Pundits, politicians, progressives, and prophets panic over Donald Trump’s “failures” in his foreign policy. They may wish to reconsider.
By Mark D. Harris
“Disaster!” media outlets howl when they discuss American foreign policy in the first year of the Presidency of Donald Trump. Some commentators bemoan the withdrawal and even decline of US power, while others rejoice to see the return of a multipolar, rather than a unipolar (US “hyperpower”) or bipolar (US and USSR, or perhaps China, as superpowers) world. Recently The Economist, a British news magazine, announced that Trump has made America and the world less safe.
Whatever one thinks of President Donald Trump, he or she must consider these breathless pronouncements in terms of history and geopolitical reality, not just in terms of modern events. In a speech to the House of Commons (1 March 1848), Viscount Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) said “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” He was right, and the permanent interests of nations are a surer guide to success on the international stage than the vagaries of the news cycle and the panic of political pundits.
Russia and Turkey
Current events – Several articles last fall criticized Trump for driving Turkey into the arms of Russia, thus threatening NATO and by extension the security of the West.
Historical reality – Turkey and Russia have been at each other’s throats for at least 500 years. The fall of Byzantium in 1453 opened up the Balkans to Ottoman armies, and Sultan Suleiman the Lawgiver capitalized on the victory, conquering Hungary in 1526 and even threatening Poland. Until the Ottoman defeat in 1918, the Turks occupied or at least threatened southeastern Europe, the Ukraine, and Southern Russia. From Romania to Crimea to Armenia, Russians and Turks spilled oceans of blood and mountains of gold.
Geopolitical reality – Russian Black Sea fleets are bottled up by Turkish control of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli Straits to the east and west of the Sea of Marmara, and Russia wants the surrounding land. For centuries, Russia has sought a warm water port with access to international sea lanes close to its European economic center. St Petersburg is no good – the Baltic Sea freezes over in the winter and Russian fleets can be halted at the Danish straits of Kattegat and Skagerrak. Vladivostok, on the border with China and North Korea, is too vulnerable and too far away. Further, Russia has historically positioned itself as the protector of Eastern Orthodoxy, the largest sect of Christianity in the Balkans, since the fall of Constantinople and southeastern Europe to the Muslim Turks.
Conclusion – Russia and Turkey are about as likely to become permanent allies as Roy Moore is to marry Hillary Clinton. If Turkey leaves NATO, it will not be because of Trump, but because of Islam.
Israel and the Palestinians
Current events – Trump announced that the US would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in defiance of the United Nations and most of world opinion. The US State Department has begun to comply, and the Palestinians have rioted.
Historical reality – The label of “Palestinian people” is a construct of the mid to late 20th century. From the Arab Muslim conquest of Palestine in 636 AD, the area has been part of the Umayyad Empire, Abbasid Empire, Fatamid Empire, Crusader State, Ottoman Empire, and British Empire. Only once Israel became independent in 1948 did the Palestinian people become a major political force and the Palestinian state a major political goal. This would seem to bode well for peace efforts, but it has not. Israel and its neighbors are no closer to a permanent peace now than they were 70 years ago.
Geopolitical reality – The desires of Israel and the Palestinians are mutually exclusive and in the current political framework, irreconcilable. Both want all of the historical city of Jerusalem, both want the Temple Mount and the buildings there (including the Dome of the Rock), and both want the best, most arable land. Both sides also want the finest ports for access to the Mediterranean Sea. Israel has built a wall (three-layer, concrete, barbed wire, 10-25 ft high) along its entire West Bank border (708 km), which it claims is for security and the Palestinians argue is a land grab. The 1988 Charter for Hamas, a major Palestinian political movement, called for the destruction of Israel, although a recent manifesto may have partially mitigated that demand.
Conclusion – If Trump’s moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem did nothing else, it changed the political calculus in the region and may have opened up new possibilities for peace. The move is risky but tolerating the status quo may be riskier.
Current events – Donald Trump has been bellicose and unpredictable in his approach to North Korea and their nuclear arsenal, and he has faced withering criticism as a result. Major media outlets are predicting that nuclear war will result, or at least become more likely.
Historical reality – Expecting Kim Jung Un (1984-) to be rational in 2018 is like expecting Adolph Hitler to be rational in 1938. The same was true for his father, Kim Jung il (1941-2011), and his grandfather, the founder of the North Korean personality cult and dynasty, Kim il Sung (1912-1994). They play by their own rules, but that only works if others are predictable, if North Korea’s adversaries play by well-known international rules. This was true during the invasion of South Korea (25 June 1950),and has been true during the negotiations and border provocations for almost 70 years. Leaders from America, Europe, China, and throughout the world have obliged North Korea, until now.
Geopolitical reality – North Korea is bankrupt and starving, while South Korea is thriving. The North no longer has the muscle to challenge the South with conventional military forces – their only trick is a nuclear one. But with the capital and most populous city in South Korea, Seoul, only 30 miles south of North Korean forces on the DMZ, a nuclear attack would be devastating.
Conclusion – North Korea may implode in flame and ash, but such an end may signal catastrophe for its neighbors. More likely, the state will linger for decades and gradually decline. Trump’s high stakes game is risky, but by taking away America’s predictability, it has already borne fruit. North and South Korea have started talking again, and will march together under a unified flag in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
China, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam
Current events – Pakistan has been an unsteady US partner, the word “ally” is far too strong, since the Afghan war began in 2001. Pakistan has alternately fought and supported the Taliban and other Muslim extremists. As a result, America has suspended military aid. Pakistan has turned to Russia and China, and the press has accused Trump of another foreign policy disaster.
Historical reality – Since their split in 1947, Pakistan and India have been vicious enemies, and China has been a close ally of Pakistan. Why not, as India and China have fought over their shared border for half a century? China has also fought Vietnam for millennia, most recently in 1979, and Vietnam is a close ally of India.
Geopolitical reality – India and Japan are the only nations that can challenge China as regional powers in Asia. Combining their economic, demographic, technological, and military strength, India and Japan, together with Vietnam, can isolate the Chinese dragon. China, India, and Pakistan have nuclear weapons.
The Strait of Malacca is a 550-mile long strategic waterway (1.5 miles wide at its narrowest and 82 feet deep at its shallowest) between Malay peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is the busiest shipping lane in the world, transporting 25% of the world’s cargo, including oil. Closing down the Strait would cripple China and Japan, since the detour around it is thousands of miles. India could close the western end, and Vietnam the eastern end, with existing forces. China’s reply is twofold –
- Build a superhighway, a new Silk Road, from eastern Chinese centers of industry across western China, into central Asia, to the Middle East, and beyond. Important branches will travel south into Pakistan, which is well west of the Straits of Malacca, but the road will bypass India. Such a road will allow China to position forces to threaten India’s western regions, and minimize the danger to China if the Straits of Malacca are closed.
- Occupy and fortify the “South China Sea”, bringing their own air and naval forces closer to the critical strait and threatening Vietnam.
Conclusion – China and Pakistan are friends for their own historical and geopolitical reasons, and will be for the foreseeable future, regardless of US presidents or policies. India and Vietnam are the same. As each of these powers begins to flex its muscles, the world is seeing the largest rebirth of Great Power politics since before World War 1. Trump can ride the wave, but he cannot make the wave.
Europe and NATO
Current events – Trump’s consistent criticism of the NATO has earned him opprobrium from both sides of the political aisle. When he called the alliance “outdated” and implied that he would scrap it, pundits swooned.
Historical reality – Europeans once dominated the world with their products, fleets, and armies. But today these descendants of the conqueror Charlemagne not only cannot rule others, and most cannot defend themselves. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) emerged from the ashes of World War 2. It was effective in defending a prostrate Europe from the Soviet Union but seemed to lose relevance at the end of the Cold War. Behind the shield of hundreds of thousands American troops, and shaded by the US nuclear umbrella, postwar Europe traded regional security for domestic programs. Britain lost its empire but gained the National Health Service, and Germany lost its self-defense but gained a short work week, long vacation, and generous unemployment benefits. Currently, only five of NATO’s 28 countries spend the agreed-upon 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on military expenditures. Germany spends only 1.19%, and as a result they now have an air force with planes that cannot fly and a navy with ships that cannot sail.,
Geopolitical reality – While much of Europe has been in a sweet sleep for almost 30 years, Europe’s challengers have been wide awake. The most obvious threat, Russia, has abandoned even the pretense of democracy, invaded South Ossetia (2008), the Crimea (2014), and the Ukraine (2014 to present). The Baltic states fear they may be next. To the southeast, Turkey under Reycip Erdogan has grown more Islamic, more powerful, and more aggressive. India and China rattle economic, diplomatic, and military sabers at each other, and to the world. These realities, along with Trump’s suggestion that Europe could no longer rely on American protection, have begun to rouse these children of Charlemagne from their stuporous slumber.
Conclusion – Forces larger than Trump, or even America, are at work. We can only hope that these once-great nations can find the political will to become forces for peace and stability on the world stage. Trump’s challenges probably help, not hurt, the situation.
Current events – Calling something or someone a “shithole” is not likely to endear them to you or your country. President Trump endured withering criticism after allegedly using that word to describe several African nations during a recent meeting about immigration.
Historical reality – The US military has been heavily involved in Africa since the wars against the Barbary pirates (1801-1815). Our military and diplomatic involvement skyrocketed during the Cold War and have not slackened. America was pivotal during the decolonization of Africa, often opposing our own friends (like Britain and France) who wanted to hold on to pieces of their empires. The US has been the largest benefactor of Africa, through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, foreign direct investment, and many other venues. The US government and other groups have bases, laboratories, and scores of other facilities in Africa, along with thousands of people working alongside Africans. While China has recently increased its dealings with Africa, it cannot touch America’s record over the decades.
Geopolitical reality – Many parts of Africa are rapidly developing, but the continent still has far to go. Meanwhile, it faces deadly threats in the form of Islamic terror groups (Al Shabaab – Somalia, Boko Haram – Nigeria, Ansar al Sharia – Libya), ISIS, al-Qaeda, and many others. Tribal conflicts in South Sudan, Rwanda, and elsewhere, including groups that claim to be Christian, and disease epidemics like Ebola, continue to flare. Africa needs a lot of help to catch up with the rest of the world, and is not likely to jettison old friends over idle words.
Conclusion – Trump probably used that phrase, or something like it, but judging from the media reports the outrage seems far greater in Chicago than in Cairo, or in London than in Lagos. It was probably an honest blunder, and an opinion shared by millions of Americans, Europeans, Indians, Chinese, and others too polite to say it. The incident is not likely to have any lasting effect, bad or good, on anyone except people who hated him anyway.
Liberals and America-haters have begun to achieve what they say they have always wanted; the decline of American hegemony and the rise of a multipolar world. No world system is perfect, but multipolarity didn’t work well in 1618, 1812, 1914, 1939, or at any other time in history. Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, and Pax Americana will start looking a lot better in the decades to come, at least for those able to see and willing to admit that they were wrong.
Politicians, pundits, and progressives differ on how they feel about Donald Trump and the new American foreign policy. Detractors say that his relationship with the rest of the world has been an unmitigated disaster. This is both unfair and untrue. Trump’s foreign policy is certainly unorthodox, but it does not suggest a deranged or deluded mind. The President’s bravado, pugnaciousness, and unpredictability may be his greatest strengths on the international scene. Trump is playing a high stakes game, and it just might work. Time will tell.
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