Why is the Trump administration old-fashioned, right-winged and nationalist?
Trump is, albeit without any real, thought-through ideology, an old-fashioned right-wing American nationalist of the kind who really hasn't been anywhere near power since the 1930s and 1940s, says Dr. Steven Hurst
Editor / InternetYeni Şafak
British scholar Dr. Steven Hurst, who works at Manchester Metropolitan University in the politics section of the department of history, politics and philosophy, in an exclusive interview makes a point on whether the Trump administration differs from previous U.S. governments, responding to key matters concerning U.S. foreign policy.
For years you have been researching, writing and teaching on U.S. foreign policy, which is your area of specialization. In one of your books you handled theories/approaches concerning U.S. cold war foreign policy, and you evaluated/criticized these theories. Corporatism, which in general emphasizes the cooperation between politicians in Washington and American business sectors, was one of them. Would you think that the common idea that American foreign policy makers and giant companies shape U.S. foreign relations together is acceptable?
Corporatism, as understood in diplomatic history, suggests a particular form of state-business cooperation in a relatively specific period of history - the 1920s to the 1940s. Because corporatist theory is based on the existence of a specific stage in the evolution of capitalism; it is problematic to suppose that we can apply the concept to the contemporary world. Corporatism had at its core an ideology of “productionism.” According to this view, the economic conflicts of the 1920s and 1930s were a product of insufficient material wealth leading to class conflict as groups struggled to increase their share of that wealth. By developing techniques to ensure sustained economic growth, without the recurrent recessions that produced economic conflict, officials believed they could ensure that all economic groups could gain simultaneously and thus that class conflict could be minimized. That sustained economic growth would be secured by allowing the market (and business) to control the processes of production while the state contributed via counter-cyclical fiscal and monetary policies to mitigate the risks of boom and slump. In foreign policy, the objective was to create an international economic system based along similar lines in order to avoid the kind of global economic crash that had led to the Great Depression, economic nationalism, the rise of Nazism and, ultimately, the Second World War.
Corporatism is thus based around what we might call a Keynesian understanding of how to manage the economy at both a national and a global level. As such, it has questionable relevance to the contemporary world where Keynesian ideas still remain somewhat out of fashion. Clearly, there is a relationship between the American state and business, and serving the interests of American business will always be an objective of the U.S. government, if only because the fate of governments hinges largely on their ability to provide for the welfare of their citizens through the fostering of economic growth. Conceptualizing the exact nature of that relationship in the early 21st Century is more difficult. On the one hand the biggest corporations are more powerful than they have ever been, and not just economically. The ability of giant technology companies to influence politics is now enormous. On the other hand, it is too simplistic to suggest that politicians, and U.S. foreign policy, are somehow controlled by those corporations. Trump's imposition of tariffs on Europe and China, for example, clearly benefits only a relatively-limited segment of the U.S. business sector, and is opposed by most of the internationally-oriented American corporations.
Overall, therefore, I would suggest that it is certainly true that the U.S. government works with major corporations and seeks to promote their interests, but that is to be expected of any government. In doing so, however, the behavior of the American state is not determined by big business, as Trump's actions demonstrate.
So, corporatism helps explain Washington’s decision-making on global context to some extent. What about the incumbent U.S. government? Would you think that we have already been drawn into an almost new kind of Cold War?
I guess I have already answered this question to some extent in my first answer. I certainly don't think Trump's actions can be explained by his responsiveness to 'big business'. Most internationally-oriented and competitive U.S. business sectors do not support the tariffs Trump has imposed. His actions would seem to be driven primarily by political considerations and a desire to respond to the demands of his white working-class base in states in the U.S. “Rust Belt.”
What is the striking difference between the Trump administration and previous American administrations in terms of collaborating with allies and challenging rivals?
Trump is, albeit without any real, thought-through ideology, an old-fashioned right-wing American nationalist of the kind who really hasn't been anywhere near power since the 1930s and 1940s. Someone like Charles Lindbergh or Robert Taft might be an appropriate analogy. In terms of the schools of thought outlined by Walter Russell Mead, he would best be defined as a “Jacksonian” - populist, nationalist, xenophobic; distrustful of elites of all kind (including business elites) and hostile to free trade. Jacksonians believe that the U.S. is uniquely virtuous but have no interest in seeking to extend the benefits of their system to others. They are isolationists by inclination, but if they feel threatened then their instinct is to respond with maximal violence.
The problem for Washington's allies is that the kinds of alliance relationships which have been central to U.S. foreign policy since 1945, like NATO, and the broadly free-trade philosophy which has governed U.S. global economic policy, are rooted in a quite different set of worldviews, blending liberalism and realpolitik. Trump doesn't share the underlying assumptions of those worldviews and hence he rejects the policies that follow from them. Liberals regard free trade as a positive-sum game and thus a good thing. They believe that it maximizes welfare overall even if certain sectors of the economy may be hurt by foreign competition in the process. Trump doesn't accept this (and probably does not understand the thinking behind it) and thus sees U.S. economic relationships with allies like Europe as fundamentally competitive rather than mutually beneficial. His hostility toward NATO comes from a similar place. All U.S. presidents have chafed at the failure of the European states to bear enough of the burden of collective defense, but they have accepted that “free-riding” as a cost worth paying because of the other benefits NATO brings – U.S. influence over its European allies, stability in Europe, and the containment of Russia. Trump just sees the costs and appears unable to grasp the benefits.
The US government announced not only its withdrawal from Paris Climate Accord but also unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. Both steps garnered much anger from Europe, mainly from Germany and France. Can we call it a kind of rivalry among the allies in the West in terms of raison d'etat?
Trump obviously poses a major problem for the leaders of Western Europe. His worldview is so at odds with theirs that it is extremely difficult to paper over the cracks and to maintain a façade of unity. I'm not sure that rivalry is quite the right word, since Europe does not actually have the full-spectrum of capabilities, or the necessary unity, to act as an effective rival to the U.S. Nevertheless, there is no disguising the extent to which this is now a relationship that is more conflictual than cooperative. As such it poses real challenges to Western Europe, not least in terms of security, where it has been used to relying on U.S. military power to compensate for its own limited abilities for decades.
As a specialist from the U.K. on U.S. politics, how do you see the “special relationship” between these two countries at the moment? Britain, after more than 40 years, decided to open a military base in the Persian Gulf to protect oil shipments in Euro-Asian routes. Is it because London, which has relied on Washington since the 1970s after the withdrawal from east of Suez, does not trust American policy makers anymore?
I don't think there is a special relationship and I'm not sure that there has ever really been one. The U.K. has certainly been an important U.S. ally over the years and this has, in turn, manifested itself in U.S. support for the U.K., but that support, and that relationship, has not been more 'special' than those that the US has had with other key allies like Germany or Japan.
I doubt that the opening of a base of this scale can really be seen as Britain preparing to go it alone. If anything, it is more likely an attempt to curry favor with Washington by demonstrating that the British, unlike the other Europeans, are not just going to “free-ride” on the U.S. military. It also reflects the continued belief of successive U.K. governments that the U.K. is a “major player on the world stage,” to quote Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson.
What advice would you give those who want to study US foreign policy? Where should they start from and what kind of methodology do you put forward for them?
Study what you want to study and don't get too hung up on what is or isn't fashionable. The same thing goes for theory and methods, though one needs to be aware of contemporary trends and understand that if your approach is not particularly in tune with the “zeitgeist” then it may make life a little bit harder for you.