Home > Uncategorized > Trump and the Neocons: doing the unilateralist waltz

Trump and the Neocons: doing the unilateralist waltz

from Thomas Palley

The neocon factor dramatically changes the interpretation of the Trump administration’s unilateralist international economic policy chatter.

Donald Trump’s first one hundred days have revealed his inclination for unilateralism in international relations. That inclination reflects his opportunistic and bullying disposition, and it also fits well with his anti-globalization pose.

Trump’s unilateralism has also spawned a dangerous waltz with Washington’s neocon establishment. The opportunistic Trump looks to gain establishment support, while the neocon establishment looks to the opportunist-in-chief to implement its own unilateralist view of the world.

The waltz is clearly visible in recent military actions but it also extends to international economic policy which is an area of budding neocon concern.

A further twist is that neocon unilateralism can be exercised against both rivals and allies. Power is at the core of the neocon project. And power can be used to block rivals or bend allies.

No rivals tolerated

The neocon project derives its appeal inside the United States from the belief that never again should there be a power, like the former Soviet Union, capable of rivalling the United States.

Originally, the neocon project represented ultra-conservative Republican thinking, but it has substantially become mainstream thinking. 

Both Republicans and many Democrats now believe the United States has the right to intervene unilaterally anywhere in the world, any time it chooses.

These bipartisan forces also believe the United States has the right to pepper the globe with military bases and military personnel deployments – including ringing Russia with these.

This bipartisanship is evident in many Democrats’ support for the Iraq war as well as their acceptance of the war on terror as justification for intervention anywhere.

It is also evident in President Obama’s continued investment in global military base expansion and the expansion of U.S. military deployments into the Baltics, central Europe, south-east Europe and Georgia.

The Democratic supplement

Whereas Democrats tend to be softer than Republicans on the issue of unrivalled power, they compensate by supplementing the neocon rationale for global intervention with the claim that the United States has a right to intervene in the name of protecting and advancing democracy.

This particular right derives from so-called “U.S. exceptionalism.” According to this school of thought, the U.S. government has a special mission to transform the world by promoting democracy. That reinforces bipartisan belief in U.S. unilateralism.

Economic unilateralism as a new neocon chapter?

The neocon project was originally concerned with military supremacy and targeted Russia. However, it is about U.S. power in general, which means it potentially implicates every country and every dimension of international policy.

The neocon goal is unchallenged U.S. supremacy. If that goal frames U.S. foreign policy, international economic policy must conform with it.

In the Cold War era, the currency of power was provision of weapons and ideology. In the new era of globalization, commerce has become a major new currency of power, making international economic policy a key concern.

Consequently, under Trump, neocon unilateralism is now spreading into international economic relations.

China’s rise and its historically grounded super-power aspirations have also contributed to neocon engagement with international economic policy.

However, that surfaces tensions and contradictions within the corporate – neocon alliance. China is a potential rival which worries neocons, but it is also a major source of profit (current and future) which captivates corporations.

Unilateralism and hyper-nationalism

The neocon inclination to unilateralism fuses seamlessly with Trump’s psychological inclination to unilateralism. Both play well in the current domestic political climate of hyper-nationalism.

Nationalism has been encouraged on a bipartisan basis and it constitutes fertile ground for unilateralism. Every politician, Republican and Democrat, now ostentatiously sports a flag lapel pin.

Both parties’ political conventions are oceans of red, white and blue balloons and bunting. Flags bedeck every political event, and “God bless America” is on the tongue of every politician.

Additionally, Trump’s twisted narrative of globalization, which blames “foreigners and immigrants,” feeds both nationalism and unilateralism.

From Trump’s perspective, somebody other than top U.S. corporate management – and its merciless pursuit of self-enrichment and self-interest — needs to be blamed for the fallout of all the resulting plant closings across the United States.

The neocon factor and Trump

The importance of the neocon factor is that it dramatically changes the interpretation of the Trump administration’s unilateralist international economic policy chatter.

Instead of just being temporary Trump bluster, such chatter is consistent with the neocon construction of international relations.

The neocon inspired drift to unilateralism explains the initial warmth within the U.S. that has greeted Trump’s unilateral military actions.

This is also the reason why his NATO strictures have raised so few ripples within the Washington establishment and why the establishment has been so quick to engage the border adjusted tax (BAT) proposal, despite its unilateralist character and inconsistency with the WTO.

The future of international relations

The implication is Trump’s unilateralism may not be a one-off temporary political aberration. Instead, it may reflect enduring neocon leanings within the current U.S. polity.

Though the intensity of those leanings will ebb and flow, they are now a permanent feature. That has ramifications for the international relations order that foreign governments around the world will need to digest.

One concern is excessive export dependence on the U.S. market which renders countries economically vulnerable to U.S. punitive market access restrictions. A second is U.S. corporate takeovers of foreign country champion firms.

Europe also needs to recognize it may suffer negative backwash effects from unilateral U.S. interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere. In contrast, the U.S. is protected by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and that protection may even foster U.S. military recklessness.

  1. May 30, 2017 at 7:05 am

    Frances Fukuyama writes that four common principles or threads ran through much of neoconservative thought up through the end of the cold war: a concern with democracy, human rights and, more generally, the internal politics of states; a belief that American power can be used for moral purposes; a skepticism about the ability of international law and institutions to solve serious security problems; and finally, a view that ambitious social engineering often leads to unexpected consequences and thereby undermines its own ends. That these principles are in conflict is apparent and is one of the main reasons neoconservative actions and policies frequently fail. Fukuyama claims that George W. Bush’s neoconservative agenda shows the movement now believes that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fukuyama calls this the American version of Leninism. Worse than the original, because it’s both tragic and farcical. This is what Trump walked into when he let neoconservatives into his administration. Add Trump’s psychopathology, the Randian conservationism of Paul Ryan, right-wing neoliberals and populists in Congress, and the religious right oozing out of all the cracks. And let’s not forget the “progressive” Democrats who seem to not understand or want or even like progressivism. What a mess. And we’re all forced to live each day in the feces it creates. It’s going to get a lot worse before (if) it gets better.

    • robert locke
      May 30, 2017 at 9:49 am

      Wait a minute, didn’t the Roman Empire fall because the weight of supporting it huge army could not be carried by the economy. And the world is not made up just of the US and the hundreds of small states with which it deals. The Chinese are there, with their belt and road imitative. Didn’t Haushofer say that those who control the Heartland (the Euro-Asian continent) control the world. The US does not control the Eurasian Heartland and isn’t about to, China is. The US is a maritime power (Mackinder, Mahan) and cannot prevail again the Heartland. Different geopolitical thinking, different conclusions.

    • robert locke
      May 30, 2017 at 10:14 am

      Wikepedia>For Haushofer “Beyond being an economic concept, pan-regions were a strategic concept as well. Haushofer acknowledges the strategic concept of the Heartland Theory put forward by the British geopolitician Halford Mackinder.[31] If Germany could control Eastern Europe and subsequently Russian territory, it could control a strategic area to which hostile seapower could be denied.[32]”

      • May 30, 2017 at 12:36 pm

        Robert, don’t know how a neocon would answer you, but I can makes some guesses. First, the USA is the most exceptional nation ever to exist on planet Earth. None of these historical rules apply to it. Second, the will of the USA is so great that it merely pushes these restrictions aside. Third, there is morality. The world can’t be moral unless the USA in in control. Thus, necessity means the USA will be in control. Just guesses, mind you.

  2. Paul Schächterle
    May 30, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Last time I checked this was an *economic* blog. Why is such an article published here? It is purely political. I can see no relation to economic issues.

    • May 31, 2017 at 6:32 am

      In anthropology, I began in the standard fields of work. But soon I got involved in the new anthropology/sociology of science. For over 35 years now these anthropologists and sociologists have examined the creation of science. Have excavated, to use Thomas’ term, sciences’ history. That work shows clearly that economic and political process play a big role in what science is and how it works. In the last 15 years this research has extended to the social sciences, including economics. There is a thriving sociology and anthropology of economics, both the profession and the actual actions and decisions given the label economic. It presents a clear picture of the workings of professional economics. Often not flattering, but detailed and accurate. And it describes what I’ve called “folk” economics; the economics of non-economists. Both sorts of economics are intimately connected with the political process. And there’s a large body of research now to support that conclusion. Discussing one without the other leaves the story always incomplete and partial.

  3. Risk Analyst
    May 30, 2017 at 7:50 pm

    I agree. There is way too much politics here. Two things additionally bother me. One is that the banding together of the heterodox schools is due to the intolerance of the oppressive dominant economics, yet here they turn around and display the same intolerance internally. If all the people who agree with your economic paradigm must first belong to your political views, then are you really doing economics? Second, the disturbing tendency to craft one’s economics for political purposes. For example, the Marxist economist Howard Sherman has some nice anti-globalization interviews available online. But here, because Trump is anti-globalization, the writers must oppose it by association and now I read it is a neo-con idea leading to nationalism!!! I guess the idea of anti-globalization is Marxist or neo-con depending on who said it and how one wants to craft dissent against your political opponent.

    • Thomas Palley
      May 30, 2017 at 8:38 pm

      Economics includes economic theory and economic policy. Economic policy is influenced by politics. If we want to understand economic policy and its evolution we may need to excavate the politics behind it. Perhaps that is not your cup of tea, but I suggest it is legitimate material for an economics blog.

      • Risk Analyst
        May 30, 2017 at 10:12 pm

        While you say this is legitimate material for analysis, I believe your helpful tone and gratuitous contempt in calling Trump the “opportunist-in-chief” with a “bullying disposition” undermines your point. And it has a cost. Trump started without the kind of background others have had and it seemed to me he was searching for an alternative economic structure to support his views. He expressed frustration with economic forecasters, the Federal Reserve and dominant economic theory which was for globalization. And he started out saying he wanted big changes and is in the position being able to change that policy by appointing FOMC members and the Chairman of the Fed. But, not given an alternative, he seems to even be backing down from dismissing Yellen when her term is up. Without an alternative, perhaps he will just choose some more New Keynesians to continue the historically clueless Fed policy. I really really like other papers you have written so I do not wish to argue with you, but I think you and others here do not understand the tremendous opportunity that was lost in not providing a positive alternative. One of the regular authors here says that he was even approached by a Trump representative, and he wrote about how happy he was to tell him to go away. I am reminded of that phrase that there are those who would rather curse the darkness than light a candle.

      • May 31, 2017 at 6:51 am

        Risk Analyst, I understand your frustration. However, it seems unlikely to me that allowing Donald Trump to make major economic changes in any way improves the situation. Narcissistic sociopaths never consider improving the situation for anyone except themselves. The rule of unintended consequences leaves open the possibility that Trump’s changes might by accident help others. That seems a long shot, however. Still, I am curious about the something different Trump wanted. Following the populism he professes, would not lead to the budget he just proposed. So, what economic philosophy is he following? Any insights gratefully accepted.

      • Risk Analyst
        May 31, 2017 at 8:01 am

        I’ve not really seen a soup to nuts economic framework presented, nor have I looked for one, as much as lists of action items and emphasis of things he wants. He is a businessman, not an economist. He does emphasize stating things in terms of “not that,” and for a while his “not that” was all about Yellen and the Fed. I’m not predicting his conversion to some heterodox school, but just that some small victories are possible in such a situation. That is why I immediately thought of the Fed. The situation screams out that some non-conventional economists or persons be appointed given the lack of diversity at the Fed has likely been responsible for some rather poor performance, combined with Trump’s wanting to do “not that” when appointing more of the same.

        You mention taxes, but my interest is not to take to the message boards with torches and pitchforks as much as to use economics to understand and predict the impact on the economy.

      • May 31, 2017 at 1:19 pm

        Risk Analyst, must disagree with your latest comment. First, Donald Trump is not a businessman. He’s never operated a successful business. With his personal and family biography in mind I describe Trump as a NY slum lord, embezzler, and confidence man. He learned these skills early from his father and other NY “developers” and lawyers. I don’t believe Trump has much interest in economics, per se’. He’s interesting in bringing money from somebody’s else’s pocket into his own. That’s his economics. Finally, I question the maturity and at times very rationality of Trumps desires, pro or con on most things. If you want some examples, just check the dozens of interviews of Trump over the last 40 years.

      • Risk Analyst
        May 31, 2017 at 5:23 pm

        And your point gets back to Paul’s original post. To me, questioning whether Trump is a businessman is politics and not economics. If Hillary had won the presidency and was submitting her budget, what you think of a focus instead on her activities during the Benghazi raid. In both cases it misses the point that policies are being pursued and different tools can be applied to understand their consequences. You keep mentioning anthropology. I started out as an anthropology major at UCLA. Small world.

  4. June 1, 2017 at 6:32 am

    Under its charter of incorporation the American Economics Association committed itself to the “encouragement of economic research, especially the historical study of the actual conditions of industrial life,” as well as to “the encouragement of perfect freedom of economic discussion.” Goals I support. If the current AEA and economists support these goals, then they must look into all the “actual conditions of industrial [financial, political, cultural] life.” Including those that impact the actions of one of the most powerful economic and political institutions in the world, POTUS. That includes, in my view, POTUS’ sociopathy, cheating, loan sharking, slum lording, etc.

    • Risk Analyst
      June 1, 2017 at 7:11 pm

      If you are looking at the motivations of government bureaucrats/representatives supporting business for their own financial benefit, revolving door issues, class warfare, legislation done to financially benefit those in power, I’m with you. To me, those impact the economy and economic theory. But that is not what I am seeing here. What I see is sour grapes because Hillary or Sanders lost. For example, you call Trump a slum lord. As I understand it this charge was over one building back in the 1980s consisting of a fight between the rich and the richer with Trump trying to force out tenants paying rent controlled $700 to $980 monthly amounts next to and with spectacular views of Central Park. One vocal tenant was upset that ceiling leaks endangered his Picasso and Monet collection (“Donald Trump was a nightmare Landlord in the 1980s,” by Pagliery, 3/28/16, money.cnn.com). I’m not even interested in any details to counter that. To me it’s not economics, but just mean spirited politics equally on par with the Hillary/Benghazi controversy.

      • June 2, 2017 at 11:57 am

        I watched Trump testify before the US Senate and House 6-7 times 1975-1985. He wasn’t much different than the other real estate developers, gamblers, and non-traditional lenders who testified with him. Except in two ways. He lied more often and more recklessly than any of the others. And when caught in a lie refused to even consider recanting. He also made it clear that he would do literally almost anything for money. This is “Trump economics.” Pay me and you’ll get what you want; pay me and I’ll lie for you about anything. You may not like his conception of economics. But he’s now in charge of one of the most powerful institutions in the world. So, more and more economic transactions will follow those rules. We’re already seeing the changes. Modeling this world poses some challenges. It will definitely test the adaptability and ethics of economists.

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