My general policy with posts on this site is that I do not engage with day-to-day, ground level political discussion, which is often wild, misplaced and quickly forgotten. Do you remember what was dominating political headlines in your country a month ago? Two months ago? Six? I doubt it.
Occasionally, though, a situation will call for some comment, if only to set in place a guiding principle for you to bear in mind whenever similar stories come up over the next however-many years. One such occasion is happening right now, and it has to do with the foreign policy direction of the Trump presidency.
Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian governmental air base was, for the most part, strongly supported by traditional instruments of power, while being disliked by his base. Naturally, the question both of these groups have been asking since is ‘Is Trump going to become another ‘policeman of the world?’, which seems like a reasonable question on the surface, but is actually just the kind of wild, misplaced and quickly forgotten discussion that benefits no-one and achieves nothing, because on its own, it lacks any supporting statement. It has no thesis to work towards. There is no attempt in asking the question to view the actions of the US administration within a political framework.
So, allow me to offer you a framework, not just for the Syrian question, but for Trump’s foreign policy in his entire presidency. You don’t have to agree with it. In fact, it is good to test out frameworks to see whether they match reality. Put Trump’s foreign policy in the framework that I will give you, and see whether they add up.
What you must understand about Trump’s foreign policy is this: everything he does internationally is for a domestic audience.
Donald Trump is a salesman. He is probably one the most skilled and accomplished salesmen in the world today (he would certainly say so, which is part of why he is so good at it – have you ever met anyone so skilled at self-promotion?). His presidential campaign was a sales pitch, and his presidency is about making deals. His focus in all this has been about ‘America First’ – not just as policy platform, but as his audience.
Now, being a president who gets things done is a tough task. Furthermore, Trump seeks approval from the American people, so he wants to be a president who gets things done and is popular. Now, if your guideline for actions is ‘America First’, and you want to make sure that you have the appearance of getting things done and become popular as a result, what would that imply about the way you approach foreign policy? How important would it be, and what purpose would it serve?
I put it to you that foreign policy becomes simply an instrument to be used to posture to the domestic, American audience. This has a flow-on effect internationally, because of the importance of America to affairs, but it’s only a side-effect. It is not fundamentally important to how Trump chooses to act.
Let’s take the Syrian airstrike as an example. In response to an chemical attack allegedly made by the Syrian government, Trump chose to almost immediately respond with a large airstrike on a Syrian government air-base. How does this achieve the goals of ‘America First’, getting things done and being popular?
We’ll start with the last one. The media and liberal politicians of the major parties have been pleased with the airstrike, which is an achievement in itself given how unhappy they’ve been him since he started his campaign. Given that the media still have a significant role in shaping the public’s perception of politicians, that is a tick for ‘being popular’.
Second, getting things done. If the Trump administration said they were ‘increasing pressure on the Assad regime’ or some equivalent, would that stick in your mind? Would that seem like something was absolutely being achieved? Probably not. Instead, they did the exact opposite, sending a large, one-off strike on the Syrian government’s air force. That is the kind of thing that sticks in the mind, that gives the impression of getting something done, without requiring much outlay. It didn’t even matter that only a few days after the strike, Trump stated that the United States would not be increasing its intervention in Syria. The quick and heavy, one-off response was what mattered, so that’s a tick for the perception of ‘gettings things done’.
Thirdly, ‘America First’. Syria’s greatest ally in the international community is Russia, which happens to be the same nation that Trump has been accused of being some kind of agent for. The airstrike takes the heat off that issue, establishing that Trump is all about America’s interests, not Russia’s. Trump has added more fuel to this idea by exclaiming that America’s relationship with Russia may be at an all time low, which, while untrue, makes Trump sound very much not like a Russian agent. So, this too is a tick, which means that Trump’s action in Syria fits perfectly with the notion that his foreign policy is for a domestic audience.
All this is to say nothing about ideology, which would deserve its own post. This is simply a framework for understanding the foreign policy of the Trump administration. Do with it what you will.