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.