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What’s Driving Donald? Trump and the Threat of New Wars

As Trump ratchets up the tension across the world, Chris Nineham looks at the causes of and consequences of the new US unilateralism

800px Donald Trump and Robert Wilkie

"Trump’s disruptive foreign policy instincts have been channelled by the foreign policy establishment who believe that multilateralism hasn’t worked for the US and who have a growing anxiety and fear about the increasing influence of other global powers, particularly Russia and China."


Trump’s presidency is disorientating as well as dangerous. Like his predecessor Obama, Trump claimed to be an opponent of at least some foreign wars in his election campaign. In office he has been enthusiastically confrontational, his policies and pronouncements triggering flashpoints from Korea to the Caucasus.

Some have stressed the extent to which he has broken with the past. Others, like Glen Greenwald, see mainly continuity. In a way this debate misses the point. The complication is this: Trump’s presidency is partly a product of the failure of the foreign wars from the US point of view, but it has also coincided with a new phase of war which attempts to put things right.

The Cost of Failure

Two reports released last week underline the epic futility of the last seventeen years of war. One, The Cost of War, produced by Brown University’s Watson Institute, shows that the US has spent just under six trillion dollars on wars and the military since 2001, a huge amount of it funded by borrowing.

This is four times the official government estimate of war spending. It amounts to about twice the annual total federal budget and averages out at about 20% of annual government spending since 2001. This indicates the extent to which the wars have contributed to the current crisis in US society.

The other report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, shows that the number of Sunni based militants has increased by four times over the same period. Most of them are active in the wake of Western interventions in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Somalia.

In any half way sensible world, the almost unimaginably expensive trail of carnage and trauma created by the wars, ending with such failure, would have led to a complete rethink.

The New Escalation

Not so here. One of the things that’s interesting about The Cost of War report is that current spending is going up under Trump, and it is now equivalent to that of 2004, at the height of the occupation of Iraq. The US is still engaged at some level in all of the war zones it has helped create since 9/11. And its engagement is growing. Troop numbers have risen to 14,000 in Afghanistan. Last year a record 20,000 US bombs were dropped in Iraq and Syria. The number of troops in Eastern Europe is growing and their concentrations are moving Eastward. There are now US troops stationed 80 miles from St Petersburg.

On top of all this, Trump’s brinkmanship and many of his actual policies have been marked by a unilateral, disruptive approach. He is confrontational with enemies and dismissive of at least some international institutions and agreements. After threatening nuclear war with North Korea earlier in the year he scrapped the nuclear deal with Iran and provocatively moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Since then he has scrapped the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, as well as ratcheting up tension with China, not to mention provocatively supporting right-wing regimes and movements from Northern Europe to Latin America.

He has of course also deepened US support for Saudi Arabia just at the time when Saudi is leading the devastating war on Yemen. This is a war which has created the biggest humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world and risks a catastrophe on a completely new level. Trump is disarmingly honest about his motives. He said this to explain his disinterest in any serious investigation into the Khashoggi affair:

“The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region…Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. Of the $450 billion [the Saudis plan to spend with U.S. companies], $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors.”

This high stakes unilateralism is likely to be encouraged by the results of mid-term elections. Losses in the House of Representatives were offset by some Republican gains in the Senate. This means Trump’s domestic room to manoeuvre has been limited. But foreign policy is largely agreed by the Senate and therefore the temptation will be to use it to please his base.

Understanding Unilateralism

Trump's surprise election as someone who reflects discontent – however distorted - with the neoliberal, war-supporting elites has created some disarray in the corridors of power. Trump is by instinct a disrupter. There are real tensions with the bulk of big capital over his trade policy. But this new foreign policy isn’t just or mainly a result of an erratic, reactionary character in the White House concerned to please a xenophobic base.

Trump’s disruptive foreign policy instincts have been channelled by the foreign policy establishment who believe that multilateralism hasn’t worked for the US and who have a growing anxiety and fear about the increasing influence of other global powers, particularly Russia and China.

These anxieties are there in a range of foreign policy documents and discussions including this year’s national security strategy report. This stresses that it is ‘state powers’ as opposed to ‘non-state actors’ that are once again the main enemies of the US and that there is a real danger of losing military edge to China in ‘in every domain of warfare’.

Such anxieties are playing out most seriously in the continuing struggle for control in the Middle East. There, the US is forging ahead with an anti-Iranian alliance uniting Saudi with some of the Gulf states and Israel. The alliance is aimed against Chinese and Russian influence in the area as much as anything else but the tensions it creates are being felt around the world.

A growing proportion of the increased military spending is focussing on not just hemming China in but developing ‘war at sea’ strategies that aimed at taking out all of Chinese military capacities including game planning what they charmingly refer to as ‘all or nothing war’. These are policies that, in general terms at least, have cross-party support in Congress.

Trailing Trump

Britain is the major power most supportive of Trump and the new US foreign policy posture. The new head of the Army General Mark Carleton-Smith recently repeated verbatim the US line that Russia poses a greater threat than ISIS.

Britain is playing the strongest supporting role it can on all fronts. It is deeply implicated not just in arming but actually fighting in Yemen, it is the main European supporter of NATO escalation in Eastern Europe. Defence secretary Gavin Williamson is pushing a far eastern strategy in which British forces play the most active possible role in blockading North Korea and helping to patrol the South China seas. Should it take place, a Tory Brexit will deepen this tendency, because the British establishment will see NATO as key to maintaining power and influence in Europe.

If this new unilateralism has created a series of alarming flashpoints over the year, it is also causing all kinds of turbulence in the western alliance. In a darkly symbolic moment, the centenary armistice celebrations were overshadowed by a spat between Trump and Macron over plans for a new European Defence Force. In this debate, Britain is standing shoulder to shoulder with Trump.

The Limits of US Power

Such divisions point to fundamental problems for Trump and his team. Threatening on so many fronts, he has yet to be very effective on any. He was pulled back from the brink over North Korea. As even his advisors recognised, he had been outmanoeuvred by South Korean President Moon and US intervention was opposed by the vast majority of Koreans in both the North and South. Russia has effectively reasserted its power in Syria, and various powers are challenging the new sanctions regime on Iran.  

The new US unilateralism is also creating a strong popular pushback in the West. Recent polls show 58% of the US population want arms sales to Saudi wound down. In Britain, we were able to mobilise a quarter of a million people against Trump’s visit. We also have a Labour leader who is openly against foreign wars. While many MPs and even a large part of the shadow cabinet are hostile to Corbyn’s principled anti-war positions, he has the support of the majority of the members. Delegates at Labour’s conference in the autumn showed huge support for anti-war politics, enthusiastically waving Palestinian flags, loudly cheering calls for an end to the war in Yemen and packing out anti-war fringe meetings.

The anti-war movement has a big opportunity. To take it, we need to turn this widespread anti-war sentiment into activity. We should approach every Labour Party, every trade union branch to back the campaign to Stop arming Saudi. We need public meetings and street petitioning on the subject everywhere. We need to build serious protests. We can create immense pressure on the government over this issue. With an anti-war leader waiting in the wings we might in fact be part of speeding May’s demise.

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