If you’ve been following White House briefings and mainstream US media over the past four years, you could be forgiven for thinking that Trump has radically rewritten US foreign policy. In fact, despite Trump’s pledges to extract American soldiers from foreign conflicts, troop numbers have barely fallen overall and have risen in the Persian Gulf. The administration has been presented as ‘isolationist’ yet has agreed bilateral trade deals around the world and strengthened ties with Japan, Israel and Saudi Arabia – three traditional partners – while undertaking major war games against Russia and China. This year’s Defender Europe 20 would have been the US army’s largest exercise on the continent in 25 years if Covid-19 hadn’t limited its scope. It’s hard to detect any measurable change in approach. Even Trump’s attempt to pressure Beijing into abandoning industrial measures that allegedly give it an unfair advantage in international trade have ample precedent in Reagan’s 1980s trade war with Japan. If Trump can make any claim to uniqueness, it may be that, once his record on Covid-19 is factored in, he is the only postwar US president whose administration is responsible for the deaths of more Americans than foreigners. During this year’s presidential campaign, while the gap on domestic policy has widened, any hint of foreign policy differences between Trump and Biden has evaporated as they each homed in on the status quo. Both have promised to end America’s ‘endless wars’ even as they ratchet up their anti-China tirades and cling to the notion of America as leader of the free world.
The early years of US foreign policy were focused on dominating the North American landmass. Native populations were liquidated; vast territories were purchased from European states; border disputes were stitched up through legal manoeuvrings. The fledgling US state conducted a few experiments further afield. In 1821, a proto-NGO, the American Colonisation Society, annexed a large tract of West Africa (‘Liberia’) in an effort to relocate free blacks away from the American mainland. When US farmers developed a taste for bat excrement later in the century – as chronicled by Daniel Immerwahr in How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019) – the US navy acquired a series of ‘guano islands’ in the Pacific to fuel the domestic boom in agriculture. The Philippines and Puerto Rico, along with other smaller spoils from the Spanish-American War, became laboratories for medical experimentation, police training, sweatshops, napalm and nuclear trials. Closer to home, American forces twice failed to take Quebec (‘a mere matter of marching’, Jefferson said before the second attempt in 1812). The Aroostook skirmish with Britain might have extended the state of Maine to the north, and in the south Cuba hovered as a perpetual state in waiting, ‘indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself’, as John Quincy Adams described it in 1823. In imitation of British freelance imperialists such as James Brooke, the ‘white rajah’ who ruled the state of Sarawak on Borneo as a private fiefdom in the mid-19th century, America produced its own brand of freebooters, including William Walker, the Tennessee doctor who conquered and ruled Nicaragua for ten months and decimated the population of Costa Rica.
Read the full article in the London Review of Books.