Egoistic Hegemonism

16 october 2017

Dmitry Suslov is Director of the Valdai Club program “Globalization and Regionalization: General State of the World Economy and Global Governance.” He is also Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University—Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.

Resume: The never-ending political infighting in the US could be viewed as an inevitable stage in an overly complex path the US must take to find its place in the world, one that is changing in spite of what the US wants or thinks. On the other hand, these political struggles make it even harder and more painful for the US and for the rest of the world to adapt to these changes.

The never-ending political infighting in the US could be viewed as an inevitable stage in an overly complex path the US must take to find its place in the world, one that is changing in spite of what the US wants or thinks. On the other hand, these political struggles make it even harder and more painful for the US and for the rest of the world to adapt to these changes.

  The bipartisan foreign policy consensus the US once enjoyed is now in tatters. A war between globalists and nationalists is underway. Having lost in 2016, the establishment seeks to stage a counter-revolution by delegitimizing Trump and preventing him from conducting foreign policy as he wishes. The establishment also wants to make sure that he remains weakened and under pressure, and continues to affirm that the electoral loss was not attributable to objective reasons, but rather to “Russian meddling.” And the establishment is quite good at this: Trump’s key associates were pushed out of the administration, and representatives of the army and conservative Republican elite proceeded to take over key White House positions. In most areas of US foreign policy continuity prevailed, even if it is now somewhat less orderly compared to the Obama and Bush years. Trump himself and the remnants of his clan still try to cater to the nationalist-leaning voters and their anti-globalist aspirations by promising to put America First, a mercantilist and egoistic policy.

  The ongoing infighting prevents the US from putting into practice any kind of strategy and thus its foreign policy is chaotic and contradictory. Eight months into the Trump presidency and this policy presents an explosive mix of contradictions: egoism and messianism, hegemonism and nationalism, realism and neo-conservatism, along with the desire to make a statement and force other countries to kneel to American power, but marked by irritation over their failure to understand the limits of this power in an increasingly multipolar and decentralized world.

The current US foreign policy, with all its contradictions, could be best described as “egoistic and nationalist hegemonic.”

On the one hand, President Trump and his like-minded associates, even though few of them are still in office, are trying to save what is left of the America First nationalist philosophy and the president’s image as being someone willing to hand over the reins of power back to the American people from the cosmopolitan elite from the Washington swamp and bureaucrats from international institutions. This is what was behind the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the mercantilist approach toward NATO allies and the desire to benefit from relations with their allies. This is also what caused statements that the US no longer was willing to bear the biggest burden in producing global good deeds, as well as the proposal calling for UN reform. US rhetoric and policy remain much more unilateral, egoistic and mercantilist compared to the Obama years.

On the other hand, the refusal to equate America’s greatness and its global leadership, or its security and prosperity with US-centered liberal international world order, does not mean that the US is ready to give up on its involvement in global affairs or on its claims to world hegemony

First, the traditional establishment remains committed to the globalist paradigm that dominated the last quarter of a century. Under this vision global leadership and engagement by the US provide a foundation for international law and guarantee security and prosperity for the US and the rest of humankind. By taking control over the administration’s foreign policy, the establishment is trying to prevent US-created alliances from imploding, even partially, the scaling down of the US military and political engagement, back-stepping on US’s place as the world’s policeman, while still trying to preserve foreign policy tools, initially weakened by Trump, such as regime change. 

Second, neither Trump nor people close to his thinking ever intended to give up on US primacy, and above all on the global military supremacy. On the contrary, they are seeking to expand this dominant standing in every possible way. Over the last decades the idea has taken root in the US that not only should military might be expanded, but the US also needs to remain present in all the world’s key regions (Asia, Europe, the Middle East) in order to prevent Eurasia from coming together under the leadership of any hostile country or one beyond US control. This in turn pushes the US to maintain, and even expand, its global involvements.

Third, the Deep State, i.e. the entrenched foreign policy and military apparatus within the US government, is guided by a deeply-rooted and lingering understanding of US national interests in the world and in specific regions and countries. Consequently, even when the goals of US foreign policy seem to change (for example, the refusal to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a priority in Syria or establishing democracies in Afghanistan or in the Middle East), the very essence of US initiatives usually stays the same. There is a lot of inertia in the perception of who America’s foes are and what runs counter to its interests.

In the end, with Trump in the White House, and taking into account all the bitter political infighting, US foreign policy remains quite globalist and hegemonic, and its view of US interests and who friends and foes are remains pretty much unchanged. That said, the US has become much more egoistic, prone to unilateral action and even reckless compared to the Obama presidency. And now there are even fewer restraining factors when it comes to the use of force, let alone engaging in belligerent rhetoric. US foreign policy has become less predictable and more impulsive, and is more driven by the US domestic agenda than ever before. In fact, domestic policy has become the main imperative in foreign policy actions and rhetoric for both Trump and his opponents, while foreign policy analysis has taken a back seat..

Donald Trump’s statement at the general debate of the UN General Assembly 72nd Session was telling, since it reflected all too well the drift of the US toward egoistic globalism and overall political mayhem and the way it affects foreign policy. The speech set a new high standard for trying to mix opposing principles and traditions, which produces an explosive cocktail of ideas.

On the one hand, Trump’s statement was a celebration of national sovereignty. He said: “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government.” He went on to note: “In America, we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” He also said that that “the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition” and that “for the diverse nations of the world … we want harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife. We are guided by outcomes, not ideology.”

This could appear to be the very approach proclaimed by Trump during his campaign and inaugural address, and which has also been reflected in a number of statements by US Secretary of State Tillerson and several important initiatives undertaken by the administration, such as the winding down the CIA program to prepare Assad’s deposition, the reformatting of foreign aid programs and the refusal to openly criticize Russia’s political regime, etc. It was this approach that Russia praised, as was reaffirmed by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. This approach is a key condition for peace in an increasingly multipolar and diverse world. If the experience of the last decade is any guide, chaos and a “war of everyone against everyone” are the only alternatives for nation-states, and only recognizing the legitimacy of each other’s political regimes and development models, just as the Westphalian model of international relations preaches, can bring at least some order and stability into international relations.

On the other hand, in the same statement Trump made a number of policy announcements that were completely at odds with this approach. What he said about DPRK, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba amounted to promoting a policy of regime change. What’s more, he sounded more like George W. Bush, rather than Obama. For instance, Trump stressed that in Venezuela “it is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but rather that socialism has been faithfully implemented,” and that US policy is designed to restore market democracy. He called the North Korean regime “depraved”, Iran’s “reckless and murderous,” referred to Syria as a “criminal” regime and to Cuba as a “corrupt and destabilizing” country. And every time he noted that “good people” in these countries “want change,” and that by its policy the US seeks to “help them regain their freedom, and restore their democracy.” All this is quite the opposite of the philosophy adopted by the White House in the early months of the Trump presidency.

In fact, the US has resuscitated the Bush-era concept of the “axis of evil,” which now includes five members instead of three. Strictly in keeping with George W. Bush’s style, who back in 2002 designated Iraq, Iran and North Korea as outlaw regimes, and proclaimed that those “who are not with us are against us” principle, Trump said that these five countries were “the scourge of our planet and violate every principle on which the United Nations is based.” He also said that “the righteous many” should not let the “wicked few” do evil.

Of course, there is very little chance of Washington returning to the policy of military interventions of the early 2000s. But the very notion of the world being composed of  “righteous” and “wicked” countries in itself is a flashback to the policy of regime change. In fact, nothing is left of the “bright side” of Trump’s initial foreign policy approach, which consisted of making foreign policy less driven by ideology, and instead focused on interests rather than values, on being realistic and pragmatic. At the same time, the “dark side” of his approach, including unilateralism, promptness to use military force, neglect of international law and the opinion of others, remains in place as attributes of the right-wing Republican establishment. It is not a coincidence that neo-conservatives [1] have become increasingly supportive of this foreign policy rhetoric and action of the Trump administration, and their ranks within the administration itself are growing.

The approach to sovereignty proclaimed by Trump is at odds with all accepted and partially accepted approaches we can find in the theory and practice of international relations: it is neither a Westphalian approach to international law supported by countries like Russia and China, nor is it a post-Westphalian paradigm as promoted by the US and the West over the last quarter century.

In the first case, sovereignty means a-priori recognition of any regime of government (except those guilty of genocide and other crimes against humanity), regardless of its inner workings. Sovereignty cannot be contested and gives the state total freedom in its internal affairs (as long as it does not threaten the freedom of other countries) as per the principle of “non-interference in internal affairs” of other countries. Under this theory, the US has no right to even question whether any political regime is good or bad or what “good people” in these regimes want.

In the second case, sovereignty is viewed as the state being responsible for its people, as well as for other countries in the interconnected global world. Sovereignty is relative, and the legitimacy of a state is determined by its ability to produce public good and act as a responsible stakeholder in global governance. It was this understanding that Trump had in mind when he said: “We do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties:  to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.” He also said: “All people deserve a government that cares for their safety, their interests, and their wellbeing, including their prosperity.”

First of all, in this case, however, the US can question the sovereignty of all authoritarian states, having a track record of mass human rights violations, including US allies and its friends like, for example, Saudi Arabia, not just those whom Washington views as a threat to its interests. Instead, Trump has demonstrated a typical policy of double standards by including into the axis of evil countries that are not the worst in terms of human rights, but that have bad relations with the US. Second, in this case Washington should not even mention its America First policy, and should instead support multilateral regimes such as the Paris Climate Agreement, multilateral frameworks and in doing so give others the right to evaluate its policies just as Washington does with other countries. Trump chose a different path: he granted Westphalian sovereignty to the US and countries friendly to it, but adopted a post-Westphalian stance towards all other countries, especially the traditional opponents of the US.

Even more, Trump’s approach to North Korea is simultaneously at odds with both concepts. Pursuing the complete annihilation of a nation, a sovereign country and UN member state, is unacceptable no matter whether you look at it from a Westphalian or post-Westphalian perspective. Nevertheless, this is what Trump has said. By doing so, he gave a new impetus to DPRK’s missile and nuclear program, and to nuclear proliferation in general. Looking at what happened to Yugoslavia, Iraq and Syria, countries that did not have nuclear weapons, these statements show Washington’s opponents that only nuclear deterrence can prevent US aggression. This is especially true given the bitter political infighting in Washington that made US policy unpredictable and impulsive.

This trampling of the notion of sovereignty begs the question: why did Trump choose to focus on this topic in his first appearance at the UN General Assembly, even though much of what he said was headed in the right direction? It is possible that all he wanted was to justify America’s foreign policy egoism and legitimize the America First policy in the eyes of the international community. Most importantly, he wanted to show people who voted for him on November 8, 2016 that he still intends to act in their interests by placing US interests above those of other countries and the international community in general.

In reality, Trump has long been caught in a foreign policy trap and is unable to conduct any kind of policy whatsoever. His America First policy consists of acting unilaterally and being egoistic, without giving up on US hegemonic ambitions, scaling down the geography of its interests or re-evaluating them. What’s more, unlike during Obama’s foreign policy, factors that could prevent Trump from using force no longer exist.

For Russia, and the international community as a whole, the US, with its instability, poses an even greater threat compared to that of the pre-Trump era, including even before the political infighting erupted in the US. For years to come, there will be no alternative but a deterrence policy towards the US. Until Washington comes up with a new consensus on the modalities of US international involvement, the focus of Russian-US relations should be directed towards mitigating damage and preventing the current situation from spiraling out of control. Until then, cooperation with the US will remain selective and transactional.

Valdai International Discussion Club


[1] See The Real Meaning Behind Trump's UN Speech by James Jay Carafano, Vice President of Heritage Foundation, a neo-conservative think-tank: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-real-meaning-behind-trumps-un-speech-22388

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