It was fitting that Donald Trump’s blustery speech at the United Nations this week, in which he defiantly denounced ‘the ideology of globalism,’ came just one day after his top adviser John Bolton vowed limitless American military commitment to yet another global conflict. Bolton had essentially declared that US forces would be in Syria for perpetuity, or ‘as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.’ Though this deployment was never formally debated, voted on by Congress, or subjected to a modicum of public scrutiny, Bolton saw fit to announce that US troops would remain there for an open-ended mission with no termination date. In so doing, Bolton and by proxy Trump confirmed their embrace of a vision of American power which might shun the label of ‘globalism’ for reasons of political expediency, but is nevertheless inescapably ‘globalistic’ in outlook.
Under Trump’s auspices, combat operations are officially underway in at least seven countries, from Niger to Yemen. Most of these began under his predecessors, but Trump has been in office for well long enough now that if he had the interest or desire, they could have been curtailed. Instead, he has gone along with ‘the generals’ and resigned to a kind of half-baked interventionism, while still occasionally giving voice to anti-interventionist ‘instincts.’ Trump has repeatedly said that he wants US forces to ‘get out’ of Syria, for instance, but has yet to take any action to actualise this purported intention, and his senior officials frequently pledge the exact opposite. If these ‘instincts’ of his haven’t translated into policy at this point, it’s unlikely they ever will.
Trump, Bolton, and others might perceive some political advantage in framing their endeavours as somehow ‘anti-globalist,’ but there is nothing more conventionally globalistic than a belief in the necessity of exerting US military power across the globe, on multiple continents, forever. One may seek to parse out certain distinctions regarding what ‘globalism’ necessarily entails; subordination of American sovereignty to the authority of international governing bodies is the element Trump and Bolton most showily reject. But dispatching US military personnel all over the world, for indeterminate lengths of time, to take an active role in foreign civil wars and conflicts absolutely requires a thoroughly ‘globalist’ conception of America’s global position. It might take a cruder and more transactional form than what airy, human rights-flaunting members of the foreign policy intelligentsia tend to espouse, but it’s globalism nonetheless. Trump simply recognises the political utility of pretending as though he has instituted a hard philosophical break from prior administrations.
Arguably Trump’s rhetorical exercise is just another iteration of warmed-over Bushism, with slightly less preemptive war, but still founded on the same core principles and still predicated to a bizarrely fervent degree on antagonising Iran. Like Trump, George W. Bush rejected international treaties (such as the Kyoto Protocol), and professed to prioritise American sovereignty over that of international governing bodies (like the International Criminal Court). The key difference, as is so often the case vis-à-vis Trump, appears to be rhetorical. Bush subscribed wholeheartedly to high-falutin’ notions of America’s eternal nobility, and its solemn responsibility to take an active role in policing the world. Trump often expresses superficial distaste for these same notions — balking at the price tag, primarily — but because he has staffed his administration with conventional GOP hawks who would have been right at home under Bush (and in some instances did directly serve under Bush), not much on the policy front has especially changed.
Lack of preemptive war is no small thing, and Trump’s diplomatic gambit with respect to North Korea is one of the fleetingly few exceptions where his approach does represent a marked difference. Still, one should not get too wound up about the novelty of his contempt for international bureaucrats as representing some profound new turn toward ‘anti-globalism,’ ‘populism,’ or any of the other buzzwords pundits have desperately groped for to characterise Trump’s approach. It could simply be continuation of the status quo, but with rhetorical flourishments meant to obscure that fact.