Donald Trump is walking on sunshine this week, glowing in the aftermath of his successful, high-level photo-op meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The meeting marked the first time a sitting U.S. president has met with a North Korean leader. Despite the bizarre circumstances that preceded the meeting (overt and juvenile insults between the two leaders and a temporary cancellation of the summit), it was a major step in the right direction for the two countries and for the project of global peace.
The fact that it took a leader like Trump to get to even a preliminary place of negotiations with North Korea is telling and ought to shame his Democratic predecessors. Sadly, it does not mean Trump will land on the side of peace elsewhere.
Trump is blowing up the new world order, worrying establishment Democrats. Even his own party members are wary. While he is disrupting U.S. foreign policy from the right rather than the left—to the likely detriment of the nation and planet—he has made one thing clear: When desired, it is possible to swim upstream against the neoliberal consensus. Did Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama fail to usher in global peace and justice because they encountered internal opposition or simply because they chose to fail?
The most constructive lesson Trump may be inadvertently offering is that there is ample room for a future progressive executive to use his or her position for global good rather than in the service of American imperial ambitions.
Trump has already realigned U.S. foreign policy to a stunning extent. He has made stronger overtures to right-wing, dictatorial and/or less-than-democratic regimes like China, the Philippines, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia and, most recently, North Korea than earlier presidents from either party. He has deeply offended U.S. allies such as Mexico, Canada and the European Union and launched irrational trade wars against them. He has escalated the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria while paying a far lesser political price than his predecessors.
Lest we underestimate the power of one egotistical individual’s petulant whims and fantasies, a man who lacks a popular mandate has changed U.S. foreign policy more than we ever imagined possible, much to the dismay of the neoliberal establishment.
Presidents are mere figureheads who find out upon entering the Oval Office that the real power is held by military generals and career agency staffers.
The critical lesson for those who want to see a leftward realignment away from militarism and war and toward global justice and peace is that perhaps a strong-willed individual with the backing of grass-roots movements and a popular mandate might be capable of opposing the collective will of the pro-military establishment in the future. For years we were told that Obama was unable to achieve much progress toward peace because presidents are mere figureheads who find out upon entering the Oval Office that the real power is held by military generals and career agency staffers.
Such assumptions have fomented apathy and cynicism about the nation’s foreign policy. But Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach has confirmed that if presidents want to, they can indeed do things differently. It also implies that Democrats like Obama and Clinton went along with the project of American militarism not because they were unable to defy it but because they were willing partners.
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Overall, Trump’s disruption has moved the world in a dangerous direction. The Iran nuclear deal, which Trump tragically undid, was one of Obama’s few constructive foreign policy achievements that moved the U.S. in the direction of diplomacy between two historic enemies. That deal was vociferously opposed by the Republican Party as well as by some elements of the Democratic Party. And yet Obama persisted—likely because the deal kept intact Iran’s nuclear subservience to the U.S.
If preserving American dominance underpinned Obama’s approach to foreign policy, what drives Trump’s approach? In his approach to North Korea we have seen dangerous flip-flopping, from hurling public insults at Kim to lauding him like a new best friend. The summit was announced, then canceled, then was back on. Yet, miraculously, there was greater progress toward peace than we saw under the last two presidents.
It is hard to imagine that a president like Trump would help to usher in peace between the two Koreas and between the U.S. and North Korea. Perhaps he is motivated by wanting to please China or to build hotels in North Korea, or perhaps he simply wants a major win to stoke his enormous ego.
To be fair, Democrats and Republicans are often far more in alignment with one another internationally than they are domestically. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars were bipartisan affairs. Allegiance to the likes of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt has been jointly supported by both parties. But Trump’s foreign policy involves giving free rein to the military establishment in a way that even Obama did not, which could result in perpetual war everywhere but in the Koreas. Trump’s approach could embolden right-wing dictatorial regimes even more than the Democratic establishment did. It could free the Israeli government to unleash even more violence on Palestinians than before—indeed it has already done so. It could encourage Saudi Arabia to continue pummeling a weakened Yemen—as it is doing this week.
On the economic front, Trump is tossing out the rule book on trade, refusing to be bound by the dogma of pro-corporate, free-trade ideology (which ought to be welcomed by advocates for fair trade and global justice) and jeopardizing America’s military allies in the process. His actions have strengthened the hands of Russia and China especially. The Chinese government appears to have determined that financially bailing out the Trump business’ real estate projects, as it did in Indonesia, is a useful tool to bend U.S. policy toward Chinese will. Trump has also had an eye toward business ventures in Russia for decades. Perhaps he looked at the leaders of the G-7 countries at the recent annual summit and thought, “I have nothing to personally gain from keeping these people and their nations as friends.”
His base of support is gleeful at the circus he has made of the carefully crafted world order established over many decades. After all, they voted for Trump hoping he would blow up all expectations—and he is well on his way to doing so.
In this context, the North Korea summit may simply be a coincidental blip in the right direction. Regardless of Trump’s motivation, the result of his historic meeting with Kim this week in Singapore is likely to do more to defuse nuclear tensions regionally and globally than preserving the status quo. Similarly, regardless of Obama’s motivations, the Iran deal was a critical step toward diplomacy and away from war. Most progressives rightly cheered both deals and lamented the Iran deal’s demise.
But if we want systemic change in the direction of peace and justice, we must demand that U.S. foreign policy be coherently driven by progressive ideology rather than as incidental stops on the path toward American military dominance or the ego-driven ambitions of a businessman. There is simply too much at stake.