Updated: Jan 25, 2022
By James M. Dorsey
Civilisationalism’s train may well have left the station. That may also be true for a fundamental re-definition of US foreign policy.
To what degree, civilisationalism continues its march and how US foreign policy will be re-defined is likely to be determined by who wins this year’s US presidential election.
With Donald J. Trump the undisputed Republican candidate and Bernie Sanders the Democratic frontrunner, the fight for the highest office in the land could be one between two very different but no less radical visions of America’s role in the world.
For civilizationalist illiberals, authoritarians and autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond, the stakes could not be higher.
In The Economist’s words, a race between Messrs. Trump and Sanders would be between, "a corrupt, divisive right-wing populist" with an empathy for autocrats, like his favourite, Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and "a sanctimonious left-wing populist, " who, despite emphasizing human rights, democracy, diplomacy and re-committing the United States to the trans-Atlantic alliance, “has a dangerous tendency to put ends before means” and “displays the intolerance of a Righteous Man.”
The obvious differences notwithstanding, Messrs. Trump and Sanders share scepticism about America wielding power overseas and a reluctance to use military force.
On the surface of it, Mr. Sanders would likely agree that Mr. Trump wasn’t wrong when he took aim at a post-Cold War US foreign policy that had primarily produced disastrous failures since the demise of Communism by declaring “our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster.”
Mr. Trump was referring to what political scientist Stephen M. Walt described as an era in which the United States as the world’s only superpower could rule supreme but had no need to do so.
“Instead of building an ever-expanding zone of peace united by a shared commitment to liberal ideas, America’s pursuit of liberal hegemony poisoned relations with Russia, led to costly quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq and several other countries, squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, and encouraged both states and non-state actors to resist American efforts or to exploit them for their own benefit,” Mr. Walt argued.
From a civilisationalist’s point of view, Mr. Trump was the right person at the right time.
He promised a radical departure from the United States’ internationalist agenda and dumped the concept of American exceptionalism that positioned the United States as the linchpin of a liberal world order, the indispensable policeman that would keep the world from falling apart. Foreign policy would no longer be informed by a longer-term overarching worldview.
Instead it would be driven by short-term transactions that served immediate goals, struck advantageous deals and shifted burdens to others.
Ironically, Mr. Trump’s chaotic and impulsive policymaking and management style, narcissism, and ineptitude allowed civilisationalists with whom he instinctively empathized take center stage while the United States continued to fight wars in distant lands and shoulder much of the burden of policing global security.
Rather than “bringing America’s commitments and capabilities into better balance, Trump has undermined the latter without decreasing the former,” Mr. Walt concluded.
Mr. Trump’s approach bolstered Russian president Vladimir Putin’s declaration three years into the real-estate mogul-turned president’s administration that liberalism had “outlived its purpose.”
Writing in The New York Times, Max Frankel, the paper’s former executive editor, argued last year that civilizationalist leaders didn’t need to formalize a tacit meeting of the minds on the principles of governance that should underwrite a new world order.
Against the backdrop of unproven allegations of illicit cooperation between Russia and the 2016 Trump electoral campaign, Mr. Frankel suggested that “there was no need for detailed electoral collusion between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin's oligarchy because they had an overarching deal: the quid of help in the campaign against Hillary Clinton for the quo of a new pro-Russian foreign policy.”
Igor Yurgens, president of the Institute of Contemporary Development, and a former advisor to erstwhile Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, expressed a similar sentiment.
Mr. Trump is “our wrecking ball. He shares our ideology and has shown as much sympathy to Russia as was humanly possible,” Mr. Yurgens said.
Mr. Yurgens assertion is seemingly mirrored in Mr. Trump’s empathy for Mr. Putin and autocrats like Mr. Al-Sisi and Emirati and Saudi crown princes, Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman as well as his anti-immigration policies that favour Europeans and discriminate against Africans, Asians and Latin Americans and his repeated refusal to convincingly condemn racist and neo-Nazi groups.
Mr. Trump’s ambiguity towards far-right thinking neatly aligns itself with Russian support for racist and neo-Nazi groups in the United States and across Europe that is designed to fuel civilizationalist attitudes, bolster opposition to European Union sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and drive a wedge in the trans-Atlantic alliance that Mr. Trump has repeatedly questioned.
By contrast, Mr. Sanders, a self-styled democratic socialist, would likely bring a different, more civil tone to the presidency, but no less of a redirection of US foreign policy.
If Mr. Trump attempted to reduce foreign policy to business-like transactions, Mr. Sanders would transform policy into what scholars Ben Judah and David Adler have termed ‘foreign politics.’
“He is targeting the global architecture of kleptocracy in which many U.S. firms and passport holders are complicit and building ties with social movements around the world that can serve as allies in the fight against state corruption,” Messrs. Judah and Adler argued in The Guardian.
In doing so, Messrs. Judah and Adler suggest, Mr. Sanders as president would, unlike his predecessors, target three pillars of Mr. Putin’s disruptive polices: oil and gas revenues, a kleptocratic power base, and information warfare.
Mr. Sander’s tools shy away from the centrality of military power. Instead they include the promotion of renewable energy that would reduce European reliance on Russian fossil fuels, the dismantling of offshore tax havens and corporate shells that facilitate Putin’s kleptocracy, and US reengagement in the battle of ideas by promoting human rights and other democratic values.
From a foreign policy perspective, the problem with Mr. Sanders is not the loftiness of his goals and principled positions or the practicality of his domestic policy proposals. It is that, given deep polarisation in the United States, he could prove to be as divisive as his nemesis, Mr. Trump.
Ironically, that is not how many Europeans, including conservatives, see Mr. Sanders. Said a senior member of Germany’s ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU): “He may seem radically left-wing in America, but if he were German, he would fit right into the CDU, and probably even the more conservative side of it.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture