During the 2016 presidential primary, Donald Trump distinguished himself from his opponents by stepping outside the boundaries of acceptable opinion on national security and foreign policy. “It’s one of the worst decisions in the history of the country,” he said of the Iraq War. “We have totally destabilized the Middle East.” (In typical family-first fashion, he credited the error to George W. Bush “being loyal to the father.”) The other Republican candidates clambered over one another to profess their outrage at Trump’s statement, but as was so often the case, he had read the room better than them. Large numbers of Republican voters had retreated from the confident jingoism of the 2000s into bitter laments for better days.
For some hoping to break apart the foreign policy consensus, this shift signaled an opening for a long-promised coalition of convenience: isolationists and anti-imperialists against the war machine. These hopes were further ignited by the hawkish credentials of Hillary Clinton, behind whom much of the defense establishment lined up—the deep state of Trump’s fevered dreams.
But if he was dovish on the war on terror, Trump amped up the aggression on other fronts. Central Americans and Mexicans were cast as literal invaders; Trump’s ugly anti-immigrant politics were foundational to his whole campaign. He also promised a fiery realization of the Obama era’s incomplete “pivot to Asia,” with explicit focus on the threat posed by China, as represented in trade imbalances and the long-term migration of industrial jobs. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing,” he said at a rally in May 2016. “It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.”
There was a through line in this assemblage of positions—less Trump Doctrine than Trump Mindset: somebody’s getting screwed, but it’s not going to be us. It was a mantra for a low-minded nationalism under the looming shadow of imperial decline.
In office, Trump pursued his zero-sum deal-making to mixed effect. Many of his Defense Department staff were characters in the usual range from defense centrist to unreconstructed neocon, and the administration didn’t undertake any major changes to military spending or operations. His trade warfare broke with recent orthodoxy but was far from an embrace of pre-neoliberal “protectionism”; as a number of scholars others have pointed out, the most direct precedent for Trump’s China strategy was the Reagan administration’s attempts to bully Japan to abandon industrial and trade policies it felt unfairly disadvantaged the United States. Trump’s immigration policies, by contrast, were notably horrific. While we can accurately characterize new miseries imposed on migrants from Central America as an extension of a longer-term border militarization, or the “Muslim ban” as the outcome of years of Islamophobic public rhetoric and the less discussed but equally arbitrary post-9/11 no-fly list, the Trump era marked a new and cruel apotheosis of American nativism, which did real harm to non-citizens living in or attempting to come to the United States.
Undergirding these foreign policy trends was Trump’s instinctual anti-multilateralism and reliance on personal judgments on the character of foreign leaders, acquired from decades spent in the petty-authoritarian family-capitalist milieu of real estate. He withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement. He reneged on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. That decision, along with the authorization of the assassination of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, seemed to precipitate in large part from Trump’s ties with Israeli leadership (fostered, again typically, by son-in-law Jared Kushner) and members of the Saudi royal family. Trump’s affinity for “strongmen” at times seemed proto-political: their projection of strength and ability to silence opponents represented a buried, unrealizable aspiration for someone like Trump—blabbering, feckless, and constantly mocked.
Trump’s patrimonial politics made minor inroads into the function of the modern American state, but they cannot outlast his term in office. The real test for his brand of post–American Century nationalism would rest on the capabilities of a future executive branch command cut from the same political cloth but more adept at bureaucratic maneuvering and more conscious of its goals.
This is not the future Joe Biden wants. The Democratic president-elect promises a restoration of American standing: hegemony maintained through the steady stewardship of international institutions that can overcome coordination problems and bring shared global prosperity. Biden speaks the idiom of benevolent American leadership with the rote ease of someone who has been in this game long before the Cold War ended.
But the times have changed, and not just because of the Trump disruption effect. The global growth machine is slowing, while climate change is accelerating, contributing to greater migration flows of desperate people that show no signs of abating. In Europe, heads of state publicly welcome Biden as a return to norms—which means, among other things, that the U.S. government might stop demanding they increase their financial commitments to NATO—while simultaneously entertaining ideas of “strategic autonomy.” In the Middle East, the stated U.S. goal is drawdown. Biden claims a desire to end the “forever wars” (a term that has moved from the antiwar margins to the policy mainstream) but seems likely to continue supporting special-ops expeditionary forces and drone warfare—the high-tech route to military preponderance at a time when the American public is less willing than ever to die for their country.
The antagonistic external focus of the United States has shifted definitively, however, to China—a process initiated under Obama and heightened under Trump, but which has as much to do with the course charted by the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping as any U.S. initiative. Biden, who spent multiple days with Xi in China in 2011 and played host to the general secretary on a friendly trip to the United States in 2012, called Xi a “thug” in February and made chauvinistic statements about Chinese responsibility for COVID-19 during the campaign. By some accounts, his administration will be slow to wind down any punitive Trump-era tariffs, even though there are no current plans to revive a strategic anti-Chinese trade bloc of the sort promised by the aborted Trans-Pacific Partnership. On the campaign trail in 2019, Biden said China was “not competition for us,” but there is a whiff of Sputnik-era anxiety in the air, including in mundane but crucial areas like China’s goal to set new technological standards, at a moment of U.S. policy paralysis.
Michèle Flournoy, whom many expected to become Biden’s defense secretary in the incoming administration, would have reflected this shift in focus. Flournoy co-authored a paper earlier this year with the Center for a New American Security (a think tank she cofounded in 2007) that detailed the domestic investments, technological advancements, and military preparations necessary to prevent further Chinese economic and territorial expansion. As for her proposal for a major overhaul in defense spending priorities, believe it when you see it. Many a military modernization plan in the United States has died in the face of interlocking defense contractors with strong congressional support and siloed military leadership reluctant to give up pet projects under their command. Flournoy, however, was passed over for Lloyd Austin, a retired army general whose selection seems to have more to do with pressure over a paucity of Black cabinet appointments than any substantive difference in geostrategic orientation. Like Flournoy, a member of the board of Booz Allen Hamilton, Austin has a number of ties to defense contractors, including a seat on Raytheon’s board.
While the effect of these interlocking institutional relationships can result in stultifying inertia and inflexibility, the U.S. exercise of power abroad remains less fettered than almost any other function of the American state, largely because the source of that power lies in unchecked executive authority. Still, the willingness of the Biden administration to rush headlong into that “New Cold War” we have heard so much about will be dampened by entanglements with no historical parallel in U.S.–Soviet relations: interconnected corporate production supply chains, Chinese ownership of U.S. sovereign debt, and a large American market for Chinese goods. Moreover, the U.S. dollar remains the global reserve currency in the absence of any plausible alternative; the Federal Reserve’s activities during the COVID-19 crisis have only deepened dollar supremacy, much as they did during the 2008–2009 financial crisis. Indications of decoupling in any of these domains remain preliminary, and U.S. global-financial hegemony continues to structure both domestic and international political economy. But it seems safe to assume that Xi’s China has longer-term goals to become, if not the indispensable nation, then one that dictates more than it reacts to the dictates of others—not least on issues like the brutal repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong—while the United States no longer possesses either state or capitalist capacity for long-term planning at all.
Pankaj Mishra recently wrote in the New York Review of Books that “understanding the contemporary world requires a truly global perspective. . . . It means forsaking the whole structure of preconceptions on which a parochial West-centric view has long been based.” This short essay has many omissions on this count, and barely scratches the surface elsewhere. For American leftists who believe in freedom and democracy and came up in a country that professed its commitment to those goals while frequently denying them to the majority of the world, Mishra’s statement presents an ethical and intellectual challenge. But it is a task made slightly easier by the many recent signs that U.S. hegemony, while not yet dead, will not last forever. The cracks are growing. Our continued responsibility is to build solidarity among the people ill-served by our failing state in ways that do not foreclose solidarity with people beyond it.
Nick Serpe is Dissent’s senior editor.
This piece was updated on 12/16/20 to reflect new developments.