United States

The military route

Print edition : January 19, 2018

Donald Trump at a “Make America Great Again” rally in Youngstown, Ohio, in July 2017. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor touches down at Gwangju Air Base, South Korea, on December 2. The two countries launched joint military exercises in December, a week after North Korea said it had tested its most advanced missile. Photo: U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

U.S. Army General John Nicholson at a military exercise in Logar province, Afghanistan, on November 30, 2017. Photo: REUTERS

A homeless woman sleeps on the street on December 22, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. Census data show that 40 million Americans—one in every eight Americans—live in poverty. Almost half that number live in what is known as “deep poverty”. Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP

Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Photo: REUTERS

The National Security Strategy, a 55-page document that calls for an America First strategy, offers privileges to American corporations and sees the U.S. military force as the salvation for U.S. power.

On December 18, the Donald Trump administration released the United States’ National Security Strategy. This document, like its predecessors, pledges to protect the privileges enjoyed by the U.S. That has been the enduring theme of these strategy documents since they first began to appear after the U.S. Congress (Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986) mandated that the President had to produce a vision for the maintenance of U.S. security.

In keeping with the general tenor of the Trump political project—encapsulated in the phrase “Make America Great Again”—this 55-page document called for an America First strategy. No other U.S. document has so obsessively used the adjective “American” as this. The strategy is to “protect the American people, the American way of life, and American interests”, or “A strong America is in the vital interest of the American people”. It is almost as if the constant repetition of the word “American” would somehow make America great again.

The strategy’s tenor is that the U.S. cannot be strong if the country’s economy is weak. To rejuvenate the economy, the Trump administration promises to harness innovation and entrepreneurship through low taxes and low regulations. A stronger economy would allow the U.S. to have a larger military, which, after all, is the basis for U.S. power in the world. A strong military is necessary to prevent any global rival from threatening the U.S.’ role as the sole superpower in the world. America First means, therefore, to put nationals of the U.S. first in any planning and to make sure that the U.S. remains first in an unequal world.

Economic Security

Trump’s entire economic agenda is premised on a bet. The strategy document recognises that U.S. corporations are holding back from investing in the U.S. They are hoarding trillions of dollars rather than putting that money to productive use. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the strategy document notes: “Risk aversion and regulations replaced investment and entrepreneurship.” Trump’s economics team has bet that reduced taxes and reduced regulations would encourage firms to invest in the U.S. and improve the fortunes of ordinary Americans.

Evidence for such a “trickle-down” policy is weak. All encouragement to U.S. corporations towards investment over the past decade has failed. Low interest rates have allowed corporations to borrow money from the government. But this money has not been converted into productive investments and then mass employment generation. Instead, firms are investing in sectors where high productivity rates and automation have discouraged job growth. Sections of the U.S. population devastated by outsourcing and by productivity growth have not seen any revitalisation.

Extreme poverty

No wonder that Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, produced a gut-wrenching report on poverty in the U.S. in the same week that Trump released his strategy document. Alston’s report reads, at times, like a poetic indicator of the hopelessness in sections of U.S. society: “I met with many people barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles. I witnessed a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to. I saw sewage filled yards in states where governments don’t consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility. I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programmes available to the poor. I met with people in the South of Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them bringing illness, disability and death.”

Census data show that 40 million Americans—one in every eight Americans—live in poverty. Almost half that number live in what is known as “deep poverty”. Alston read the tax bill that the U.S. Congress has now passed and finds that it “stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world”. Reverend William Barber, a Protestant minister and political leader from North Carolina, is now on the road with a new Poor People’s Campaign, raising awareness about poverty and the moral collapse of the U.S. state and society. As Reverend Barber puts it, there can be no economic security in a country if the poorest are utterly marginal from all such visions.

What is the real threat to the citizen of the U.S.? Is it North Korea or is it the dire threat of poverty and hunger? Trump signals that he cares for the well-being of the citizens, but, in fact, the strategy document suggests that ordinary Americans should worry about North Korea while the government provides for its most powerful corporations. The Trump administration’s policies “allow families to live without fear, and permit markets to thrive”. That is the most honest line in the document. Americans need to worry about North Korea, while large corporations will benefit from tax cuts.

‘Revisionists, Rogues, Jehadists’

Who are the ghouls that the Trump administration points towards? The Trump administration sees the world exactly as every previous administration has since the end of the Cold War. In fact, they use the same terms to define the threats—“revisionist powers” (Russia and China) seek to prevent U.S. hegemony; “rogue states” (North Korea and Iran) need regime change; “jehadist terrorist groups” need to be pummelled by the full force of U.S. power. There is nothing strikingly original about the enemies seen by the Trump administration.

Previous administrations, at least since the time of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have understood that there has been a decline in U.S. power. They have tried to assert U.S. power through use of its military force—through the endless “War on Terror”—and through the use of multilateral trade agreements. Obama pushed hard for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to prevent China from having a role in writing trade rules. The consensus in the U.S. is on hardening intellectual property laws and using anti-piracy rules to constrain China’s attempt to move from a labour-intensive manufacturing hub to a high-technology-driven industrial powerhouse. Both Bush and Obama struggled to assert U.S. power against China. Both ended up where Trump is currently at, namely the strategy to use U.S. military power as a way to intimidate countries such as China into acceding to trade regimes that benefit the U.S. over any other country in the world.

Trump’s strategy calls upon the U.S. government to “improve American influence” around the world and to strengthen the military so that “American superiority endures”. Just as this report came out, the U.S. government made the ill-advised decision to call for the shifting of its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This angered many countries around the world, notably staunch U.S. allies in the Arab world. A resolution sponsored by Egypt went to the U.N. Security Council, which the U.S. vetoed, and then a resolution sponsored by Turkey and Yemen (with Saudi Arabia and the UAE backing it) went to the U.N. General Assembly, where it passed with a large majority. Most of the countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America voted against the U.S. resolution, despite the attempt by the Trump administration to threaten countries that voted for the Palestinians. This was hardly going to “improve American influence”. In fact, with the U.S.’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), U.S. influence is at its weakest in a generation. With the U.S. government cutting its expenditure on diplomacy, it is likely that “American influence” will wane even more.

What is left is war. The strategy document mirrors the U.S.’ budgetary decisions. In both, it is the U.S. military and military force that is seen as salvation for U.S. power. Trump has aggressively increased expenditure on the U.S. military, already the most well-funded military force in the world. The U.S. military is better funded than the eight next best funded militaries combined (this includes China and Russia). The increase in U.S. military spending by Trump is itself the total amount Russia spends on its military in a year. “We must convince adversaries that we can and will defeat them—not just punish them if they attack the United States.” This is a powerful line in the strategy document—that the U.S. aims to build up its military so that it can defeat its adversaries. To even consider the U.S. at war with Russia or China—two nuclear powers—is bizarre; to believe that one could defeat them is hallucinogenic.

India as an ally

For the past two decades, the U.S. has attempted to knit together alliances with countries that would be hostile to Russia and China. India is one such country. The new Trump document says that the U.S. should “deepen our strategic partnership with India” and help “South Asian nations maintain their sovereignty as China increases its influence in the region”. It says baldly that the Indo-U.S. relationship is premised on American anxiety over Chinese influence. India is merely a pawn in the game. It is much the same case with Europe, where the U.S. seeks allies, particularly in Eastern Europe, to “counter Russian subversion”. In the Western hemisphere and in Africa, it is China and Russia that are the threats, and alliances are in order to hold them back. Countries are not seen for what they are but for how they can help the U.S. maintain its role as the singular superpower. If India, Argentina, Rwanda and Poland wish to deliver themselves as doormats for American power, then they will be welcomed by the Trump administration as friends of the U.S. Their own agendas are meaningless. There is no room for them in this strategic vision.

To put “America First” seems, at best, to offer privileges to American corporations and to the U.S. military, both of whom are now tasked with undermining other countries to the advantage of U.S. business. There is even a suggestion that U.S. government agencies must “improve their understanding of worldwide Science & Technology trends and how they are likely to influence or undermine American strategies and programs”. These trends, gained through espionage of one kind or another, are to be handed over to American enterprise. This is how Trump understands free markets. The U.S. government and U.S. military are at its service, as long as American business comes out ahead.

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