Trump's Foreign Policy: Continuity or Break?

by Danny Haiphong

Some things do change depending on who and which of the two US ruling parties are in power.  US imperialism isn't one of them.  The "foreign policies" of both parties are the maintenance and extension of global US hegemony through military, economic, cultural and diplomatic means.  Trump and his team may pretend to or actually hate some of the players, but they are down for the game, which builds on the foundations of previous administrations.

Trump's Foreign Policy: Continuity or Break?

by Danny Haiphong

US imperialism depends on war to survive and thrive. War creates the necessary conditions for monopoly capital to either expand into uncharted waters or maintain hegemony in familiar territory. The United States government and its military partners have coalesced around a program of endless war throughout the duration of the 21st century, both as a geopolitical measure and as a business venture in and of itself. US imperialism leads the world in war related production even as real industrial production continues to decline. US imperialism's drive for war became so hot under two-terms of Obama's Presidency that Donald Trump campaigned on the promise to scale back regime change efforts abroad in order to differentiate himself from the Democratic Party nominee, Hillary Clinton. But has Trump's foreign policy lived up to his rhetorical challenge to the war consensus in Washington?

The question is more complicated than it appears. Trump is a billionaire, but he is not a member of the imperialist establishment. It is this establishment, comprised of seventeen intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, NATO, the Defense Department, and a number of think tanks that plays the leading role in the development of US military strategy abroad. One does not simply become President and break with established military policy. Trump's foreign policy has thus has been rife with contradictions.

During his campaign, Trump questioned the legitimacy of US regime change policy in Syria and Libya. He also signaled that friendlier relations with Russia would be beneficial to Washington's long-term goal of eradicating terrorism in the region. However, Trump has surrounded himself with cabinet members that could hardly be called doves for peace. Michael Flynn, Rex Tillerson, and General "Mad Dog" Mattis all have extensive records of supporting war in places like Iraq and Iran. Trump’s appointments were just the first indication that both continuity and break from US imperialism can exist at the same time within the Administration.

Take the Trump Administration's recent war provocations toward Iran, for example. In recent weeks, the Trump Administration has threatened Iran with war based on the premise that the Islamic Republic attacked a Saudi frigate and simultaneously violated the terms of the P5+1 deal by restarting its nuclear weapons program. Both accusations have since been proven false. The Houthis, who were actually responsible for the attack on the Saudi frigate, have been fighting a ruthless Saudi-led war on Yemen for over three years. And no evidence exists to prove that Iran is utilizing its resources to develop a nuclear arsenal and international law would support the country even if it was.

Trump has taken an equally hostile posture against China. Rumblings in Washington have emerged of a potential trade war with the largest economy in the East. However, a war with Iran and China completely contradicts the Trump Administration's promise to mend relations with Russia. Russia, China, and Iran are currently engaged in a coalition to liberate Syria from US-NATO-GCC sponsored terrorists. A war with Iran or China is a direct threat to the viability of this coalition and could easily be seen as a war provocation toward Russia. This may explain why Trump is already backpedaling on his promise to violate the long-standing One China agreement after just one conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Russia's Presidential spokesperson immediately disagreed with Trump's definition of Iran as the largest sponsor of terrorism in the world. This comes just weeks after Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly took part in a productive phone conversation. Multiple points of possible cooperation were discussed, including Ukraine and Syria. While nothing concrete was agreed upon, the Trump Administration has consistently hinted that it would work with Russia to eradicate ISIS from Syria. Few people in the United States know what to make of these contradictory developments. The corporate media has helped maintain mass confusion by providing non-stop anti-Russia commentary disguised as "resistance" to Donald Trump.

Some on the left political spectrum in the US are suspicious of Trump's foreign policy, and for good reason. US imperialism's war agenda is non-negotiable. Trump's status as a billionaire champion of American (white) exceptionalism does not necessarily breed confidence in Trump’s rhetorical gestures to scale back key points in US foreign policy. His Administration should be resisted at every turn for current and future war provocations against Iran and China. His Administration should be held accountable for the deaths of thirty people in Yemen during the late January Commando raid just as Obama's Administration should have been held accountable for killing thousands of people in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan by drone strike over the course of eight years. 

But the anti-war movement died the day Obama was elected, leaving the contradictions that were brought to the fore throughout the Presidential electoral cycle unaddressed. One does not have to support Trump or refrain from struggle against the GOP to recognize that Trump's rhetorical gestures against regime change in the Middle East and Russia came from somewhere. These statements are the product of a rapidly changing world. In this world, the US can no longer call itself the only most influential or dominant global power. Russia's geopolitical significance, China's unprecedented economic growth, and the stagnation of the US economy have forever changed the international order of things.

Trump's foreign policy deserves special considerations given these conditions. For one, Trump's Administration is increasingly unstable. It took Vice President Pence to approve of the Administration's pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. The UK and Germany Parliaments have labeled Trump a danger to the world, citing of all things his relationship with Russia. The Democratic Party in the United States is attempting to lay the basis for impeachment for the same reasons. It has become increasingly clear that the future of Trump’s regime far from certain.

Such uncertainty was not evident in prior periods. The instability in Washington must be addressed concretely and critically. The anti-imperialist movement remains on life support and there are many traps being laid by the ruling class. War provocations with Iran and China must be opposed without question. However, anti-imperialist forces must not forget that Russia and Syria are also natural allies in the broader struggle against US imperialism. The various ruling class forces attempting to defame Trump based on relations with both countries must be rejected with just as much fervor as the Administration's war maneuvers against China and Iran.

Second, the contradictions of Trump's foreign policy present many opportunities to further fracture the unity of the war machine. A war with Iran is ultimately a war with Russia given the level of cooperation the two countries have developed in recent years in the fight against imperialist-backed terrorists in the region. Similarly, a "trade war" with China would also deeply affect Russia as the two countries have in recent years strengthened economic ties independent of Washington. So a significant global shift would have to occur in order for Trump and his Administration to politically survive potential wars with Iran and China. These wars would leave the United States in an increasingly isolated position in the world, even more so than during the Obama Administration's endless provocations with the aforementioned nations.

Finally, the contradictions in Trump's foreign policy are unlikely to affect the geopolitical relationships between Russia, China, and Iran. It would be completely unlike Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation to betray both nations in favor a stronger relationship with the United States. Nothing that the Russian Federation has done since Trump was elected indicates a shift in military and economic commitments to its allies. US imperialism has nothing to offer Russia, or any other country for that matter. Just because Trump wants increased cooperation with Russia doesn't mean that the majority of the US ruling class has dropped its desire to see the Russian Federation fall once again in the hands of the same oligarchs that sold the country's assets to the US after the Soviet Union fell in 1991.

No clearer indication of the US commitment to destabilize Russia can be found than in California representative Maxine Water's speech at press conference on February 6th. At the press conference, Waters stated that Trump must be opposed and potentially impeached for his support of Putin. Not only did Waters need assistance in remembering the Syrian city of Aleppo, but she also declared that Putin had made advances into Korea. The speech was indicative of the extreme desperation of the Democratic Party. The crisis of US imperialism continues unabated and Russia remains a convenient distraction from the chaos it has produced.

US imperialism has just as little to offer the population of the United States as it does to people abroad. The drive to rid of Donald Trump being waged by progressives should not replace the struggle for power. Every opportunity needs to be taken to build a movement capable of making basic human rights such as universal healthcare and free higher education impossible to ignore. However, these demands are mere words without the independent organization of workers and oppressed people. Liberation will not be dependent on Trump, but on how the organized force of the oppressed can take advantage of the chaos in Washington that his Presidency has produced.

Danny Haiphong is an Asian activist and political analyst in the Boston area. He can be reached at wakeupriseup1990(at)