Geopolitics on the rocks

Can Trump’s commercial worldview be reconciled with America’s imperial nature?

North America

As Trump looks at the world only through commercial lenses, he seems willing to engage in diplomacy or to intervene abroad only if the U.S. can make a profit. To an empire, however, strategic goals should always be more relevant than commercial interests. Why America could stop being the world's only superpower.

Few days into his presidency and almost three months after winning the elections, analysts and pundits are still trying to confine Trump’s worldview into the classical categories of American foreign policy. They’ve been mostly wondering whether the president is a realist, an isolationist or maybe even a neocon. His many statements and first acts have been parsed as to determine whether globalization is doomed, if his asserted intentions would lead the world to utter chaos or if him coming to power is part of a broader populist wave ranging from Western Europe to America.

So far only few, if any, have focused on the fact that Trump seems bent on pursuing an anti-imperial agenda, byproduct of a purely commercial mindset and most definitely a first in the history of the United States. Being a successful real estate developer for much of his life, “The Donald” only looks at international relations through thick commercial lenses. It is no accident that among his chosen enemies are those countries which – in his own words - exceedingly benefit from accessing the U.S. domestic market; freeloading allies exploiting America’s military umbrella for their own security, a Latin neighbor flaunting an enormous trade surplus with the U.S. while letting its citizens freely cross the American border.

Furthermore, as he has stated in many occasions, the United States should guarantee protection only to those allies spending at least 2% of their own gross domestic product on defense, or to those countries allowing American companies to post relevant profits. Basically implying that all others, both longtime allies and strategic partners, might end up being on their own. Trade should always guide US strategy. Also in Iraq, where Washington should seize local oil “to pay the American people back $1.5 trillion or more” and vindicate “the 5,885 U.S. soldiers killed there”.

Besides being the offspring of his mindset and business path, Trump's doctrine stems from the malaise felt by the American lower middle-class, which has gotten poorer during the past 25 years and now calls for a radical improvement of their living conditions. A bitter rage Trump has proved surprisingly able to ride in order to reach the White House.

But America, as all empires throughout history, has always pursued its strategic aims even to the detriment of its commercial interests, with the lower classes usually sustaining the burden linked to maintaining world supremacy. Sometimes partially discarding a mercantilist move as to achieve a more relevant strategic goal. That is why if Trump were now to realize all his electoral promises not only globalization would be history, the United States would most likely relinquish its status as the world's only superpower.

The American foreign policy, as argued before, is devised by the complex and dialectical interaction existing among the White House, Congress and federal agencies (Pentagon, Department of State, Cia etc). Despite the fuss and the fanfare, the American president is no emperor. By design, he lacks the sheer power to unilaterally inform the U.S. foreign policy. The White House, however, helps us fathom the zeitgeist of our era and scrutinize America’s current instincts and trends.

On a strategic level, the current globalization is the direct result of the United States controlling the most crucial waterways around the globe. By potentially cutting off any other power from maritime trade routes, at the end of the cold war Washington has created a global market with the western hemisphere at its center. Since then, globalization and Pax Americana have become perfect synonyms.

Nonetheless, maintaining an empire usually weighs heavily on middle and lower classes, as those are the ones bearing a heavy military toll in terms of casualties and long forays abroad. Even more importantly, preserving global supremacy often warrants the adoption of apparently self-damaging trade policies as to create a dependency between the center of the empire and its periphery; by renouncing being an exporting power and redistributing wealth to those countries participating in the global order. For instance, a strictly commercial worldview wouldn't have allowed the Marshall Plan to be implemented, as it boosted the economy of a future trade competitor of the United States.

Furthermore, an empire tends to make its own a global currency by massively importing goods from abroad, rather than draining liquidity from the system, while letting allies and antagonists “exploit” its domestic market (and also partially benefiting from low-cost imports). That is why superpowers normally post huge trade deficits and a gigantic public debt, usually owned by countries participating in their consensus.

As is case today with the United States and the Washington consensus, in which China and Japan apparently hold Washington hostage by being its most important creditors while actually being bound to defend America’s welfare.

During the past 25 years America’s middle class has seen its wages decline, while losing almost three million jobs, mostly due to low labor-cost goods from Mexico and Asia entering the U.S. market. The ensuing rage engulfing the lower classes of the American population has propelled Trump’s rise, who recognized quicker than his opponents the strategic importance of such a predicament.

Something very similar occurred during the Roman Republic. After the third Punic war in 146 B.C., Rome emerged as the dominant power in the Mediterranean Sea, creating the first globalization in history as the Roman Navy controlled the entire Mare Nostrum, back then the most relevant sea for trade. Few years after establishing Pax Romana, Rome was shaken by a popular unrest fueled by the heavy toll imposed on the plebs by the sheer size of the empire. In the second century B.C. it was the Gracchus brothers riding such a populist wave and calling for a sweeping agrarian reform. But unlike Trump who's been advocating full-fledged protectionism, Rome didn’t resort to a trade-oriented foreign policy; instead it continued acting as to preserve its dominance over the ancient world.

As in human affairs strategic imperatives always trump economic interests, in geopolitics an exclusively commercial approach is inherently anti-imperialistic. Rather than thinking in terms of maintaining or expanding its primacy over the globe, by providing both its partners and opponents with economical or military benefits, Trump promises to only pursue America’s trade interests.

If it were to actually happen, the U.S. would simply become a nation-state like many others. Probably still the most powerful in the world, but no superpower whatsoever. Its actions would be countered and challenged in every region of the planet. In Europe, Russia and Germany would promptly fill the vacuum, as Nato would officially be declared obsolete and Washington would no longer protect those countries not spending enough of their gdp on defense. Moscow and Berlin would then be vying to extend their sphere of influence over Eastern Europe, setting themselves on a collision course or brokering a tacit compromise excluding the United States.

In Asia, Japan, South Korea and Australia might feel confident or desperate enough to act unilaterally, even going fully nuclear on their own; maybe dragging the U.S. into war with China over some irrelevant islets in the South China Sea. Especially if Washington were to slap high tariffs on Chinese goods, basically thrusting Beijing against the wall. Likewise, Turkey would eventually break with an inward-looking United States no longer willing to pursue a balance of power in the Middle East, prompting all other resident nations to fight one another.

In the attempt to improve the living conditions of the American lower middle classes, by making minority shareholders of its empire pay more for accessing the U.S. market, Trumps would cause great damage to America's long term interests. As a possible trade war would have China and Germany move away from Washington, maybe as far as trying to balkanize the current globalization.

In all likelihood Trump won't be able to implement many of his proposals, being constrained as he is by constitutional checks and balances and by Congress always having the last word when it comes to imposing tariffs and approving trade policies. No matter the unease felt by American population, U.S. federal agencies won't let Trump forsake all U.S. basic strategic imperatives, even though failing to soothe the sufferings of the electorate would spell doom for a president's chances of reelection. However, instead of focusing on the most scenographic aspects of Trump’s persona, Washington should gauge the possible consequences of a commercial foreign policy. Being aware that maintaining an empire tends to be costly and painful especially for the lower classes, while trying to strike a balance between near term needs and long term goals. Otherwise the United States might soon find out that a trade-centered foreign policy is not enough to retain the superpower stamp.