America First or America Leads?

By Julian French.

“Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak, when power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound when majesty falls to folly”.
King Lear, William Shakespeare
Cosmos Club, Washington DC. 8 April. What does Trumpworld look like? Five days in and my visit to Washington is drawing to a close. It has been a fascinating visit which has cast a light for me on the febrile state of this most political of towns. The Trump administration is in transition…again. And yet, my sense is that this most enigmatic of presidents, and this most enigmatic of White Houses, is finally beginning to settle on a world view that this week’s events both solidified and represented. Put simply, America First, which for so long has been defined by hard core Trump supporters as ignoring the world, is being re-defined to mean America Leads, albeit quixotically.
President Trump has arrived in the White House just at the moment when the kind of hard-edged, loose alliance, vaguely anarchical world of big business meets a new strategic reality in which power again defines influence, not legalism. The twenty-first century is fast becoming an ultra-Realist epoch in which power and might define strength. President Trump clearly understands that, but in dealing with the world the problem the President will face may well be his own ill-discipline.
Yes, at one level keeping adversaries off-balance can be seen as part of a clever stratagem. However, the President is still too adept at keeping his allies, Washington, his own team, and even himself at times off-balance. If that continues the enunciation of anything approaching a Trump foreign and security doctrine will be hard to realise. This matters because such a failure would in turn make it hard for allies to coalesce around American leadership. The purpose of doctrine is to establish principles and consistency and, as yet, both are lacking, even though it is early days yet,
Perhaps President Trump’s greatest strength is that he is a product of the fractured, uneasy, transactional world that he now surveys. As a political and business bruiser who has clambered his way to power President Trump shares a lot of the same attributes as China’s President Xi and Russia’s President Putin. That is intended as a back-handed compliment in a way, because President Trump is well-equipped to do business with the world’s illiberal Great Powers.
It is the European allies who are going to find it hard to deal with the Trump world-view. Like many Europeans history has led me to have a penchant for legally-based international institutions precisely because they prevent the kind of extreme state behaviour which has rent destruction upon Europe twice in a century. Equally, I know that institutions without power are meaningless. And, it is precisely the cult of meaningless and powerless institutions that have turned Europeans into victims of global change.
The recent visit of German Chancellor Merkel to the White House was the diplomatic equivalent of “The Silence of the Lambs”, with Merkel cast as Jodie Foster. Now, it would be easy to say that the all-too-apparent tension was some kind of personality thing. After all, Chancellor Merkel and President Trump come from different political planets. It is deeper than that. Germany is emerging after some 150 years of struggle to be Europe’s proto-dominant power. And yet it is a Germany that rejects much of the American world-view, let alone the Trump world-view.
Germany will not become a peer competitor to the US in the style of China and Russia, but will no longer accept American leadership of the West as a given. Germany is clearly now also willing to act against US interests. There is some evidence Berlin is quietly orchestrating a campaign to damage the UK by implicitly encouraging Scottish independence, for daring to step out of the EU, and thus Germany’s sphere of influence. It is not in the US interest to see the UK broken up and terminally weakened, and at some point Washington will need to back the UK and face Berlin down.
The future? The shape of the Trump world-view will depend on the outcome of a power struggle underway within the White House between America First radicals, such as Steve Bannon, and America Leads ‘traditionalists’, such Secretary-of Defense Mattis and National Security Advisor McMaster. Today, the pendulum appears to be swinging towards the America Leaders, possibly because the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner seems to be an advocate.
However, as I learnt during my visit this week to the White House, and my old friend and Presidential Deputy Assistant Sebastian Gorka, the situation within the Administration is far more nuanced that much of the Press would have you believe. My sense is that the President will aim to forge a more tightly-knit foreign and security policy team around hi, with much of policy led by the so-called Principals Committee of the National Security Council. The true test of a re-empowered NSC will be their collective willingness, and that of the National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, to speak truth unto power…and the President’s willingness and capacity to listen.
Allies? They will all need to heed that old Washington adage that if a state wants to influence the Administration it is not about what you did last week for America, let alone what you did decades ago, but what you do now and tomorrow.
After all, America First means America Leads.

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