World War Trump
Interview: Hall Gardner, author of World War Trump: The Risks of America’ s New Nationalism (Prometheus Books, 2018)
Q: What is the purpose of World War Trump?
World War Trump seeks to critically analyse many of Trump’s foreign and domestic policy flip-flops since he unexpectedly became the American president. The book provides a deeper analysis behind newspaper headlines in order to explain what is happening behind the scenes in terms of alliance relationships, the financial crisis, and domestic American politics. It seeks to explain both the domestic and international factors that are impacting Trump’s policies.
My purpose in writing the book is to open up a national and international debate on a number of major American domestic and foreign policies. These foreign policies include how to engage Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea in peace-oriented diplomacy, while fighting the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). From a domestic perspective, the books points to ways to deal with issues, such as Mexican/Latino immigration, and the ongoing war on drugs, that impact Mexico and Latin America, and that directly impact the American population.
The fact that Trump did not win the presidency by a majority of the popular vote; the growing gap between rich and poor, both in the United States and abroad; the burgeoning federal, state and local debt crisis, all raise questions as to whether or not more radical social and US constitutional changes are needed in the United States itself. In short, the United States will not only need to re-formulate its foreign and defence policy, but it must also radically reform its system of governance and its domestic political-economy—if it is to achieve both peace abroad and work to mitigate tendencies toward even deeper social, economic, and political polarisation within the United States itself.
Q: What is the basic thesis of World War Trump?
The thesis of World War Trump is that US foreign and defence policy has been dangerously polarising the major countries of the world into two rival systems of alliances since the end of the Cold War. On the one side is the United States, NATO, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia; on the other side is Russia and the Russian-led CSTO, China and Iran. Many other countries, including Turkey and Philippines, are finding themselves caught between the pincers of these powers and their allies and are being pressed to choose sides, while some members of these alliances are threatening to defect or move into neutrality. If the world does fully polarise into two opposing alliances, then it is more likely that disputes in one region, for example, with North Korea, or a conflict in the wider Middle East, between Saudi Arabia or Iran, for example, could spark a major power war. A US decision to engage in a so-called “preventive war” with Iran and/or North Korea could also spark a wider regional conflict—if not draw in the other major powers.
Trump’s “America First” strategy, as it seeks to sustain, if not expand US hegemony, could soon find itself drawn into a major power war—that is, if this so-called “strategy” is not soon accompanied by full-fledged diplomatic engagement with both American rivals and allies in both bilateral and multilateral forum.
Q: You have argued that US defence policy is at fault for causing Putin to come to power. How so?
Post-Cold War American global strategy on the part of both Democrats and Republicans has been a total failure with respect to Russia. American efforts to reactivate the post-Cold War containment of Russia through the “open” NATO enlargement have resulted in a dangerous Russian backlash, that was evident since NATO’s war “over” Kosovo and Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 1999. To simplify, this backlash culminated in Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s ongoing political-military interference in eastern Ukraine. The situation has resulted in the serious deterioration in US-Russian relations.
Q: You have characterized Washington as having no real global strategy since September 11. Why?
In pursuing the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks, the US engaged in vague goals of overthrowing and “democratizing” select “rogue states” by the use of force. In this regard, Washington’s GWOT has engaged in a largely selective “whack-a-mole” strategy by hitting whatever anti-US dictators pop up.
The issue raised here is that most of the authoritarian regimes struck down by US-led forces just happened to be those with fairly close Russian military and political-economic ties. Moreover, as the George W. Bush administration’s GWOT did not focus on al Qaida alone, but on both rogue states and anti-state terrorist organisations with global reach, the dimensions of US-led military interventions have rapidly expanded in geographical scope beyond Afghanistan and northern Pakistan to Iraq, Libya and sub-saharan Africa, while further alienating Moscow.
Q: Why do you think Russia and China are forming an alliance?
Given both US and European efforts to expand both NATO and the European Union into former Soviet space, the continuing post-Cold War containment of Russia has largely ignored the rapid rise of China in the background, so that China has been able to take advantage of US-Russian discord by expanding its political-economic and military interests globally through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and String of Pearls.
Russian alienation from the US and Europeans has subsequently led to a proto- Sino-Russian alliance, despite some disputes between the two sides, which could soon become a full-fledged military alliance and initiate a truly global conventional and nuclear arms race—that is, if the US and its allies cannot soon forge a new diplomatic rapprochement with both Moscow and Beijing.
Q: What makes you believe that it is possible to negotiate with Russia, and with Putin, in particular?
First, you can’t choose which leaders you want to negotiate with, and which ones you don’t. Putin may have opposed NATO expansion into eastern Europe and US promises that Georgia and Ukraine could enter NATO at some point in the future, but he initially welcomed US and NATO involvement in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Putin is a realist and tough bargainer, but it is nevertheless possible to negotiate with him if the US and EU are truly willing to compromise, if not make some concessions, over Crimea and with respect to the formal recognition of a neutral and decentralised Ukraine, for example. Moscow can also help to a certain extent with North Korea, Syria and Iran, if given the right incentives. Moreover, in historical terms, Russia has been known to radically change positions once it believed its interests were truly threatened.
Q: But what about Trump’s collusion with Moscow and Russian interference in the US elections?
In respect to Russia, the deeper problem is not so much Trump, but the lack of realism in US policy. The domestic attack on Trump and investigation into his alleged collusion with Moscow has two sides.
One side is legitimate: That is, it is crucial to determine whether Trump and/or his associates may have engaged in illegal behaviour with respect to Russia, by possibly colluding with Moscow to undermine the democratic election process and to prevent Clinton from being elected. It is possible, although not yet proven, that Trump and/or his associates might have sought to profit personally from close business ties to Moscow, or else by engaging in other illicit activities.
But there is another side that involves a dangerous anti-Russian populist current in the political attacks on Trump. This anti-Russian current could prevent the formulation of a realist strategy toward Moscow that seeks to reduce military tensions in Europe and prevent a new nuclear arms race. Here, for example, the option to sell Kiev more lethal weaponry ostensibly to be used against Ukrainian autonomists will be matched by Russian countermeasures—if diplomatic steps are not reached to bring both Kiev and Moscow into compromise.
The dilemma is that Trump moved much too fast at the beginning of his presidency toward a rapprochement with Moscow and made it look like he was willing to abandon NATO's Article V security commitment in order to make amends with Putin, while concurrently making personal profits. Trump’s errors, coupled with the American Congressional and popular backlash to actual and exaggerated Russian efforts to interfere in the US election process, have dangerously set back the real need to address US-Russian relations over Ukraine and the ongoing nuclear arms race, among other issues.
The Trump administration needs to set up a US-Russia summit as soon as possible that will put on its agenda that promise of non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs, among other vital concerns, must importantly taking nuclear weapons of hair trigger alert. But I am afraid anti-Russian domestic politics and the possibility of Trump’s impeachment could stall that option.
Q: Why should Washington even deal with Moscow, if, as alleged, Russia interfered in the US election process?
I do not deny the allegation that Moscow had tried to interfere in the US election process, but I also don’t think those actions can be considered an “act of war” as Senator John McCain has stated. Americans should be aware that Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration had interfered in Russian elections, and helped to overthrow the corrupt, and not-always pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych—actions that infuriated Putin.
But what is more interesting is the fact that not all Russian elites supported Putin’s alleged decision to interfere in the US elections. Just at the time of allegations of Russian meddling in the US elections were exposed by the US media, the man who purportedly did the dirty work, Putin’s Chief of Staff, Sergei Ivanov, was suddenly removed from his position without explanation. This indicates Putin may have realised his mistake. And if so, there is no need to continue to grind it in his face. Now US-Russian relations are at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Once again, what is needed is a pledge of non-intervention in each other’s affairs.
Q: What about Russian efforts to derail Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency?
Let us look at the issue of Russian interference more objectively: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes, but lost the electoral college by only 3 states, one of which (Michigan) she did not campaign in. Had she won more than 80,000 votes altogether in the states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, she might have won the presidency.
I doubt those 80,000 voters in those three states who opted for Trump by a slim margin, or those who abstained from voting for either candidate, and thus did not vote for Hillary, did so because of anti-Clinton Facebook and Tweeter messaging by Moscow’s trolls, RT and Sputnik propaganda against Clinton, or alleged Russian cyber-interference in the election process itself.
These voters may possibly have been influenced by the investigation of FBI director James Comey, for example. But many people simply did not want either Clinton or Trump to be president—regardless of the FBI or the Russians—so they did simply not vote. Or those who did try to vote may have had their votes disqualified for different reasons, including malfunctioning voting machines, or failing to fill out the ballots correctly. Russian propaganda and cyber trolls did attempt to influence American opinion, but I honestly don’t think it had that much impact given the fact that Clinton won the popular vote by a significant margin.
Q: Why is Trump’s foreign policy particularly dangerous as compared to that of other US presidents?
Trump did not create this very dangerous global situation—and he himself has publicly acknowledged its dangers and has blamed it on his predecessors. But the problem is that Trump does not appear to recognise that his own irresponsible and impulsive rhetoric, tweets, and particularly policies and actions as President of the United States, have actually been exacerbating the real possibility of war.
The danger is that Trump’s impatience, his pseudo-Nixonian “madman” behaviour, and his foreign policy flip-flops, first pro-Russia, then pro-Ukraine, first pro-Taiwan, then pro-China, make rival states automatically opt for worst case scenarios. The leaderships of both US rivals and allies (such as Germany and South Korea) fear that Trump will not prove to reliable and not keep his promises.
The issue raised here is that Trump wants the US to bargain from a “position of strength”; yet the US is already seen as the predominant power, so his approach will not necessarily open the door to real and substantial negotiations. And even if Trump does begin calm down, which appears unlikely, the increasing possibility that his administration will adopt a more consistent hardline “America First” strategy against states such as North Korea, Iran, Russia and China could soon spark a military confrontation—if the Trump administration refuses to accept the possibility of compromise and concessions when it is legitimately demanded.
Q: What do you think of Senator Bob Corker’s statement that Trump’s recklessness could set the US “on the path to World War III”?
Corker is right on some points, but wrong on another. On the one hand, Corker is right to say that Trump is not a war monger, but that Trump’s reality TV show antics could provoke world war. Trump’s arrogance, impatience, policy flip-flops, refusal to engage in long term diplomacy, only exacerbate the already deep crisis and polarisation of the global system that began prior to Trump’s arrival to power, but that is being made even worse by Trump.
Corker is also right to say that Trump is not playing a game “good cop bad cop” with his team at the State Department. Instead, Trump’s management style displays a real lack of administrative cooperation and coordination that undermines the role of the Secretary of State and his ability to establish trust. Trump raises fears that the US will not stick to US agreements with foreign governments.
While Trump’s theatrics, twitter diplomacy, and unexpected policy flip flips could provoke conflict, the irony of Corker’s comments is that he was one of the Senators who opposed the Iran nuclear deal and wanted that deal to be reviewed by Congress.
The decision made by Trump in mid-October 2017 to let Congress decide the fate of the Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear accord signed by Obama was a big mistake. It appears dubious that Congress or the President can effectively rewrite the Iran nuclear treaty. Congressional demands to review the JCPOA deal every 90 days is precisely the kind of action that can undermine what little trust there already is between Washington and Tehran. And in addition to dividing the Europeans, further alienating Iran could provoke a closer Russian-Chinese-Iranian alliance—that could then lead to World War III—particularly if Turkey defects from NATO due to perceived US and/or Israeli support for Kurdish independence movements in Syria, northern Iraq or inside Turkey itself and aligns with Russia and Iran.
JCPOA, which took a decade to negotiate, is not perfect, but will work if American-Iranian trust is built over time. Other issues, that have little to do with JCPOA, such as Iran’s missile development and support for terrorism, need to be dealt with by peace negotiations among all states in the region. One possibility would a peace conference on the conflicts in the wider Middle East to be held in Paris or elsewhere in Europe to try to avert the slide to a wider war.
Q: If Trump is impeached, or forced to step down, how will that impact US policy?
Trump believes he will stay for two terms. And maybe he believes he can be voted in for a third, as some Republicans wanted to keep Ronald Reagan in office for another term! By contrast, World War Trump proposes a single 5-year (or possibly 6-year) term for the presidency in order to minimize election year demagoguery.
Yet the possibility of impeachment or vote of lack of confidence by his cabinet under the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution is real. Much depends upon what the investigations by former FBI Director Robert Mueller uncover with respect to Trump’s alleged “collusion” with Moscow and other possible illicit affairs, such as the allegation that Trump may have obstructed justice by firing the former FBI Director, James Comey.
It was initially argued by many that if Trump were to be impeached, then the Christian Conservative Vice President Pence might be even more hard line in terms of domestic and foreign policy. Pence would most likely toughen Trump’s policies toward Russia and North Korea, for example. But, much as Republican Senator Jeff Flake has called Trump as “dangerous to a democracy,” Trump appears much too erratic to remain president for long.
While Trump’s cabinet and advisors have sought to cool him down as best they can, it is definitely dangerous to permit him to retain his finger on the nuclear trigger. Trump’s purported demands that he wanted the Pentagon to augment US nuclear capabilities by ten times reveals a pathological belief that only the threat of nuclear war will resolve the inter-state disputes in the US favor. Instead, Trump needs to engage in real diplomacy that opens up the possibility of compromise and concessions, where appropriate.
The problem is that Trump may not know when to compromise and when not…. If Trump does not soon change course, and engage in a multi-directional diplomacy that is truly intended to peacefully resolve conflicts around the world, then he will need to leave the White House as soon as possible…
Q: What other issues does your book World War Trump address?
The book’s primary focus is on US foreign and defence policy, and the need for significant nuclear and conventional arms reductions through negotiations, for example, yet a radical reform of US defence policy also means a radical reform of domestic US policy as well. The burgeoning federal, state, local (and personal) debt crisis, the fact that Trump won by the electoral college vote, and the issue of congressional “vetocracy,” all indicate the need to engage in major constitutional reforms.
World War Trump argues that much as the global system has begun to polarize into two rival systems of alliance, so too is American society dividing into opposing factions. This domestic polarization is taking place given the burgeoning gap between rich and poor, disputes over Mexican/Hispanic and Moslem immigration, and the huge impact of the domestic drug epidemic, which is at least indirectly related to huge domestic demand for drugs, the criminality of drug cartels, the spread of guns inside the US, and the US “war on drugs” in Mexico and Latin America since the Nixon administration. These issues have been accompanied by the rise in urban and racial tensions on a scale not seen since the 1960s, as illustrated by acts of violence at the “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, in October 2017.
In addition to the huge gap in wealth and the rise in social and racial tensions, Trump’s environmental policies are uprooting the American domestic consensus. Contrary to Trump’s antediluvian fossil fuel mentality, American leadership should be fostering the rise of an ecological-aesthetic consciousness that is truly dedicated to the creation of jobs and the protection of the natural environment. What is needed is the creation of an environmentally safe and less polluting energy infrastructure—which also produces long term and meaningful jobs—coupled with the fostering of shared capitalism and workplace democracy.
And finally, Trump has threatened a major conventional and nuclear weapons buildup that will further augment the domestic and global influence of what President Eisenhower had called the “military-industrial-congressional complex” and that will further militarize American society. If, however, Trump can eventually implement peace accords through engaged diplomacy with Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, as World War Trump argues, then it might prove possible to engage in the step-by-step reconversion of that “military-industrial complex.” But so far, Trump has been moving in absolutely the wrong direction.