President Donald Trump has had an extraordinary series of acerbic encounters over the past two months that can only be interpreted in two ways either he is swinging from the sublime to the ridiculous or there is a method in the madness that even strategic thinkers can not comprehend.
It all began at the G-7 summit in the first week of June in Quebec where Mr Trump publicly called for the admission of Russia to the group. He followed it up with withdrawing his endorsement of the joint communiqué issued at the end of the meeting and a public spat with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over trade tariffs between the United States and Canada. The fact that Mr Trump is mercurial is a non-sequiter, but even by his standards of temperamentalism to publicly break with the US closest allies seemed to signal something deeper than mere angst.
He followed up the Quebec performance with a summit meeting with North Korean supremo Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12 despite serious reservations within the US deep state about the wisdom of such an interaction that was perceived as premature by the charitable and imbecile by critics.
However, what took the cake was his piece at the Nato summit in Brussels on July 11-12, where he had a televised spat with leading Nato members about increasing their defence spending to two per cent of the GDP. He crowned it with an attack on the British Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit during his back-to-back UK visit and then rounded it off with a ringing denouncement of his own intelligence agencies at a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
Taken together what does it all add up to? Irrationality or the emerging contours of reshaping the world order that minds conditioned to the status quo of the past 70 years are simply unwilling to comprehend.
The approach to international relations in America can broadly be classified into four schools of thought. The first are the Hamiltonians. They want the US to emulate the strategies pursued by Great Britain at the pinnacle of its power. Its approach is anchored on two prongs namely to construct a global mercantile and strategic paradigm predicated on the dominance of the maritime domain and a clear technological edge over the rest of the players in the global power dynamic. It entails both, finessing the balance of power paradigm in key geo-strategic theatres and attempting to co-opt rivals or potential rivals like China into the global order as engaged not estranged stakeholders.
The second are Wilsonians. They also desire a global role for the US albeit grounded in liberal human rights practices and based upon the application of international law rather than the economic and security frameworks that Hamiltonians espouse.
There are two other seminaries that are domestically oriented rather than internationally disposed in their outlook. They are primarily focused on keeping the US safe from the world. While Jeffersonians have historically sought to abjure war and avoid foreign entanglements at all costs, Jacksonians have been circumspect about foreign adventures, but are votaries of robust national defence preparedness. They support a solid military and decisive action against any peril to the US, including its nobility and its treaty partners. Jeffersonians normally oppose any conflict other than a war waged for self-protection following an attack by an adversary. Jacksonians are not entranced by worldwide change but largely support stout American responses to whatsoever they see as a strategic challenge or hazard to American honour and standing abroad.
It is the Hamiltonians and Wilsonians that have shaped American foreign policy postures over the past century, including acute decisions like forsaking neutrality to enter the First World War, the subsequent creation of the League of Nations, fait accompli of the Second World War following the attack on Pearl Harbour, setting up of the United Nations and Nato and the global web of treaties and alliances that underpin American power throughout the world to name but a few. They can be found in abundance in all foreign policy-related institutions and think tanks around the US. The US global engagements are the bread and butter of the Hamiltonians and the Wilsonians.
However, continuing entanglements in Afghanistan, Iraq and larger Middle East coupled with the consequent cost that the US has had to pay both in blood and treasure from 2001 onwards have made both the Americans and even policymakers weary and cagey of its continuing global role. America is drained and depleted. It badly requires an infrastructure overhaul. The last one happened after the Great Depression in the 1930s.
A vast majority of Americans feel and rightly so that globalisation that it had pioneered, including putting in place the entire international trade system, has now been working to its detriment for over two decades now. The US desperately wants to withdraw from its global role and adopt a protectionist posture on trade tariffs. It wants to mitigate the inflection points that absorb American resources and compel its continuing military commitments around the world while strengthening some key relationships like with Israel which is more of a domestic rather than a foreign policy issue in American politics. This is the essence of making America great again.
President Trump at heart is a Jeffersonian. Left to himself he may want to retreat into a splendid isolationism. However, even he can’t unwind the commitments stretching back seven decades in a span of two years. Therefore, his policy prescriptions are Jacksonian. Even though November 2018 midterm elections to the House and Senate are critical, street wisdom in the US believes Mr Trump will get a second term. If that happens between now and 2024, he would have reset the global order and taken America into a phase of Grand Exceptionalism. The ensuing vacuum would open up space for myriad global players to position themselves. Is India even cognisant of the emerging opportunities?