What Does an "America-First" Foreign Policy Actually Mean?
Putting the U.S. Military First, Second, and Third
What does an “America-first” foreign policy look like under President Donald Trump? As a start, forget the ancient label of “isolationism.” With the end of Trump’s first 100 days approaching, it looks more like a military-first policy aimed at achieving global hegemony, which means it’s a potential doomsday machine.
Candidate Trump vowed he’d make the U.S. military so strong that he wouldn’t have to use it, since no one would dare attack us -- deterrence, in a word. The on-the-ground (or in-the-air) reality is already far different. President Trump’s generals have begun to unleash that military in a manner the Obama administration, hardly shy about bombing or surging, deemed both excessive and risky to civilians. Last week, 59 U.S. cruise missiles (value: $60 million) pummeled an airbase in Syria, a profligate response to a chemical weapons attack in that country which may yet lead to further escalation. Meanwhile, U.S. weapons are to be sold to Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf with less concern than ever for human rights abuses, and the Saudis will be provided with yet more of the support they demand for their devastating war on civilians in Yemen. Doubtless further military interventions and escalations across the Greater Middle East are on that classic “table” in Washington where “all options” are supposedly kept.
Most Americans believe the spin that the U.S. military is all about deterring and preventing attacks on the homeland, especially those orchestrated by “radical Islamic terrorism.” Sold as a deterrent, Washington’s national security state has, in fact, exploded into something that increasingly resembles a mechanism for permanent war. Ignorant of the most basic military strategy, impulsive and bombastic, its present commander-in-chief is being enabled by bellicose advisers and the men he calls “my generals,” who dream of ever bigger budgets. (Even Trump’s promise of a $54 billion boost to Pentagon spending this coming fiscal year isn’t enough for some senior military officers.)
The Realities of Trump’s New Era of Winning
Welcome to Trump’s new era of winning. It’s not really about ending wars, but exerting “global reach/global power” while selling loads of weaponry. It promises to spread or prolong chaos in Iraq, Yemen, and possibly Iran, among other countries. In the Greater Middle East, U.S.-led efforts have produced a war-torn Iraq that’s splitting at the seams. U.S. drone strikes and support for an ongoing Saudi air campaign have left Yemen lurching toward famine. Syria remains a humanitarian disaster, torn by war even as additional U.S. troops are deployed there. (The Pentagon won’t say how many, telling us instead to focus on “capabilities” rather than boots on the ground.) Further east, the never-ending war in Afghanistan is, in Pentagon-speak, “stalemated,” which means that the Taliban is actually gaining ground as a new Washington surge-to-nowhere looms. Looking west and south, Africa is the latest playground for the U.S. military’s special ops community as the Trump administration prepares, among other things, to ramp up operations in Somalia.
To Trump and his generals, an “America-first” approach to such problems actually means putting the military first, second, and third. It helps that they can’t imagine the actions of that military as destabilizing. (Possible future headline: Trump destroys Syria in order to save it.) According to General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, for instance, the country that poses “the greatest long-term threat to stability” in the Middle East is Iran, a sentiment seconded by retired general James Mattis, the secretary of defense.
You might excuse the Iranians, as well as the Russians and the Chinese, for thinking differently. To them, the United States is clearly the most destabilizing entity in the world. If you were Chinese or Russian or Shia Muslim, how might U.S. military activities appear to you?
* Expansionist? Check.
* Dedicated to dominance via colossal military spending and global interventionism? Check.
* Committed to economic and ideological hegemony via powerful banking and financial interests that seek to control world markets in the name of keeping them “free”? Check.
Wouldn’t that be a logical, if unsavory, assessment? To many outsiders, U.S. leaders seem like the world’s leading armed meddlers (and arms merchants), a perception supported by soaring military action and sinking diplomacy under Trump. Serious cuts in funding loom at the State Department, even as the Pentagon budget is being boosted (yet again). To outside observers, Washington’s ambitions seem clear: global dominance, achieved and enforced by that “very, very strong” military that candidate Trump claimed he’d never have to use, but is already employing with gusto, if not abandon.
Never Underestimate the Power of the Military-Industrial Complex
Why do Trump’s “America-first” policies add up to military first ones? Why is the Pentagon budget, along with actual military operations, surging on his watch?
More than half a century ago, sociologist C. Wright Mills offered answers that still seem as fresh as this morning's news. In his 1958 essay, “The Structure of Power in American Society,” he dissected the country’s “triangle of power.” It consisted, he explained, of corporate leaders, senior military men, and politicians working in concert, but also in a manner that merged corporate agendas with military designs. That combination, he suggested, was degrading the ability of politicians to moderate and control corporate-military imperatives (assuming the latter even wanted to try).
“The [U.S.] military order,” Mills wrote, “once a slim establishment [operating] in a context of civilian distrust, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government; behind smiling public relations, it has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a great and sprawling bureaucracy. The high military have gained decisive political and economic relevance. The seemingly permanent military threat places a premium upon them and virtually all political and economic actions are now judged in terms of military definitions of reality.”
For him, the danger was plain enough: the “coincidence of military domain and corporate realm strengthens both of them and further subordinates the merely political man. Not the party politician, but the corporation executive, is now more likely to sit with the military to answer the question: what is to be done?”
Consider the makeup of Trump’s administration, a riot of billionaires and multimillionaires. His secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, may not be much of a diplomat. Indeed, he seems uninterested in the advice of career State Department personnel, but he does know his way around corporate boardrooms. Trump’s national security adviser and his secretaries of defense and homeland security are all either serving generals or recently retired ones. In Trump’s inner circle, corporate executives do indeed sit with senior military men to decide what is to be done.
Soon after Mills issued his prophetic critique of America’s power elite, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the growing dangers of a military-industrial complex. Since then, Ike’s complex has only expanded in power. With the post-9/11 addition of the Department of Homeland Security and ever more intelligence agencies (seventeen major ones at last count), the complex only continues to grow beyond all civilian control. Its dominant position astride the government is nearly unchallengeable. Figuratively speaking, it’s the king of Capitol Hill.
Candidate Trump may have complained about the U.S. wasting trillions of dollars in its recent foreign conflicts, invasions, and occupations, but plenty of American corporations profited from those “regime changes.” After you flatten political states like Iraq, you can rearm them. When not selling weapons to them or rebuilding the infrastructure you blew up, you can exploit them for resources. Seemingly never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are an illustration of what happens when corporate interests merge with military imperatives.
While both Mills and Eisenhower warned of such developments, even they might have been startled by the America of 2017. By now, the post-draft, “all volunteer” professional military has become remarkably estranged, if not divorced, from the wider populace, a separation aggravated by an ongoing cult of the warrior within its ranks. Not only are Americans increasingly isolated from “their” warfighter military, but from America’s wars as well. These continue to be waged without formal congressional declarations and with next to no congressional oversight. Combine this with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which translated corporate money directly into political activism, and you have what is increasingly a 1% governing system in which a billionaire president presides over the wealthiest cabinet in history in what is now a war capital, while an ever-expanding corporate-military nexus embodies the direst of fears of Mills and Eisenhower.
America’s runaway military machine has little to do these days with deterrence and much to do with the continuation of a state of permanent war. Put it all together and you have a formula for disaster.
Deterring Our Way to Doomsday
Who put America’s oil under all those Middle Eastern deserts? That was the question antiwar demonstrators asked with a certain grim humor before the invasion of Iraq. In Trump’s oft-stated opinion, the U.S. should indeed have just taken Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion. If nothing else, he said plainly what many Americans believed, and what various multinational oil companies were essentially seeking to do.
Consider here the plight of President Jimmy Carter. Nearly 40 years ago, Carter urged Americans to scale back their appetites, start conserving energy, and free themselves from a crippling dependency on foreign oil and the unbridled consumption of material goods. After critics termed it his "malaise" speech, Carter did an about-face, boosting military spending and establishing the Carter Doctrine to protect Persian Gulf oil as a vital U.S. national interest. The American people responded by electing Ronald Reagan anyway. As Americans continue to enjoy a consumption-driven lifestyle that gobbles up roughly 25% of the world’s production of fossil fuels (while representing only 3% of the world’s population), the smart money in the White House is working feverishly to open ever more fuel taps globally. Trillions of dollars are at stake.
Small wonder that, on becoming president, Trump acted quickly to speed the building of new pipelines delayed or nixed by President Obama while ripping up environmental protections related to fossil fuel production. Accelerated domestic production, along with cooperation from the Saudis -- Trump’s recent Muslim bans carefully skipped targeting the one country that provided 15 of the 19 terrorists in the 9/11 attacks -- should keep fuel flowing, profits growing, and world sea levels rising.
One data point here: The U.S. military alone guzzles more fossil fuel than the entire country of Sweden. When it comes to energy consumption, our armed forces are truly second to none.
With its massive oil reserves, the Middle East remains a hotbed in the world’s ongoing resource wars, as well as its religious and ethnic conflicts, exacerbated by terrorism and the destabilizing attacks of the U.S. military. Under the circumstances, when it comes to future global disaster, it’s not that hard to imagine that today’s Middle East could serve as the equivalent of the Balkans of World War I infamy.
If Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian “Black Hand” terrorist operating in a war-torn and much-disputed region, could set the world aflame in 1914, why not an ISIS terrorist just over a century later? Consider the many fault lines today in that region and the forces involved, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, all ostensibly working together to combat terrorism even as they position themselves to maximize their own advantage and take down one another. Under such circumstances, a political temblor followed by a geo-political earthquake seems unbearably possible. And if not an ISIS temblor followed by major quake in the Middle East, there’s no shortage of other possible global fault lines in an increasingly edgy world -- from saber-rattling contests with North Korea to jousting over Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea.
As an historian, I’ve spent much time studying the twentieth-century German military. In the years leading up to World War I, Germany was emerging as the superpower of its day, yet paradoxically it imagined itself as increasingly hemmed in by enemies, a nation surrounded and oppressed. Its leaders especially feared a surging Russia. This fear drove them to launch a preemptive war against that country. (Admittedly, they attacked France first in 1914, but that’s another story.) That incredibly risky and costly war, sparked in the Balkans, failed disastrously and yet it would only be repeated on an even more horrific level 25 years later. The result: tens of millions of dead across the planet and a total defeat that finally put an end to German designs for global dominance. The German military, praised as the “world’s best” by its leaders and sold to its people as a deterrent force, morphed during those two world wars into a doomsday machine that bled the country white, while ensuring the destruction of significant swaths of the planet.
Today, the U.S. military similarly praises itself as the “world’s best,” even as it imagines itself surrounded by powerful threats (China, Russia, a nuclear North Korea, and global terrorism, to start a list). Sold to the American people during the Cold War as a deterrent force, a pillar of stability against communist domino-tippers, that military has by now morphed into a potential tipping force all its own.
Recall here that the Trump administration has reaffirmed America’s quest for overwhelming nuclear supremacy. It has called for a "new approach" to North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. (Whatever that may mean, it’s not a reference to diplomacy.) Even as nuclear buildups and brinksmanship loom, Washington continues to spread weaponry -- it’s the greatest arms merchant of the twenty-first century by a wide mark -- and chaos around the planet, spinning its efforts as a “war on terror” and selling them as the only way to “win.”
In May 1945, when the curtain fell on Germany’s last gasp for global dominance, the world was fortunately still innocent of nuclear weapons. It’s different now. Today’s planet is, if anything, over-endowed with potential doomsday machines -- from those nukes to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
That’s why it’s vitally important to recognize that President Trump’s “America-first” policies are anything but isolationist in the old twentieth century meaning of the term; that his talk of finally winning again is a recipe for prolonging wars guaranteed to create more chaos and more failed states in the Greater Middle East and possibly beyond; and that an already dangerous Cold War policy of “deterrence,” whether against conventional or nuclear attacks, may now have become a machine for perpetual war that could, given Trump’s bellicosity, explode into some version of doomsday.
Or, to put the matter another way, consider this question: Is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the only unstable leader with unhinged nuclear ambitions currently at work on the world stage?