True to his portrayal as an anti-globalist isolationist, President Donald Trump intends to bring troops home from Syria and Afghanistan and avoid getting bogged down in future interminable wars. Belying his portrayal as an isolationist, Trump is aggressively beefing up America’s military and intervening seemingly everywhere around the globe — in Asia against North Korea and China; in Europe in disputes with his NATO allies; in the Middle East against Iran and Turkey; and in the Americas, most recently in Venezuela, where this week he recognized as president a rival to Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro.
In truth, Trump is neither an isolationist nor a war hawk. He believes, as did Ronald Reagan, in “peace through strength.” But unlike Reagan and other predecessors, Trump’s weapons of choice aren’t jet fighters and boots on the ground. Trump’s arsenal primarily employs economic weapons: tariffs, sanctions and cuts to international programs that don’t serve America’s interests.
Trump, the presumed isolationist, is proving to be anything but
Other presidents have used economic instruments in diplomacy to threaten or punish military rivals, but rarely with Trump’s conviction. Trump’s unprecedented tariffs against China are designed to thwart both its military ascent and its goal of supplanting America as the world’s dominant economy. His sanctions against North Korea are the toughest it has ever faced, as are his sanctions against Iran. In all these cases, the sanctions are having their desired effect: China’s economic growth has stalled, limiting its military’s ability to continue its rapid growth; North Korea has come to the negotiating table; and Iran is reeling, its economy in decline and suffering from high inflation.
While none have yet cried “uncle,” neither are they thriving as under the naïve policies of Trump’s predecessors, who funded North Korea’s nuclear program on the promise it wouldn’t be put to military use, who accepted China’s promise that it would trade by the rules once accepted into the World Trade Organization, and who not only lifted sanctions on Iran but supplied it with US$100 billion in exchange for Iran’s promise to delay completing its nuclear program.
All told, Trump has some 30 economic sanction programs in place and is threatening more, including against Turkey, a NATO ally, if it attacks the Kurds in Syria. Last year the U.S. did impose sanctions on Turkey for imprisoning an American pastor, Andrew Brunson — the first time the U.S. had ever imposed sanctions on a NATO ally. Trump has made another threat, too, to discipline a NATO ally: He threatens to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline designed to bring Russian gas to Germany, to prevent Germany from becoming overly dependent on Russian gas.
Trump also employs foreign aid to discipline countries and organizations in need of persuasion, among them Pakistan and Central American nations. When other presidents have done this, it has been widely known as “chequebook diplomacy,” because the U.S. would pull out its chequebook to bribe other countries to do its bidding. Trump-style chequebook diplomacy works in the opposite way — those that don’t comply see their funding cut back or cut off, as Trump has done to the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Relief and Work Agency,.
With wealthy countries, such as NATO members who aren’t pulling their weight in the defence of the West, Trump’s chequebook diplomacy requires the NATO deadbeats to pull out their own chequebooks and chip in their share — those chips so far add up to an extra US$1 billion. In the Middle East, it’s the turn of Saudi Arabia and other wealthy oil producers to pay for their local wars against Iran and its Shia allies. In Asia, wealthy Japan and South Korea are ponying up for U.S. military protection.
Trump, the presumed isolationist, is proving to be anything but. History will rank him among the most interventionist of U.S. presidents, along with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, famous for the motto, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” and for wielding that big stick in gunboat diplomacy. Trump’s motto should be “Speak loudly and carry a big stick.” His bluster may spare him the need to often wield that stick, and to dispatch the gunboats.
Lawrence Solomon is a policy analyst with Toronto-based Probe International.