There is nothing entirely new under the sun when it comes to US presidents and US military power, at least since the end of World War II. All American presidents, whatever their political inclinations, preside over a quasi-imperial system of military power that spends spends more than twice as much on the military as the rest of the world put together. They take it for granted that America has the ability to destroy any country in the world many times over; that America, and only America, can maintain military bases pretty much wherever in the world it chooses; that it can use its military power whenever and wherever it chooses; that it can ‘intervene’ in the internal affairs of any state it chooses, and can act whenever it sees it necessary to eliminate potential threats or regional ‘challengers’ to its global dominance.
Some presidents, such as Reagan and George W. Bush, depict this military power as an instrument of divine will, that is always used for benign ends in moral confrontations between good and evil – a rhetorical tradition that reaches all the way back to the ‘evil empire’ to the ‘axis of evil’ and ‘moral clarity’ espoused by Bush’s two administrations.
Most presidents have tried to align with the wider interests of the ‘free world’, the ‘West’, civilization, the international liberal order etc, and many US allies share this assumption, at least most of the time. Even when pursuing American economic or strategic interests, the more intelligent US administrations have always prefer to project military power within a multilateral format, building coalitions and working within international organisations like NATO or the United Nations where possible.
When this is not possible, or when these organisations don’t behave the way the United States wants them to behave, then it will act alone, perhaps dragging in a few partners as a multilateral fig leaf. Given these precedents, we shouldn’t be entirely surprised by Donald Trump’s performance at the UN yesterday. As in George Bush’s big international speeches there was a lot of theology and God, accompanied by Old Testament divisions of a world divided between the ‘righteous many’ and the ‘wicked few.’
Taking a cue from Flannery O’Connor, Trump even warned that some nations were already ‘going to hell’. There were some spectacularly crude explanations for this hellishness, from Trump’s suggestion that ‘international criminal gangs… force dislocation and mass migration; threaten our borders’ to his crude analysis of Venezuelan ‘socialism.
There was also a lot of emphasis on about ‘sovereignty’, and ‘sovereign nations’, such as the assertion that ‘Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny, and strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.’
Such observations have been interpreted by some commentators as a reaffirmation of the old ‘Westphalian’ international order after the R2P interventionism of the last few decades. This is giving Trump far more coherence and credibility than he will ever deserve. One minute he was suggesting that the best way to ensure international order was to allow ‘sovereign’ states to act selfishly. At the same time he persistently singled out members of the ‘wicked few’ such as Syria, Iran and Venezuela, because of the way their governments treated their ‘own people.
At one point, Trump told his audience that military action might be necessary against Iran, not only because of its supposed role in exporting ‘ violence, bloodshed and chaos’ – something the US itself knows a great deal about – but also because ‘The longest suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are in fact its own people.’
So are we ‘Westphalian’ or still ‘post-Westphalian’? No point in asking Trump because he probably doesn’t know. Still it’s worth remembering that R2P was never the altruistic ‘post-Westphalian’ phenomenon it was supposed to be. After all, the US had been intervening in the affairs of other states for decades before such ‘humanitarian’ interventions were justified as an international ‘responsibility’ that supposedly overrode the notion of the sovereign Westphalian state.
From Clinton to Obama, the US flirted with R2P when it suited its national interests or geopolitical agendas, ignoring some dictatorships and autocracies and only targeting the ones that were seen as potential ‘challengers’. Yesterday Trump was more or less arguing exactly the same thing. Nevertheless his speech left a lot of jaws dropping, and there was an unmistakable sense when it was over that the world had become a more dangerous, unstable and unpredictable place than it was when he took the podium.
Such anxieties aren’t entirely unfounded. American politicians have often reveled in their ability to ‘destroy’ countries that opposed them. A drunken Nixon once talked about nuking North Vietnam and flooding dykes. Hilary Clinton warned that the US could ‘obliterate’ Iran. John McCain composed a little ditty about doing the same thing. Even Obama once politely reminded Iranians that the US could destroy their country if it chose to.
Few presidents have issued such threats with the same bullying arrogance that Trump displayed yesterday. There was no talk of ‘regime change’ or ‘surgical strikes’ to ‘take out’ missile sites. Just a little joke about ‘Rocket Man’ and the casual, almost bored suggestion that the US might have ‘no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.’
Thus, with a little flourish of a speechwriter’s pen, 25 million lives were rendered worthless, invisible and disposable – to say nothing of the devastation and carnage that will spread through South Korea and beyond if anyone attempts to resolve this crisis militarily.
No doubt Trump would just munch on a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago through all that, but the rest of us should be genuinely alarmed to hear such bloodthirsty Al Capone-like language delivered at an institution that, for all its failings, still embodies the possibility collective security and multilateral, non-military solutions to international crises that was first mooted after World War I with the failed League of Nations. .
The US cannot be held uniquely responsible for the disastrous game of chicken that is now unfolding with Korea, but the Trump administration has made a bad situation worse and yesterday’s speech does not suggest that it has any intention of changing course. Trump declared yesterday that ‘No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.’ True, but the experience of the last two decades suggests that when it comes to the axis of evil, only countries that have them can guarantee their survival.
To say that this is not a desirable outcome does not even begin to describe it, but Trump’s frat-boy belligerence will do nothing to prevent it. And North Korea isn’t the only looming conflict on the horizon. Trump’s attack on the Iran nuclear deal made it clear that sections of the US military and political establishment are still intent on ripping up that agreement – regardless of whether there is any evidence to prove that Iran has breached it.
Trump is not interested in evidence. He is listening to Saudi Arabia, to the likes of John Bolton and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose applause blew like tumbleweed through the stunned auditorium yesterday, and that is very bad news indeed.
Because whether or not Trump has gone Westphalian, this is a president who combines the emotional empathy of a toddler with the instincts of Lucky Luciano and the military hardware of a superpower, and unless some serious diplomatic and popular pressure can be brought to bear on this administration soon, he and his fellow plotters stand a very good chance of unleashing precisely the kind of catastrophic confrontation he has been boasting about.