Just before he was inaugurated as the U.S. President, Donald Trump laid out some principles of what appeared to be his non-interventionist foreign policy. “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with,” he said in North Carolina. “Instead our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying ISIS, and we will.” What Mr. Trump implied is that his administration would not conduct regime-change operations — such as against Iraq in 2003 during the George W. Bush administration — and certainly not indulge in nation-building outside the United States. He promised nation-building within the United States and to enhance the military “not as an act of aggression, but as an act of prevention”.
The tenor of Mr. Trump’s statements suggested that the United States would have a much less interventionist foreign policy. It would not be overthrowing governments or struggling to rebuild them into a liberal, market-friendly paradise. The concepts of regime change and nation-building — so fundamental to the consensus within the U.S. since the 1990s — now seem to be in retirement. Mr. Trump’s main concept — America First — suggests that he would take the country into an isolationist period, with foreign adventures off the table and with the United States gradually pulling out of alliances such as NATO.
The U.S. President’s agenda is part of the emergence of a cruel populism that has emerged across the West, inaugurated by the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. The heart of this cruel populism is that the people of the West have been ignored by their ‘globalist’ leaders, who care more for free trade deals than for the haemorrhaging of jobs in their own homelands. In this they are correct. What makes them cruel is that rather than actually get to the heart of joblessness — which is partly due to unshared productivity gains through mechanisation — they offer a harsh cultural agenda to solve an economic problem. It is hatred of Muslims and other religious, sexual and ethnic minorities that focus the attention of Mr. Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen, Holland’s Geert Wilders and Germany’s Frauke Petry. They want to do such things as ‘de-Islamise’ their countries, ban minarets and secure their borders against refugees.
Building walls against migrants — simple campaign fodder — will not address the economies of the West, which are fundamentally integrated with the rest of the world. The global commodity chain has enabled Western corporations to enjoy large profits as countries in the chain struggle to underbid each other on wages and regulations.
To secure and control this global commodity chain, the West has used its vast military footprint — from bases to aircraft carriers — and it has used its military and political power to pressure countries to honour intellectual property rights and to fix currencies to advantage the global elites. No wonder, then, that the eight richest persons have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. This global 1%, with a majority in the West, has truly benefited from globalisation.
Isolation from this global commodity chain would seriously threaten the reproduction of wealth for this small minority. It is unlikely that the cruel populists — for all their ranting against free trade regimes — would be able to move an agenda that undermines this global footprint. Their isolationism is more rhetoric than policy. Economic sovereignty is not possible for their states, which is why they strive for cultural sovereignty. Demagogy is the prize for this kind of populism. ‘Keep out the Muslims’ stands in for economic policymaking.
We have not entered into a period of isolation. Nor is the old doctrine of humanitarian intervention alive and well. It has certainly been set aside. Our new period, with the cruel populists in power, is defined by ruthless inhumane intervention. Bombs will fall, no doubt, but these will not be dropped to draw countries into the global order. Their purpose will be to encage areas seen to be lesser and inherently dangerous.
The doctrine of humanitarian intervention came into its own in the 1990s, when the United States began to justify its military operations based on the idea of ‘human rights’. Wars against Iraq and Yugoslavia as well as designations of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Syria as ‘rogue states’ set the terms for humanitarian or liberal interventionism. The general idea was that these states were holdouts against globalisation and that pressure against them — sanctions or armed force — was utterly justified. A notion of universal humanity guided this theory, since it was assumed that violence would tutor lesser societies into the global commodity chain. The idea of ‘regime change’ required the idea of ‘nation-building’ to complete its task. Not only would governments be overthrown, but they would be replaced by regimes that acceded to the neo-liberal policy slate and to the institutions of globalisation.
The cruel populists do not accept the theory of universal humanity. For them, the world’s people are divided along the axis of culture — Christendom, on one side, against Islam, on the other. Mr. Trump has vowed to rebuild the U.S. military so that “no one will ever mess with us”. What is this military to be used for? “I would bomb those s******,” Mr. Trump said of the Islamic State and its oil infrastructure. “I’d blow up every single inch,” he said, so that “there would be nothing left”. But the use of force does not end there. “And you know what, you’ll get Exxon to come in there, and in two months — you ever see these guys? How good they are, the great oil companies. They’ll rebuild it brand new.” It is suggestive that Mr. Trump’s Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson, who ran ExxonMobil for 10 years. Would ExxonMobil re-build the oil infrastructure for Iraq? No. “I’ll take the oil,” Mr. Trump said brashly and against international law.
The U.S. President’s instinctual militarism is evident with his appointment of Generals to his cabinet and his habit of continuing to call them by their military rank. These are not ordinary Generals. They have demonstrated a virulent anti-Muslim streak, which is in keeping with the cruel populism of the Trump agenda. Such prejudice blinds them from reality. Against all logic, Defence Secretary James Mattis said, “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief.” That Iran and the Islamic State are fierce adversaries is of no consequence. For this General, they are both in the camp of Islam. War against them is instinctual. It will not be to draw the people in their societies into the global order. Inhumane intervention serves as a prophylaxis against the fantasy of cultural sovereignty.
Vijay Prashad’s latest book is ‘The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution’