Trump and the Neocons: Doing the Unilateralist Waltz

By Thomas Palley

Re-posted, with permission, from The Globalist and

Donald Trump’s first one hundred days have revealed his inclination for unilateralism in international relations. That inclination reflects his opportunistic and bullying disposition, and it also fits well with his anti-globalization pose.

Trump’s unilateralism has also spawned a dangerous waltz with Washington’s neocon establishment. The opportunistic Trump looks to gain establishment support, while the neocon establishment looks to the opportunist-in-chief to implement its own unilateralist view of the world.

The waltz is clearly visible in recent military actions but it also extends to international economic policy which is an area of budding neocon concern.

A further twist is that neocon unilateralism can be exercised against both rivals and allies. Power is at the core of the neocon project. And power can be used to block rivals or bend allies.

No rivals tolerated

The neocon project derives its appeal inside the United States from the belief that never again should there be a power, like the former Soviet Union, capable of rivalling the United States.

Originally, the neocon project represented ultra-conservative Republican thinking, but it has substantially become mainstream thinking.

Both Republicans and many Democrats now believe the United States has the right to intervene unilaterally anywhere in the world, any time it chooses.

These bipartisan forces also believe the United States has the right to pepper the globe with military bases and military personnel deployments – including ringing Russia with these.

This bipartisanship is evident in many Democrats’ support for the Iraq war as well as their acceptance of the war on terror as justification for intervention anywhere.

It is also evident in President Obama’s continued investment in global military base expansion and the expansion of U.S. military deployments into the Baltics, central Europe, south-east Europe and Georgia.

The Democratic supplement

Whereas Democrats tend to be softer than Republicans on the issue of unrivalled power, they compensate by supplementing the neocon rationale for global intervention with the claim that the United States has a right to intervene in the name of protecting and advancing democracy.

This particular right derives from so-called “U.S. exceptionalism.” According to this school of thought, the U.S. government has a special mission to transform the world by promoting democracy. That reinforces bipartisan belief in U.S. unilateralism.

Economic unilateralism as a new neocon chapter?

The neocon project was originally concerned with military supremacy and targeted Russia. However, it is about U.S. power in general, which means it potentially implicates every country and every dimension of international policy.

The neocon goal is unchallenged U.S. supremacy. If that goal frames U.S. foreign policy, international economic policy must conform with it.

In the Cold War era, the currency of power was provision of weapons and ideology. In the new era of globalization, commerce has become a major new currency of power, making international economic policy a key concern.

Consequently, under Trump, neocon unilateralism is now spreading into international economic relations.

China’s rise and its historically grounded super-power aspirations have also contributed to neocon engagement with international economic policy.

However, that surfaces tensions and contradictions within the corporate – neocon alliance. China is a potential rival which worries neocons, but it is also a major source of profit (current and future) which captivates corporations.

Unilateralism and hyper-nationalism

The neocon inclination to unilateralism fuses seamlessly with Trump’s psychological inclination to unilateralism. Both play well in the current domestic political climate of hyper-nationalism.

Nationalism has been encouraged on a bipartisan basis and it constitutes fertile ground for unilateralism. Every politician, Republican and Democrat, now ostentatiously sports a flag lapel pin.

Both parties’ political conventions are oceans of red, white and blue balloons and bunting. Flags bedeck every political event, and “God bless America” is on the tongue of every politician.

Additionally, Trump’s twisted narrative of globalization, which blames “foreigners and immigrants,” feeds both nationalism and unilateralism.

From Trump’s perspective, somebody other than top U.S. corporate management – and its merciless pursuit of self-enrichment and self-interest — needs to be blamed for the fallout of all the resulting plant closings across the United States.

The neocon factor and Trump

The importance of the neocon factor is that it dramatically changes the interpretation of the Trump administration’s unilateralist international economic policy chatter.

Instead of just being temporary Trump bluster, such chatter is consistent with the neocon construction of international relations.

The neocon inspired drift to unilateralism explains the initial warmth within the U.S. that has greeted Trump’s unilateral military actions.

This is also the reason why his NATO strictures have raised so few ripples within the Washington establishment and why the establishment has been so quick to engage the border adjusted tax (BAT) proposal, despite its unilateralist character and inconsistency with the WTO.

The future of international relations

The implication is Trump’s unilateralism may not be a one-off temporary political aberration. Instead, it may reflect enduring neocon leanings within the current U.S. polity.

Though the intensity of those leanings will ebb and flow, they are now a permanent feature. That has ramifications for the international relations order that foreign governments around the world will need to digest.

One concern is excessive export dependence on the U.S. market which renders countries economically vulnerable to U.S. punitive market access restrictions. A second is U.S. corporate takeovers of foreign country champion firms.

Europe also needs to recognize it may suffer negative backwash effects from unilateral U.S. interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere. In contrast, the U.S. is protected by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and that protection may even foster U.S. military recklessness.

New Issue! Focus on Europe



We have just sent our May/June 2017 issue to e-subscribers, and print subscribers should find the issue in their mailboxes soon. (Not a subscriber? You can subscribe online here.)

You can find the full table of contents for the issue here. Here is the page 2 editors’ note for the issue:

The Resistible Rise of the Far Right

We could be forgiven for feeling like we are living through a replay of history.

The last epic wave of capitalist globalization—whether we think of it as ending in 1914 or 1929—gave way to spasms of war, depression, and reaction. It’s not a coincidence that we see similar menaces again today, for key underlying factors leading into the two crisis periods are similar—the strength and directness of owning-class control over state policy, the growing concentration of income and wealth, and the defeat of working-class movements (especially due to their failure to overcome nationalistic impulses).

The articles in this issue tackle the current situation—the weaknesses of reformism today, the menace of far-right “populist” movements, and the necessity for clear alternative politics. Two focus on the United States; three, on Europe.

John Miller tackles the Border Adjustment Tax (BAT) proposal—a combination of import tax, export tax exemption, and corporate tax giveaway—championed by House Republicans. The design of the policy suggests a political aim, appealing to U.S. workers on the basis of “economic nationalism”—the view that U.S. workers are being ruined by foreign competition, that workers in China and Mexico are “stealing” their jobs, and that boosting the trade balance is good for jobs, the economy, and American “greatness.” But at its heart the big winners would be giant corporations—they would get a big export subsidy and an enormous corporate tax cut.

In this issue’s interview, UMass Amherst economist Gerald Epstein makes the case for a new critical response to the presidency of Trump and the menace of a “proto-fascist” regime. Progressive economists have become accustomed to doing garden-variety policy analysis: What will be the effects of a proposed policy on economic growth, employment, income inequality, and so on? “Trumponomics,” Epstein argues, calls for an approach more clearly focused on questions of political power. Progressives cannot be distracted by, say, the potential growth impact of increased infrastructure spending, when the real aim of the policy is to cement support for the proto-fascist regime.

John Weeks takes us across the Atlantic, to the UK and the situation in the wake of the Brexit vote. The result was fueled by a vile and mendacious xenophobia. It also, however, owed to the failure of “remain” proponents to make a case for what was good about the EU—protections for human rights and labor rights that restrain European capitalists. Always lukewarm toward the European project (except the supposed economic benefits), the Labour Party did little to combat the right-wing campaign against the “bureaucrats in Brussels.” With the Brexit result irreversible in the short run, Weeks argues, the task at hand is to muster resistance to a new business offensive against human rights and workers’ rights.

Marjolein van der Veen looks at the recent electoral outcome in the Netherlands, where the right-wing xenophobic-Islamophobic “Party for Freedom” finished second in a crowded field. Observers around the world, fearing that the country would be the next “domino” to fall to an ascendant far-right politics, may have breathed a sigh of relief. Van der Veen cautions, however, against a too-sanguine conclusion. The main outcomes were the collapse of the center-left Labor Party, punished by voters for its embrace of austerity policies, and the overall rightward shift of Dutch politics—a big business party being the election victor (in part due to embracing more anti-immigrant politics itself). The question now is how the left parties can confront racism and xenophobia and craft an appealing alternative program.

Finally, we have the concluding third installment of D&S co-editor Alejandro Reuss’ series on social democracy and the crisis of Europe: “Reform or Revolution?” Reuss both assesses the overall political trends of the European left—including cases where there are signs of a break from compromising “Third Way” politics and a revival of traditional social-democratic reformism. He does not, however, end there—pointing instead to the possibility of a new revolutionary anti-capitalist politics and a plausible vision for a new egalitarian, cooperative, democratic, and sustainable society.

All our authors call on us to remember that—while events today may echo those of the past and why we need to apply historical lessons to our present problems—we are not living through a replay of the past.

History does not follow a preset script. It is ever written anew, in words and in fire.