The multitude and diversity of the new military conflicts that have captured the international scene in recent years have produced strong reverberations over the way US foreign policy has been built. Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States is a turning point, offering new valences to security and defense concepts.

Jeffrey Sommers, professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is a specialist in development studies, state development, international political economy and hegemonic transitions, and publishes numerous articles in The New York Times, The Guardian, Financial Times. He describes the evolution of the US foreign policy, in the context of new military conflicts, in an interview given for Europunkt to Vladimir Adrian Costea.


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Vladimir Adrian Costea: To what extent the election of Donald Trump produces a paradigm shift on addressing the issue of new military conflicts and US foreign policy?

Jeffrey Sommers: The foreign policy goals of Trump were chiefly advanced by his advisor Steve Bannon and comported with Trump’s own vaguely formed views on foreign relations. Bannon sees 3 chief threats. 1) Chinese expansion, starting in the South China Sea. Mr. Bannon has stated this will lead to war with the US within 10 years. 2) Radical Islamic terrorism generally. 3) Spread of terrorism and power of Iran generally. All three of these goals, to Trump/Bannon’s mind, require improved relations with Russia. 1) If war is inevitable with China, one wants to split Russia off from an alliance with China. 2) If one is fighting global terrorism, Russia would be a valued ally in that struggle. 3) If one is to confront Iran, one would want to split Russia off from Iran. These factors explain the Trump/Bannon attemped rapprochment with Russia.

This move toward détente with Russia has met stiff resistance from the US military industrial/security complex. US intelligence agencies in the late 1980s opposed President Reagan’s rapprochement with Russia, declaring Russia was still all powerful and attempting to lull the US into disarmament so it could later attack. This mentality still pervades much of the US military industrial/security complex. Certain weapons manufacturers also need to retain Russia as an enemy. NATO opposed this policy turn as well. Thus, the so-called ‘deep state,’ which really should be better thought of as the ‘Gramscian state,’ has come out full force against the rapprochement policy with Russia. The result has seen attacks on (and later resignation of) Trump’s former National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn. Later, Steve Bannon would be sidelined (although he may stage a comeback).

The proposed steep increase in US military spending also is explained by the general outlines of Trump/Bannon’s foreign policy outlook, which sees wars on the horizon. This proposed significant increase in military spending, however, is to be funded on a revenue neutral basis. It is to be paid for by discretionary budget cuts to scientific and medical research, education and assistance to the poor. The first two cuts will weaken the US long-term, while the last might also introduce new costs as poverty generates expenses from the social pathologies and incarceration. In short, the United States seems to be following the path of the former Soviet Union in bankrupting itself with excessive military expenses. Much of Trump’s foreign policy objectives, especially on Russia, are being subverted by the US national security state complex, which is systematically weakening his presidency through media leaks designed to discredit him.

What are the main points which have helped change US strategy on the fight against terrorism?

The chief shift is the assumption shift that radical Islam has to be called out by name as the enemy. The Alt-Right movement holds Islam generally to be an enemy.  But Trump has moderated in this view under the influence of his advisors and while recently in Saudi Arabia, ironically, given its leading role in exporting Wahabbi radical Islam.

To what extent policies against Muslim immigrants represent a solution for reducing terrorist attacks against America?

None. Blanket bans on entire countries, especially targetting only Islam does nothing to reduce terrorism. It instead feeds terrorism. A chief goal of Osama Bin Laden was to create the perception of a Western ‘Crusade’ against Islam. The invasion of Iraq under Bush, toppling Libya under Obama and the current policies of Trump are all too readily serving that goal of Bin Laden.

How was the security dimension redesigned in NATO after the proliferation of terrorist attacks carried out by followers of the Islamic State?

Not much… That said, the US’s 16 year long war in Afghanistan, and recent calls for again expanding it, will unlikely bring any reduction in terrorism. Fortunately, many EU NATO member countries show little interest in re-engaging in Afghanistan.

In the context of the emergence of terrorism and instability in the transatlantic region, how could the US strategy against ISIS be improved?

Disengagement from the Middle East. The emergence of ISIS is a direct result of the US war in Iraq and Saudi and Qatari support of Wahabbi elements attempting to subvert the Syrian government in order to get a friendly new government willing to replace Iran’s proposed energy pipelines with their own. Islamic terrorism was essentially ‘birthed’ by the US overthrow of the democractically elected Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, the US support for the Muslim Brotherhood in support of opposing Nasser in Egypt and support of Saudi Arabia to the present.  The last has spread Wahhabism wherever it could, including, critically, to Afghanistan since the late 1970s. Disengagement will not make terrorism disappear, but it will prevent serious missteps leading to making the situation worse.

Another strategy would be to encourage national economic development, along the lines of what was encouraged in West Europe, Japan and South Korea under the Keynesian Bretton Woods Order. Presently, the neoliberal order gives little latitude for states to engage development at the national level, thus struggles in parts of the Islamic world tend to play out on the terrain of ‘civilizational conflict.’

What are the challenges facing the United States at the time, given the issue of new military conflicts and new foreign policy?

The significant threat of terrorism aside, the US faces few direct threats. Latin America poses few challenges to the US. Europe’s future direction is uncertain given neoliberal economics, which have slowed growth and increased inequality. Aside from North and part of East Africa, the African continent poses few security issues outside the region. North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia (and Pakistan) have potential for instability and, of course, are incubators for radical Islam. Pakistan is by far potentially the most dangerous, given its nuclear weapons.

North Korea is only problematic insofar as it perceives threats both from within and without. In short, its bluster chiefly serves, in its view, to fend off US sponsored regime change and to extort aide and concessions from the US, China, Japan and South Korea. Having seen the fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, North Korea’s leaders are keen to show it has the means to impose significant costs on the United States should it attempt to topple North Korea’s government.

The transition from US to Chinese hegemony presents the biggest challenge. China envisions hegemony along the Ming era lines of leadership through mutually beneficial trade, yet with itself decidedly being the ‘middle kingdom.’ China is growing increasingly impatient with a United States that it sees as militarily reckless, having overspent on its military (like the former USSR), while underinvesting in its infrastructure and then blaming China for its economic woes. Potential for conflict is greatest between China and its immediate neighbors to the east and south (Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan) as they compete for regional resources and territories. China will eventually catch up with US military power, not through increasing the % of its economy spent on the military, but through economic growth leading to that same % of GDP spent on the military eventually matching the amount of military spending the flagging US economy can produce.

Relations with Russia present the greatest danger. On the one hand, Russia’s neighbors to the West and South, see it as a revanchist power hoping to reconstruct its former empire. This view is growing in parts of West Europe (chiefly in Germany and northern Europe). Meanwhile, Russia views the US and NATO as a hostile alliance that has worked to systematically encircle it with military bases, despite what it saw as pledges from the US in 1990 not to do so. In short, both sides increasingly view the other as aggressive and expansionist. The situation can likely be managed, as long as Putin remains in power. Yet, if his rule is followed by someone from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or military, tensions between Russia and the United States could become difficult to manage. The same might be said if future leadership of the United States falls to someone with a more liberal interventionist bent, such as Hillary Clinton. If leadership change along the lines referenced above happens in both countries, prospects for conflict would dramatically increase.


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