US Foreign policy – tilting towards normalcy

After a vicious but successful presidential campaign in 2016 and a rocky start as President of the USA, there are signs that, faced with political realities, Donald Trump is now compelled to err on the side of normalcy, in sharp contrast to the habitual anti-establishment rhetoric. Whilst the past few weeks have been ‘hectic’ - to put it euphemistically - after the stand-off with North Korea and controversy over the President’s perceived support to white supremacist movements, the White House administration was subject to an internal power struggle which culminated in the ousting of Steve Bannon, erstwhile chief strategist and fomenter of ‘alt-right’ ideology, in favour of H.R McMaster, the recently appointed National Security Advisor. There are various signs of a shift away from the far-right and nationalist ideology, but Donald Trump remains the weak link in the equation.
Political realities forcing the shift
The President needs the support of Congress to pass new legislation. Though members of his own party constitute the majority, his signature legislations have failed to pass Congress in various instances, most notably in the case of the Obamacare replacement bill. The ‘raison d’etre’ of Congress is to counterbalance the power of an unpopular president. Polls suggest an approval rating of between 30%-40% to President Trump currently, and members of the House of Representatives face elections for their seats in 2018. Approving legislations endorsed by an unpopular president is likely to be negatively seen by voters. It follows that the high opportunity cost of siding with the president is compelling Congress members to turn their back on him, in turn forcing the president to switch rhetoric.
Signs of the shift
The last month has seen numerous cases of defenestration from the White House administration staff, from Anthony Scaramucci as Communications Director to Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist – all these changes have been led by H.R McMaster, an Army Officer with a successful military career who has integrated the team principally to instill discipline. The firing of Bannon signals an important shift in policy, from an ‘America-first’ ideology to the more pragmatic stance of having America leading the international community and nurturing its traditional alliances. The President’s political survival instincts may also have prompted him to sack Bannon in order to deflect attention from the furor caused by his comments on White Supremacists (some of whom can be called good people in his view).
On 21 August 2017, the President also unveiled his plan for Afghanistan, centered around maintaining troops for the foreseeable future instead of a complete retreat as was promised in his campaign for the elections (during which time the ‘America-first’ ideas were prevailing). Donald Trump did not deny that his first instinct would still be to pull out all American forces from Afghanistan but cited the likelihood that such an action would leave a vacuum in the region which would easily be filled in by the Taliban, a potential threat for the West comparable to ISIS. The main change brought, compared to American presence in Afghanistan under Obama, is to remove restrictions on the US offensive operations, in other words more leeway to army officers in their operations. Members of Nato have generally welcome the new strategy for Afghanistan and are willing to accept America’s request to provide more troops, a rare feat in the Trump presidency.
Way forward and lesson for Mauritius
There are clear signs that the pragmatists have won the power struggle inside the White House, among the President’s advisors. Trump remains the weak link given his personality and tendency to make counter-productive comments, as in the White Supremacy rally controversy. However the advice he will be receiving will come from people with relevant experience in foreign policy or security matters such as Security Advisor McMaster. America will be likely to act in tune with allies in the Middle East and not take snap decisions to retreat, leaving fertile ground for terrorists.  The change in policy and ‘cleansing’ of the counter-productive elements in his team, howsoever imposed by external factors, attest to a minimum degree of responsiveness by Donald Trump to his political survival instincts. Mauritian leaders can learn a lesson out of it – opportunities to rid the government of incompetent or embarrassing members have been rife (the episode of threats to shoot the opposition leader is a recent example) but never acted upon…