Governments around the world are fixated on the apparent struggle in Washington over President Trump’s foreign policy: Will the ethno-nationalism of Stephen K. Bannon dominate, or the traditional muscular conservatism of Vice President Pence? Evidence for each side could easily be found in Trump’s address to Congress last week, which echoed Pence’s praise of NATO while proclaiming, Bannon-like, that “my job is not to represent the world.”
America may indeed be first in Trump’s world — but what the world is beginning to realize is that this Beltway battle won’t be confined to Washington. U.S. allies and adversaries may do as much to shape Trump’s eventual direction as debates in the White House situation room.
To begin with, targets of Bannon’s would-be civilizational war are showing they have the means to push back. Take Iraq, which last week appeared to have succeeded in getting an exemption from the new draft of Trump’s ban on visitors from select Muslim-majority nations. Following the issuance of the first ban — a pure Bannon production — the Iraqi parliament voted to impose a similar kibosh on Americans, while Iran’s proxies pushed for the expulsion of U.S. troops fighting the Islamic State.
No doubt Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made the case to Trump, contra Bannon, that to lump Iraq with Yemen, Somalia and Sudan would be to hamstring the war against the Islamic State and hand an easy victory to Iran. But the Iraqi government’s own words and actions surely helped tip the balance. With its removal, the rationale for a U.S. policy based on Bannon’s showdown between “Judeo-Christian” America and “radical Islam” took a significant hit.
Next comes Mexico, which in the radical version of America-firstism becomes a perpetual whipping boy for economic grievances and a dumping ground for unwanted aliens. Only, as Mexican officials have since made clear to Trump’s envoys, they too have the means to fight back. The government of Enrique Peña Nieto could refuse to accept deportees without proof of their Mexican citizenship — something that could tie up U.S. immigration courts for years and slow transfers to a crawl. Or it could cease cooperation in stopping the flow across its southern border of Central Americans — who make up much of the current illegal alien traffic. To avoid a surge of alien arrivals and a choking off of deportations, Trump may have to curtail Bannon’s “economic nationalism” and its assault on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Not only allies will have an influence. Bannon’s vision of a new world where nationalist regimes strike bilateral deals assumes that such partnerships can be forged with countries outside of the traditional Western alliances — starting with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But what if Putin proves unable to deliver on the much-discussed alliance against “radical Islam”? To join with Trump in Syria or Iraq, Putin would have to break with Iran, the enemy that all in Trumpland agree on. But it is Iran’s Shiite militias that are defending Russia’s Syrian bases, and Iran that is purchasing billions of dollars’ worth of Russian weapons. Putin can’t and won’t turn on Tehran — and without a Russian partnership, another piece of Bannon’s new global alignment crumbles to dust.
The tipping point in U.S. policy — and maybe in the history of the West — will likely come in a string of elections this year in Western Europe: the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy. Bannon’s nationalist allies will be on the ballots, advocating bans on immigration and the dismantlement of the European Union. If one or more of them wins, the Bannon world could be upon us.
For now, though, the odds are that none will. Geert Wilders has faded to second in polls of the Dutch election next week, and few believe he will be able to form a government even if he prevails. Marine Le Pen might win the first round of the French presidential vote on April 23, but a poll last week showed that she, too, had fallen to second behind Emmanuel Macron, a self-described “radical centrist” and supporter of the European Union and NATO. Even before that flip, a statistical analysis by the Economist put Le Pen’s chances to win the May runoff at under 5 percent.
As for Germany, if staunchly pro-European Union Chancellor Angela Merkel loses the fall election, it will be to Social Democrat Martin Schulz, who has adopted the explicitly anti-Trump slogan “make Europe great again.”
By autumn, Trump may find himself in a world with a strengthened and confirmed European Union, an uncooperative Russia and a continuing, irregular war with the Islamic State that requires more cooperation than ever with Iraq and the other Muslim-majority nations on his travel-ban list. That would be a world in which only a Pence foreign policy could succeed — though in the chaos presidency of Donald Trump, it doesn’t mean Bannon will lose out.
Read more on this topic: