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Quo Vaditis, Civitates Foederatae Americae?

Quo Vaditis, Civitates Foederatae Americae? An Analysis of the Significance of Donald Trump’s Victory in the US Presidential Elections

No. 2, Nov.-Dec. 2016 » UNCOVERstory

The morning of November 9, 2016 bore witness to what most media trusts from the US and abroad, and many observers from around the world, from ordinary citizens to Hollywood celebrities and politicians at the highest level, thought possible only in an alternate dimension where logic, reason and probably nature itself obey principles completely alien to our own: famous businessman, media personality and Republican Party nominee Donald J. Trump won the US Presidential Elections, garnering more electoral votes than his more politically experienced opponent, Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party, wife of former US President Bill Clinton.

Future ex-businessman vs. former First Lady

This year’s presidential campaign was, we might say, bizarre, perhaps even more bizarre than that between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008. Back then, both candidates sported much more impressive profiles as potential presidents of the US. McCain, running for the Republican Public, was a respected Vietnam War veteran, born in a family of career officers, and served as senator, while future US President Obama was a talented speaker, with a presidential campaign of exquisite design and execution, himself a sitting Senator and a Harvard-educated lawyer. This year’s elections, on the other hand, pitted together an intriguing pair of adversaries: the TV star versus the politician; the billionaire against the former Secretary of State and senator; isolationism versus expansionism; protectionism against openness to trade; populism facing off with politics, and one of the world’s most powerful and well-known tycoons against the former First Lady of the United States. Two unlikely contenders, whose views were at loggerheads on most accounts, and the victory of either would also have marked a first in the history of US Presidents: Hillary Clinton would have been the first woman to become president of the US, as well as the first president to be married to a former US president, while Donald Trump is the first US president with a completely non-political background.

The difference between the two was meagre, with Clinton winning the popular vote by about 3 million counted votes. Yet, to many people, Donald Trump’s victory came as a shock. International reactions to this outcome came shortly thereafter and were, as expected, deeply divided: the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, Israel’s prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu and the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, saluted the victory, whereas German chancellor Angela Merkel was more restrained and cautious, expressing her hope that the US and Germany can maintain a close cooperation based on equal values including respect for people’s dignity regardless of origin, religion and gender, a nod to Trump’s often radical position on the topic of immigrants and his plan to wall off the border with Mexico. France reacted similarly, and François Hollande feels that a “period of uncertainty” has been instated following the election of Trump. Hollande had previously openly endorsed Clinton, according to al-Jazeera [1].

“A house divided against itself cannot stand”

It is a scenario that Americans are likely not quite familiar with: the votes cast on Election Day were not so much for a candidate as they were against the other.

Perhaps the word that best describes the overall theme of this campaign is “division”: a divided America, a wedge inserted among its citizens in the wake of certain internal policies of the Obama administration, of the wave of immigrants seeking refuge or the American Dream in the US, bringing along all manner of risks and concerns, and two candidates that highlighted this division and the polarization of opinions within the population and each other. It is a scenario that Americans are likely not quite familiar with: the votes cast on Election Day were not so much for a candidate as they were against the other. Few voted for Clinton because her agenda had won the hearts of many Americans – her programme can be seen as a legacy of Obama’s presidency or, in other words, more of the same. Many did vote for her, nevertheless, because Trump seemed like the worse alternative and too great a danger to be handed so much power. Similarly, many who voted for Trump did so due to their disillusionment with Barack Obama’s presidency and to Clinton’s weak popular influence that failed to convince the citizens that she is the leader that America needs.

A first question to be raised is what does this result mean? To many onlookers, Donald Trump’s victory came as a surprise, when we judge the US, known as a paragon of liberty, diversity, equality of people in terms of rights and a staunch defender of the individual’s inalienable dignity regardless of ethnicity, gender or religion, against the discourse of the newly elected president. Donald Trump led an aggressive campaign, his speech rather resembling something that would have been considered perfectly normal for a cowboy in the Wild West: he defied the boundaries of genteel discourse even when speaking of his opponent, made allegedly racist comments and extremely controversial remarks, proposed solutions that would have made the hairs of the founding fathers of the US, and of any human rights advocate, stand on edge, such as: banning access on US territory of any Muslim, close surveillance of US citizens originating from “terrorist states and nations” (i.e. mostly Muslims); building a wall along the US-Mexican border to limit the inflow of illegal Mexican immigrants; authorizing the use of torture in the war against terrorists, and even assassinating the families of potential jihadists to discourage them from adhering to militant movements, as reported by the French media outlet Le Monde. [2]

The establishment gets no passing grade

Donald Trump was therefore a test – more specifically, a test and a consequence. He was a test for the American political class and its capacity to produce a leader capable of taking the reins in a troubled domestic and international context. The fact that neither the Republicans, nor the Democrats could spawn such a leader to prevail against Trump marks the failure of the political class of the United States to offer an adequate solution. Furthermore, Trump is the consequence of a disillusioned, divided and dissatisfied America, frustrated with the current state of affairs but uncertain of the change it wants; a barometer of the population’s feelings to Barack Obama’s performance as president, who entered office against the backdrop of the financial crisis of 2007 - 2008 and the ensuing economic recession which many Americans felt he failed to manage effectively in their interest. The US foreign policy was likewise met with very mixed reactions – we therefore have citizens that wanted to continue along the same line with Hillary Clinton and others who wanted a change, a change that Donald Trump promised.

[Donald Trump] was a test for the American political class and its capacity to produce a leader capable of taking the reins in a troubled domestic and international context.

When analysing the differences between Clinton and Trump in this light, the initial shock of the result begins to fade away. Trump’s victory was practically attained by speculating the frustration and dissatisfaction of the American citizens. His campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again”, showing an awareness that there was a certain undercurrent among the US electorship that the US has lost its former economic, diplomatic and social prestige and status. There is no doubt such a feeling among the population – the US was involved since the beginning of the millennium in military operations in the Middle East with mediocre results: instead of stabilising the region and consolidating the US as a mediating force in the region as well as a promoter of development and openness, the US-led military campaigns worsened the state of affairs, created a breeding ground for terrorist groups and movements, failed to prevent the deepening of sectarian fragmentation in Iraq, and significantly damaged the image of the US abroad, as it is now perceived as an imperialistic, power-hungry invading force, to say nothing of the huge expenses generated by these military initiatives and the public opprobrium following allegations of human rights violations by the American military and the CIA. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 and its socio-economic effects, with the reaction of the public opinion (such as the Occupy Wall Street movement) contributed to this situation.

“Enemies, both foreign and domestic”

In this context, Trump’s intransigent, uncompromising attitude, despite its radical and often questionable content, was what America needed to hear to feel that the possibility of a change for the better was at hand, to veer off a course leading to a dead end. In uneasy times, people typically want a decisive and determined leader, a “product” that Trump provided. He suggested, as mentioned above, the authorisation of torture in dealing with terrorists and closer surveillance of US citizens of what he views as “dubious” origins, whereas Clinton warned against the dangers that these measures might entail, including an increase in the recruiting base of jihadist groups; she’s likely correct, but for the American citizens who fears for their safety, for their family’s safety and for their community’s safety, security comes first, and immigrants, especially illegal ones, pose all kinds of threats.

Trump’s assertion that the US shouldn’t guarantee ex officio the security of other NATO member states unless they pay their dues as NATO allies was a reply to this object of discontentment, a manner of underscoring the importance of the US by suggesting on the one hand that it’s the international partners of the US that should knock on the gates of the White House, and not a unilateral obligation of the US to act as a safeguard of other countries’ interests; on the other hand, it was also a signal that the US would focus more on its internal issues. Moreover, Trump reckons that Russia is in a much better position to intervene in the Middle East, and that the US should decrease the extent of its involvement. Given that 57% of American citizens believe the economy is in a much worse state than it really is, and with thousands of soldiers having returned home either psychologically traumatised, mutilated or in a coffin, these statements made by Trump, while disquieting for Europe, are met with approval from Americans, who do not want their children, spouses, parents or siblings to fight the wars of partners and parties that do not honour these sacrifices. On the contrary, Clinton claimed that counteracting Russia’s expansionism is paramount, with NATO a key instrument in this regard and that the US needs to intensify its military presence in Syria and the Near East.

With these isolationist and protectionist policies, bundled together under his “America First” principle, Trump promises to restructure the international trade and diplomatic architecture of the US in such a way that American interests will once again be American interests and be respected accordingly.

Donald Trump’s protectionist projects aim at another concern of the American population – that of immigrants which, as far as popular opinion goes, threatens to crowd out the American workforce and increase the unemployment rate. As a matter of fact, unemployment has dropped to slightly below 5%, yet in the perception of the population things appear worse than that, and the dangers presented by immigrants (especially the illegal ones and thus cheaper in terms of expenses on the employer’s part) are seen as proportionally worse. These dangers compound, of course, the security risks associated with immigrants, namely an increase in the crime rate and the infiltration of terrorist cells to strike on American soil. At the same time, local producers will not oppose trade barriers against foreign companies that will relax competition. With these isolationist and protectionist policies, bundled together under his “America First” principle, Trump promises to restructure the international trade and diplomatic architecture of the US in such a way that American interests will once again be American interests and be respected accordingly. Hillary Clinton took the opposite stance, expressing her support for openness to trade and expanding the agreements the US has thus far concluded with international partners, while making promises for a vast, comprehensive reform for immigrants to include them in American society.

Another one of Trump’s key points in his campaign was his commitment to abolish the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as the “Obamacare” law, an extremely controversial project seeking to reform the US healthcare system that resulted in an increase in the insurance premiums for many Americans, in some cases even as high as 100%. Besides the mixed reviews and numerous critiques from citizens and specialists, this initiative did not receive much support from either the Democrats or the Republicans. We also shouldn’t overlook the orientation of the American culture towards personal responsibility for one’s own welfare and wellbeing, meaning that the Obamacare project struck a nerve and was seen as an unwelcome intrusion in the individual’s unassailable territory. Not only that, but Trump announced that he planned on introducing tax cuts, which brought him not only support from the general population, but from the business sector, as well as from those aspiring to start their own business, whereas Hillary Clinton stated she would increase the tax rate for the wealthy and will raise the minimum wage to $12 per hour.

Striking a neglected chord

[Hillary Clinton] failed to establish herself in the mindscape of the electorate as a leader who can get things done, as important as this attribute is in the pragmatic, results-oriented American culture.

Last but not least, Trump’s image, compared to Clinton’s, was also an important factor in steering the voters’ choice to “The Donald”: Trump represents the American dream – he’s wealthy, powerful, influential, runs his own successful business and is his own boss. Everything the average Joe wants to become is incarnated in Donald Trump’s persona – independence, power, and success. The TV series The Apprentice comes to mind, where experienced professionals competed for high-level positions in Trump’s enterprise, and Trump himself was the one to knock competitors that didn’t meet expectation out of the show, using his famous “You’re fired!”; Donald Trump’s image as a leader bestowed upon him a great advantage against Hillary Clinton, who was and is perceived as a woman who has lived in the shadow of two men: Bill Clinton, her husband and former President of the United States, and Barack Obama, during whose term she served as Secretary of State. Her political career and public identity are indissolubly bound to a significant extent to the administrations of these two men, especially the role of her husband as a launching pad for her subsequent political reinvention as a New York Senator. She failed to establish herself in the mindscape of the electorate as a leader who can get things done, as important as this attribute is in the pragmatic, results-oriented American culture. In contrast, throughout his campaign, Trump repeatedly said that he knew how to deal with problems, that he had the ability to fix them, and that he will do it. That is what the electorship retained most clearly from his speeches.

Briefly put, Donald Trump tackled the US elections as a business problem: what does the citizen want? What are the qualities they seek in the product called “The President of the United States of America”? He promoted himself on the elections market using convincing marketing strategies, and the client – that is, the voting citizen – validated this product with his vote.

Paul on the road to Damascus

That said it remains to be seen if and how he will deliver this product, and to restate this article’s title, quo vadunt Civitates Foederatae Americae? Where to shall the United States now go? What does this victory mean for the future of the US and its impact on US foreign policy and, by extension, on international affairs? Some of Trump’s foreign policy objectives have been mentioned in the previous paragraphs: improving relations with Russia, diminishing the US military presence in the Middle East, and conditioning its support for other NATO countries to the extent to which the latter acquit themselves of their obligations as members of the Alliance. We add to this his intention to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran to gain more concessions from it, while promising more support for Israel. However, as much as he intends to withdraw American forces from the Middle East (as he criticized the 2003 invasion of Iraq during George W. Bush’s term as President), he plans on intensifying it in the South China Sea, as geopolitically problematic as that region is. Trump has often stated his hostility towards China, citing “foul play” and using “dirty tactics” such as intellectual property theft, artificially manipulating currency, and employing cyberattacks, threatening China with steeper trade barriers and with a willingness to engage China in a trade war.

Trump has also harshly criticized the European Union for the ineffectiveness he perceives in it, lauding the British population for opting out of it, and he opined that EU countries should pay for US military support. To sum up Donald Trump’s foreign policy, he seeks a détente with Russia, containment of China and Iran, a diminishment in the US military presence in the Near and Middle East, and monetising its military support for allies. Unsurprisingly, many European voices perceived Trump’s election as a security risk, especially with the prospect of a potential threat from Russia. To the latter, if Trump follows through with his agenda, this may have several benefits: its international image would improve; it would gain much manoeuvrability in the Near East and Ukraine.

The shape of things to come

Without American support, and being divided in their foreign policy outlook, the EU and NATO may lose the proxy war for Syria, where Russia’s sustained military intervention could well lead to al-Assad being kept in office, and a peaceful resolution to the Syrian Civil War would crown Russia as a regional mediator in the Near East. By keeping al-Assad in power, Russia gains influence in the Mediterranean and any energy routes passing through or by Syria, while keeping Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman ambitions in check. With a prospective decrease of American influence in the Middle East, Russia has the chance to extend its own economic influence in the region via energy agreements and its Eurasian Economic Union.

With a prospective decrease of American influence in the Middle East, Russia has the chance to extend its own economic influence in the region via energy agreements and its Eurasian Economic Union.

And yet, despite an apparent friendship between Putin and Trump, a proxy war of sorts will endure, through a US-backed Israel and Iran who, for the moment, has Russia’s support, though how much it can weigh in Russia’s geopolitical calculations remains to be seen. Another sensitive point is the allegation of cyberattacks carried out against the US with Russian backing, and failure to properly address it may make Trump look either weak or incompetent. Furthermore, an economic war with China is extremely risky given the Eastern power’s considerable economic and commercial reach. As the cliché, goes, “if the US plays chess, China plays go”, and by the go logic of surrounding the adversary, a direct conflict with China’s economic might may result in bitter losses for the US. A Think Tank cited by The New York Times estimated that raising trade tariffs with China and Mexico will lead to such losses that the US will take a nosedive in economic recession and lose 5 million jobs [3], meaning that China’s economic and commercial influence dramatically increases the cost of any potential conflict involving it.

Maintaining an atmosphere of conflict in the South China Sea will eventually lead to a deterioration of US-China relations, with difficult to foresee consequences and repercussions on international relations, more specifically through the groups they are part of (e.g. G7, formerly G8, or the UN Security Council). We also draw attention to the fact that some of Trump’s objectives are simply unrealistic: the wall he said he’d build on the US-Mexico border to halt the flow of illegal and potentially dangerous immigrants will require Mexico’s financial and logistic participation, and it’s very difficult to believe that the Mexican state will accept to contribute financially or otherwise to the erection of such a wall. Finally, we must not forget the role of US institutions (the Pentagon, the Department of State, the Congress etc.) in the formulation of the United States’ foreign policy, and they are perhaps more aware of the risks of adopting isolationism and forgoing initiative on the geostrategic playfield, especially by alienating foreign partners that the US cannot afford to part with, barring perhaps an extremely valuable military, economic or technological asset that would enable it to maintain both an isolationist attitude and the initiative in international matters.

The end of the beginning

With a successful domestic agenda, Trump may gain enough breathing room to offset some of his more bold foreign objectives.

To conclude, it’s hard to predict how Donald Trump will apply his foreign policy vision, as well as the extent to which the statements he made during the campaign faithfully represent his geopolitical outlook or were simply what he knew the average American citizen wanted to hear. Even more challenging to anticipate is how much the United States’ foreign partners take his statements at face value or believe he is bluffing. Maybe that is the principle underlying his foreign policy: break the pattern without anybody knowing what is coming next. What remains certain is that America, and here we refer to the American population, wants to see a change, and it is domestic changes that America yearns for the most and the ones it will be the most sensitive towards, compared to changes in foreign policy. With a successful domestic agenda, Trump may gain enough breathing room to offset some of his more bold foreign objectives.

NOTES
[1] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/11/world-leaders-react-donald-trump-triumph-161109083310076.html
[2] http://www.lemonde.fr/elections-americaines/article/2016/11/07/deux-programmes-deux-visions-de-l-amerique_5026444_829254.html
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/12/world/what-is-donald-trumps-foreign-policy.html?_r=0
 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016