Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Jared Kushner at the King David Hotel, May 22 2017..
(photo credit: GPO)
With no clear policy, and while balancing between isolationism and interventionism, the Trump administration defined its vision for the world of the 21st century: a competition driven by dividends (and not virtues) in which the US seeks to seize the maximum gain – and Israel should be worried.
“The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets.” With those words, which President Trump spoke during an interview with ABC News’ David Muir in January, he described his worldview.
Of course such a statement isn’t a solid, coherent vision for the US and the world, but with the lack of a comprehensive vision to be put in place through White House strategic assessments, or, at the very least, tenets of that vision presented in logical, calculated speeches, offhand remarks like this, as well as the president’s Twitter feed, seem like an easy, direct way to understand “the most misunderstood” president.
While trying to define the vision, the dilemma is clear: Trump’s two campaign slogans, which he keeps using all through the 150 days of his presidency so far, don’t fit. The isolationist phrase “America First” talks about putting American interests and citizens ahead of global ones. Yet a massive part of “Make America Great Again” is actually “Make America Strong Again,” which basically means projecting power in the international arena, reassuring allies and deterring adversaries.
Trump appointed advisers from both sides of the scale to senior positions: isolationists Steve Bannon and Steve Miller (the strategic and policy advisers, respectively) serve alongside interventionists like Dan Coats and H. R. McMaster (director of national intelligence and the National Security Adviser). Moreover, during his first foreign trip, Trump reassured one group of strategic allies (Israel and the Arab states) while letting down a different one (NATO and G7 members).
So, what is Trump’s vision? Following the end of World War II, the US promoted its ideological vision – a democratic, capitalistic, liberal order – through foreign aid and multinational bodies. Forty years later, the American vision has won the Cold War and in fact became the world’s vision.
But Trump can’t lead toward that ideological vision. Besides not being liberal, challenging democratic principles like freedom of the press and separation of power, and his resentment toward international bodies such as the UN and the EU, he was elected by portion of the American people who don’t believe that American idealism is beneficial for them.
The war on terrorism, globalization, the technological revolution, the economic crisis, the so-called Arab Spring and the rise of global adversaries like Russia and China all proved – according to Trump’s voters – that the world doesn’t need a lesson in values or forcible democratization.
The world, according to the leader of the free world, needs order.
Trump said so in his speech before leaders of Arab and Muslim states: we are not here to lecture you, but to cooperate with you. In an op-ed written by McMaster and the director of National Economic Council Gary Cohn, those words were further explained, declaring that US’s global role is to cooperate, with friends and foes alike, based on mutual interests: economically motivated, security related or others. While clarifying that “America First” doesn’t mean abandoning its allies (or, in their words, “America Alone”), Trump’s top economic and national security advisers make it very clear: cooperation comes with a price, to insure that our investment is beneficial.
That price, in turn, comes in the form of Washington’s demands from its Arab allies to enhance the war on terrorism and extremism, from Israel to compromise in the peace process and from NATO members to meet obligations on defense spending.
While it’s too early to evaluate the future foreign policy of the Trump administration – the gaps among his senior staffers and cabinet members are enormous on several key issues, the majority of mid-high positions in the State Department still aren’t filled and Trump himself is still adjusting to his responsibilities and power – it can be understood what the 45th president is leading us all to. The president and his advisers describe a world defined by strategic competition to exploit advantages, in which the US maneuvers to maximize its dividends, rather than a global community that faces shared challenges and thus shared solutions.
That description fits with the president’s background as the CEO of a global corporation, a position that by its nature is focused on the bottom line rather than the horizon. The balance McMaster and Cohn found between “America First” and “Make America Great Again” is very realpolitik, claiming that the US would use its power and leverage to promote its own objectives and defend its own interests.
Regarding Israel specifically, the latter enjoys a strategic, mutually-beneficial and multi-level partnership with the US, as well as advanced private-sector cooperation, which puts the Jewish state in a very good position to assure the president with its economic, militarily and intelligence value to the US in general and to him as a politician in particular. However, with a White House motivated by value and not virtue, Israel should be extremely careful not to undermine Trump, lest it find itself an obstacle to his strategic goals. From that position, with limited influence over the president’s moral compass, Israel would find itself more isolated than ever.
The writer is research assistant of the United States and Delegitimization & BDS research programs at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).