“It Can’t Happen Here.’’ That was the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel in which the fascistic Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is elected president and within months transforms the United States into an American Reich. Well, maybe it just did happen here.
The litmus test will be how far Steve Bannon’s appointment as chief strategist to President-elect Donald Trump signals the triumph of the will of the so-called alt-right. Will he be Lee Sarason to Trump’s Windrip? Are we all doomed to the Third World War, only this time with America on the wrong side?
Two weeks after Trump’s election, a more or less complete uncertainty reigns as to what direction his foreign policy will take. Rather than speculate about who gets which job, it may be more constructive to ask what Trump’s strategic options are.
Let us begin with the geopolitical landscape that Trump inherits from his predecessor. In his most recent book, “World Order,’’ Henry Kissinger outlined four scenarios that he regards as the most likely catalysts for a large-scale conflagration:
• A deterioration in Sino-American relations whereby the two countries tumble into the so-called Thucydides trap that history sets for every incumbent power and the rising power that challenges it.
• A breakdown of relations between Russia and the West, based on mutual incomprehension and made possible by:
• A collapse of European hard power due to the inability of modern European leaders to accept that diplomacy without the credible threat of force is just hot air; and/or
• An escalation of conflict in the Middle East due to the Obama administration’s readiness, in the eyes of the Arab states and Israel, to hand hegemony in the region to a still-revolutionary Iran.
This is frightening stuff. Yet Trump enters the Oval Office with an underestimated advantage: the fact that Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been such a failure. This is most obvious in the Middle East, where the smoldering ruin that is Syria — not to mention Iraq and Libya — attests to the fundamental naivete of his approach.
The “Obama doctrine” has failed in Europe, too, where UK voters opted to leave the EU in defiance of the president’s threats. Finally, his foreign policy has failed in Asia, where little remains of the much-vaunted American “pivot.”
All this means that, by merely changing Obama’s foreign policy, President Trump will quite likely achieve success. The question is: How exactly should he go about this change? Kissinger’s recommendations to Trump may be summarized as follows:
• Do not go all-out into a confrontation with China, whether on trade or the South China Sea. Rather, seek “comprehensive discussion” and aim to pursue the policy of “co-evolution” recommended in “World Order.”
• Give a weakened, traumatized, post-imperial Russia the recognition Vladimir Putin craves, “as a great power, as an equal, and not as a supplicant in an American-designed system.”
• Treat Brexit as an opportunity to steer the continental Europeans away from bureaucratic introspection and back to strategic responsibility.
• Make peace in Syria as we made it in the former Yugoslavia 20 years ago, by “cantonizing” the country and giving President Bashar al-Assad a one-year “off-ramp,” or exit route.
What if Trump, against all expectations, decided to seek better relations with both Moscow and Beijing? This would combine his own Russophile leanings with Kissinger’s argument for a new policy of partnership with China. Such an arrangement would theoretically be achievable if Trump engaged only in kabuki theatre with China over trade (which is what many influential Chinese seem to expect him to do). It would also be consistent with the tough line on Islamic extremism that has been such a feature of Trump’s campaign, for on this issue the three great powers — each with their worrisome and growing Muslim minorities — have a common interest. And it might be consistent with a reordering of the Middle East that reimposes the ancien régime of kings and dictators in the Arab world and reinforces Israel, all at the expense of Iran.
As a corollary, the three powers might agree on the demotion of Europe from great power status, taking advantage not only of Brexit but of the increasingly fragmented and self-referential character of EU politics. One possible way to do this would be for Trump to propose replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement with NAFTA 2.0, which would bring the UK directly into a post-EU Anglo-Atlantic sphere while at the same time delivering on Trump’s anti-Mexican (though not anti-Canadian) election pledge. Simultaneously, Trump could credibly apply pressure on other NATO members to increase their risible defense budgets. Finally, he and Putin could work together to help continental populists such as Marine Le Pen to win the elections of 2017.
One striking feature of such a strategy is that the five permanent members of the UN security council would ultimately all be either populist or authoritarian-controlled, assuming Le Pen can somehow be helped across the line against the French pacte républicain. Thus might the institutions of collective security end up serving the interests of the great powers as never before: the ultimate revenge of realpolitik.
The new tripartite arrangement would be looser than the post-Napoleonic Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia and Russia but, like their predecessors 200 years ago, liberals would denounce it as an Unholy Alliance of populists and authoritarians, indifferent to the principles of human rights. Some smaller countries would doubtless lose out. But for the world as a whole it would be an order of sorts. And no world war would be very likely to break out.
One objection might be that an alignment between America, Russia, and China, as well as Britain and France, is without precedent, but that is nonsense: It was precisely the alliance that won the Second World War. Another might be that such an alliance is unsustainable in the absence of an aggressive Germany and Japan. Yet the Cold War did not begin until 1948, and the Communists did not come to power in China until a year later: Up until that point, many reasonable people had hopes of sustaining the wartime coalition.
Much that I have written here is necessarily speculative. I do believe, however, that a new American foreign policy — if not a new world order — is already taking shape. Not only is it foreshadowed in the writing of Kissinger. It is also implicit in the current constellation of geopolitics.
If it is Kissinger’s spirit that animates the Trump administration — as opposed to Buzz Windrip’s — then its new order will not be so new, nor altogether bad.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.