result of communism during the twentieth century. Similar to Stephane Courtois’s The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Harvard University Press, 1999), the study is a serious effort to come to terms with an ideology that repeated the brutality of fascism, but nevertheless continues to have adherents within leftist parties inside the West.

In a sense, both authors are what might be described as ‘small c’ conservatives, a political outlook that has been challenged by figures such as Trump. Indeed, Mills and Rosefielde argue that the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ have obscured the real debate in the US domestic system and they set themselves the Herculean task of re-establishing what the ideological posts are to be in a post-Trump US. They tell us to forget the classical positions drawn around the Republican and Democratic parties over the past half-century. These have now shifted dramatically. Trump represents a revolt against the old guard – those politicians who assumed positions of power in both parties after 1945, and who followed what Mills and Rosefielde call ‘international cosmopolitanism’.

Trump’s revolt is not so much a cry for isolationism – as many have claimed – but a demand for a new ‘democratic nationalism’. The term indicates a US foreign policy more narrowly justified, where US national interests – rather than appeals to lofty ideals – determine US policy: ‘a city on the hill’ simply becomes a ‘city’. Intriguingly, democratic nationalism attempts to fight off accusations of autocracy, while echoing ‘sovereign democracy’, a term once in vogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other United Russia party politicians. It is interesting that both creeds came after Washington and Moscow failed to transform the world in their likeness.

This is not to say that this development is a marked change from US political culture. Indeed, the authors view international cosmopolitanism as the important post-1945 departure from the American creed. By becoming the champion of Western security, particularly after the end of the Cold War, the US forfeited its own security. By prioritising open trade and engagement with the world, the US has gradually bankrupted itself, apart from a small select class of Wall Street financiers. By prioritising Chinese growth and stability, previous US leaders impoverished their own working and middle classes – once the bulwark of US democracy. However, they insist – and this is where readers must read between the lines – that they are not advocating the old canard of American isolationism. They are arguing for a US that existed in the 1890s – one that operated internationally, but along a more narrowly defined set of national interests.

In many ways, Trump’s inauguration speech was shocking as it refuted long-held assumptions about the US’s role in the world, its willingness to ‘bear any burden’, and bolster European and Asian security. If said by another foreign leader the statements may have been unremarkable. Yet there has been an implicit contract between Washington and its Western and Asian allies since the period following the Second World War – US leadership was accepted in exchange for deference to US foreign and security policies.

What does Trump’s open rejection of the global role that the US has assumed mean for its allies? If the new president is not an internationalist, does that mean he is an isolationist? Mills and Rosefielde insist this is not the case. ‘To modern nationalists, minding one’s own business does not preclude international involvement and self-defence. It only means that we should stop trying to impose our values on the world while actually trying to serve insider special interests’. Some of the cabinet picks support this interpretation. Rex Tillerson, the new secretary of state, is a long-term planner, a trait fostered by his background in the energy sector, and is unworried about day-to-day fluctuations. General James Mattis, the new secretary of defense, is a soldier’s general, and known to see Russia and China as a continuing security threat.

This perception of China-as-threat seems to be the organising principle to much of Navarro’s Crouching Tiger. It is a must read book for anyone trying to understand the suddenly hard line the Trump administration has adopted toward Beijing. The account is similar to that of long-term China-watcher (and adviser to the Trump administration) Michael Pillsbury, whose own book, The Hundred Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (Henry Holt, 2014) was influential among a small group of Asia analysts in Washington. As with The Hundred Year Marathon, Navarro’s work is an in-depth analysis of the Sino-American relationship, with particular reference to the security side of the relationship.

Navarro explores the familiar tropes of what drives China. He mentions the Thucydides trap – that rising powers are bound to challenge status quo hegemons – that has gained prominence among American international relations scholars, such as Harvard’s Graham Allison. He also discusses the offensive realist notion that all powers are bound to seek maximum power in order to gain national security – the security dilemma – which shapes the structure of Sino-American relations. This structural factor is – he believes – far stronger than that of the promise of ‘peace-through-trade’, which has driven Sino-American relations for the past three decades. He also raises China’s historical humiliation at the hands of foreigners, the ‘century of humiliation’, as well as Beijing’s dependency on the Malacca Strait to give a context to China’s military build-up.

For many decades, the US–China relationship has been typified by two, often-contradictory characteristics. On the one hand, both sides emphasised the cooperative elements of the relationship, but on the other, there was much distrust between the two. Far from changing China, US trade seemed only to entrench and strengthen Beijing’s autocratic government, gifting it one of the most modern militaries in the world. Books on China in the early 2000s tended to look at transparency issues and note that China’s naval build-up should be monitored. However, at the time few – if any – scholars or analysts viewed the Chinese military as capable of challenging the might of US naval power in the Pacific. Navarro’s book comes as American naval thinkers realise that they are now on a par with their Chinese colleagues, with Chinese military capabilities presenting serious challenges to US naval vessels operating in the Western Pacific. His work examines capabilities in order to make truly significant policy recommendations.

Navarro reveals that despite many myths surrounding the subject, US and Chinese military spending are far closer than many thinkers realise. Furthermore, as the world’s largest manufacturer, the ability of China to out-produce the US in the building of ships, aircraft and munitions is entirely possible, and the fact that Chinese doctrine and planning is purely regional gives it a focus that the US’s globally stretched forces find difficult to match. Ironically, the Chinese back their grand strategy by using the US naval doctrine put forward by Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American turn-of-the-century naval strategist, who argued for naval pre-eminence. The subsequent decision by the father of the Chinese navy, Admiral Liu Huaqing, to attempt to break out of China’s ‘near seas’, or the first island chain, is what drives Chinese actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

The remainder of Navarro’s book is a critique of subsequent attempts by the US to deal with both the drivers of Chinese action and China’s maritime grand strategy. The US has been successful in neither, he concludes. Those who worry about his approach towards any possible war with China may find solace in the fact that he says those who entertain the idea of a ‘short, decisive war’ are fantasists. Indeed, his primary policy objective seems to be to deter conflict by convincing China’s naval strategists that a short winnable war with the US is impossible.

Navarro’s policy prescriptions will be calming for worried regional allies. The US cannot, he asserts, hide behind the Pacific Ocean, or cede sea-lane control to China’s navy. Korea and Japan are the front lines to US security, not Alaska or California. He argues not only against neo-isolationism, but for a beefed-up military presence in the Asia-Pacific, a sort of ‘peace through strength’ as practised against the Soviets in the 1980s. This is not so much to confront China, but to show Beijing – as with the Soviet menace in Cold-War Europe – that it cannot challenge US interests or allies without costs. The build-up is pure Reagan logic: the larger the stick, the greater the deterrence effect may be. Furthermore, Navarro’s vision is beyond fleet numbers. His policy prescription is to build the US’s comprehensive national power, a term borrowed from Chinese policymakers, by putting its domestic house in order. He mentions the rebuilding of America’s decaying infrastructure, the reform of its tax structures, and a major overhaul of the education system.

In many ways, Navarro is a revolutionary thinker. Many books on the region or on China’s rise have fallen on vague recommendations to ‘monitor’ the situation, or to seek a diplomatic solution, as if finding one were easy. Navarro’s work therefore differs markedly from that of scholars in the region – such as the Australian analyst Hugh White who has suggested the creation of a congress of great powers, a form of US–China power-sharing, which has been rejected by both Beijing and Washington.

While Navarro’s policy recommendations are revolutionary in scope and could conceivably work – see Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s shrewd offer to help to rebuild US infrastructure – the real question is whether President Trump can handle the domestic fallout of some of his policies. Domestic turmoil weakens his ability to implement such far-reaching structural reforms. Furthermore, will Navarro be able to push his policies unimpeded with a White House where Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner seek to exercise policy influence? President Reagan was the ‘great communicator’, and was a welcome flag-bearer in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Trump is seen even by his own supporters as ‘telling it like it is’. No doubt his Asia policies will face much opposition within a population already concerned with his social, immigration and legal policy programmes. In addition, unlike the USSR during the 1980s, China’s economy is far more integrated with the US, and Beijing has many more domestic allies within the US system to attempt to counter Navarro’s grand strategy.

The coming four years are bound to be beset with political turmoil and security challenges for the US, Europe and Asia. An age of rising powers, the resurgence of religious wars and a crisis in liberal internationalism have all come together, resulting in domestic and international policy confusion. President Trump’s election is an answer to some of the inequalities and injustices that have been created by trade at the domestic level. Reading both books, however, highlights that he is not an answer to liberal internationalism. His outlook is that of an economic nationalist, advocating a narrow version of the US’s role in the world. However, it is by no means an attempt to forgo this role altogether. It is a plea for US allies and friends – long-time beneficiaries of US leadership – to start giving back. They can do this by supporting the US economy, by spending more in NATO and by accepting the imperfections of this president. Despite the rhetoric of his opponents, Trump’s policies are not – as yet – fascist and to see them as such would be to ignore the real perils that beset the Liberal West. 

 

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