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Dr. Paul Coyer comments on American politics for Azeri Today

IWP research professor Paul Coyer recently was asked to participate in an interview about current American politics with Azerbaijiani journalist, Бахрам Батыев. It was published by Azeri Today. Below is an English version.

Today, the world’s attention is focused on Donald Trump. What, in your opinion, do Americans expect from Trump?

Americans are alarmed at the world order crumbling over the past several years, at the multitude of global hotspots that make it appear that “the world is on fire.” Major crises include Daesh, perceptions of aggressive behavior and support for terrorism from Iran (including support for Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed terror groups in America’s backyard, in Venezuela), the nuclear threat from North Korea, China’s expansionist activities in the East and South China Seas and bullying of its neighbors, Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine and the threat felt by eastern Europeans and the Baltics, etc.

Many Americans believe that the world has come to this point through the retrenchment of the Obama years – through the withdrawal of the American presence and leadership from many areas, which created vacuums that were filled by other, less benign actors. Americans who voted for Trump expected him to have a more effective plan for dealing with these trouble spots than did Obama. Yet Americans do not support aggressive intervention overseas, either, and are looking for a balanced foreign policy that entails judicious use of American power to restrain malignant actors while not requiring endless commitments of money, blood, and effort.

Trump is facing, in some ways, an American nation and a global situation that is somewhat similar to that faced by Richard Nixon when he took power in 1969 in the midst of the Vietnam War. Trump’s response has been somewhat similar to that of Nixon, as well – Nixon, for example, called for American allies to carry a greater burden of the common defense of the existing international order. Trump’s rhetoric is aimed at the same goal – he is not expressing lack of support for the existing international order, but trying to prod American friends, partners and allies into sharing more of the burden of supporting that order.

Domestically, Americans are fatigued by a political Left that has sought to divide the nation along racial, ethnic, economic and other lines, and that has emphasized “identity politics” in a way that has left the nation deeply divided and fractured. One example of this has been the backlash against “political correctness” on the part of the Americans who voted for Trump – and Trump’s straightforward, no nonsense speaking style has appealed to many Americans who have grown tired of the rhetoric of Obama and the Left wing, which rhetoric has been defined by political correctness and an ideologically-based aversion to speaking the truth and address the difficult issues affecting society, from racial conflict to economic inequality and opportunity to religious freedom and gay marriage, etc. Americans who voted for Trump expect in this area for Trump to continue to speak the truth and not to allow his rhetoric to be determined by a misguided sense of political correctness – they want the political culture in the United States to change and have firmly rejected the political culture of the Left.

How has the Trump presidency divided American society?

Your question assumes that the current divisions within American society have only arisen in the past three weeks since Donald Trump became President, or in the past three months since he won the Presidential election. American society has been increasingly divided along ideological lines since the mid to late 1960’s.

The violent reaction one sees today from the Left to Donald Trump’s presidency, characterized by looting, rioting, violent assaults on all who disagree with them, assaults on police officers, obstruction of traffic on major roadways, burning of buildings, vehicles, etc., illustrates in my view the panic felt among the Left in the United States, who, after eight years of a very Left-leaning Obama Administration, had come to the false conclusion that they were the dominant force in U.S. society and culture and that they would always control the mechanisms of government power.

It also illustrates the true nature of their ideology, which is authoritarian and very un-democratic, as it denies freedom of speech to those who would disagree with them, and threatens their political opponents with violence. These are very un-American values and have long characterized the American Left. In 2012, Obama supporters threatened to riot should Obama not win re-election. As another example, polls in the midst of Obama’s presidency showed that the United States had never been more divided – this was several years before Donald Trump even announced that he was going to run for the presidency. So Trump’s presidency is not the cause of long-standing divisions within US society – it merely highlights those divisions that have long existed.

It would take too long to fully explicate all of the various ideological and philosophical differences that define the current divisions within U.S. society, but they have little to do with Donald Trump, having existed for decades prior to his election. Barack Obama exacerbated these divisions greatly through his tendency to govern through executive fiat rather than through the democratic process, and the same is true of the Left in general, which sought major social, cultural and political change in the United States usually through the court system – by creating court cases and seeking to convince federal judges to effectively change the law through their judicial rulings rather than attempt to do so through elections or public plebiscites, which the Left regularly lost. (This is one of the reasons why a major poll in 2012 revealed that the American people were deeply divided politically and culturally – much of those divisions were exacerbated by the top-down governing style of Obama and the Democratic Party.) This is the reason why Donald Trump, in his inaugural address, said that his inauguration was not just an example of power shifting within Washington from the Democratic to the Republican party, but rather an example of power shifting away from a tendency to enforce major change on the American people from the top down and to return power to the people themselves.

Trump’s election victory represented, in many ways, a resurgence of the traditional American vision that self-government did not only mean the ability to elect one’s political leaders, but that those political leaders did not hold ultimate political power nor control over the direction of the country. That control, rather, was traditionally held in local communities, in which voluntary organizations such as churches, Boy Scouts, Parent-Teacher Associations, Little League baseball clubs, socially-minded organizations such as the Elks Lodge, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Foreign Legion, and a multitude of other private organizations helped shape American society at the grassroots and served as a local venue in which citizens gained experience governing their own communities with little reference to state or national government.

That philosophical difference is one of the largest differences visible today within American society, and Trump’s victory primarily alienated those who believe that government should control the direction of the nation, rather than the belief that citizens should control the direction of the nation through actions taken in thousands of communities across the country and that the government’s role is primarily to sustain the political environment within which the American people can rule themselves locally.           

The violent backlash to Trump’s election is due largely to shock felt by the Left, which believed that they had politically marginalized those with a more traditional, historically-grounded view of American self-government, and by a Left which mistakenly believed that it would always control the mechanisms of political power in Washington due to demographic and cultural shifts that the Left believed would give it a permanent political majority in Washington. They were mistaken and are having a difficult time accepting the fact that the more traditional side of American society still has the ability to win elections and halt the progressive march to complete control of the United States.

The deeper issue here is related to America’s historical sense of national identity. The modern day political Left, symbolized by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, aggressively sought to change our sense of national identity to make it extremely secular and to purge in particular the influence of Christianity in the public square, which influence had always been dominant in American cultural and political life until fairly recently, while the Republican Party tends to represent those who view the United States as historically being a deeply religious nation and who believe that an aggressive purging of the influence of religion from our public life and national narrative is never what the Founding Fathers envisioned. That conflict over America’s national identity will continue, with the Left continuing to attempt to purge any Christian influence from the public square while conservatives will continue to attempt to preserve it and to protect the right of deeply religious people within the United States to have a political and cultural voice – something the Left had sought to eradicate, as well.

This deeper cultural struggle is another one of the major reasons for Trump’s electoral victory. Despite Trump not being a devout Christian and despite the fact that he in many ways has not led what American Christians would see as a virtuous life, they nevertheless have been on the defensive culturally and politically over the past several years in the face of relentless attacks from the Left, led in the past eight years by Barack Obama. Devout Christians in the United States, therefore, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, as they saw him as someone who would at least attempt to stop the constant assault on the Christian role in American public life.

Again, this deep cultural division within the United States will not be resolved anytime soon, and will impact the nature of American foreign policy over the long term as Americans themselves fight over the nature of their country and how they envision it interacting with the rest of the world.

What kind of foreign policy will the Trump Administration carry out?

As I wrote above, the Trump Administration is being staffed by people whose view of America’s national identity and role in the world is in stark contrast to the views held by the Obama Administration. One practical example is in the area of gay and transgender issues, in which the Obama Administration pressed foreign countries to initiate gay marriage and made such issues a central part of American diplomacy and engagement abroad, even to the point of alienating for traditional friends and allies, attempting to force openly gay ambassadors on traditional, Catholic countries and refusing to accept openly Christian ambassadors from other countries in which gay marriage was not allowed (this took place in the case of Moldova a year or so ago). Such a focus was not only frustrating many American allies and partners but was also frustrating many American diplomats, who did not appreciate the heavy focus on such issues, particularly when that focus caused the United States to lose sight of concerns more fundamental to American diplomatic partners. This will change under the Trump Administration, which will give much less attention to progressive, social engineering programs and more to traditional diplomacy and geopolitical concerns.

Trump has said that he wishes to return to a more traditionally conservative foreign policy in which the United States does not attempt to aggressively spread its political system, much less undertake progressive, social-engineering programs, but wishes merely to be an example of the superiority of a developmental model in which free markets are wedded to representative government. He and many of his advisors believe that by doing this, the United States can help to undermine some of the illiberal opposition to the United States, including on the part of Russia and China. Trump believes in less U.S. interventionism abroad. His view of the ideal American role in the world is perhaps best embodied by the famous speech by the U.S. Secretary of State for President James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, who later became President himself. Secretary of State Adams described the American role in the world thusly:

“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.”

The United States under President Trump, therefore, will not seek to aggressively intervene abroad as readily as it has in the past, but will, nevertheless, not hesitate to use American hard power in order to defend what it sees as the legitimate national interests as well as those of American friends and allies. Contrary to concerns on the part of some, Trump does understand the value of America’s alliances and partnerships, and does believe that the current, U.S.-led international order is a good order that has resulted in the spread of free markets, representative government and human rights protections around the world. He does not believe, however, as Barack Obama did, that American foreign policy should be aligned with the ideological goals of people such as George Soros and organizations funded by and aligned with people such as Soros.

How Trump will build relationships with major geopolitical opponents of the U.S. – Russia and China?

Trump, unlike Obama, does not believe that “nationalism” is a dirty word, and believes that a healthy sense of national and cultural identity is necessary for a well-functioning state, and that this, in turn, also adds to, rather than detracts from, the health of the broader world. In this sense his worldview is not in opposition to that of Vladimir Putin, giving the two men a much greater chance to find areas in which to cooperate than Obama and Putin ever had. Trump does not believe in the dominance of Leftist, progressive values, and will not direct the powers of the U.S. government to push such values abroad, which will also lessen areas of conflict with Vladimir Putin and others. Also helpful will be the fact that Putin does not disrespect Donald Trump as he did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, particularly due to the deep corruption that defined Bill and Hillary Clinton’s use of the Clinton Foundation, which caused Putin to view Hillary as hypocritical.

Trump will build bridges to Vladimir Putin by, among other things, treating him with greater respect than did Barack Obama, whose utter disdain for Putin was publicly evident. This lack of respect touched a nerve in both Vladimir Putin and in a Russian national psyche wounded by the chaos of the 1990’s and the sense that Russia was merely a minor power with little ability to shape the region in which it lived, much less the broader world. Whereas Barack Obama treated Vladimir Putin with utter disdain, and referred to Russia as merely “a regional power,” purposefully insulting Russian sensibilities, Donald Trump will not do that, but will treat Russia with greater respect. This psychological factor will go far to pave the way for more cooperative relations.

Still, there is not likely to be a “grand bargain” between Trump and Putin, due to the fundamental differences that exist. President Trump will never, for example, despite off the cuff statements during the presidential campaign and Ukraine’s open support for Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign, agree that Crimea is rightfully Russian territory.

Rather, the two men will likely look at smaller areas in which they can find agreement and overlapping areas of national interest that allow for limited cooperation.

With China, Trump’s China advisors believe that it is possible to have strong and cooperative relations with China while simultaneously holding the line against further Chinese strategic gains in the Asia-Pacific at the expense of the United States. In fact, as some of them have written previously, they believe that relations with China will improve once the United States takes a firmer stance in defense of its legitimate national interests and in the interests of its friends and allies in the region. Historically, Sino-American relations have been strongest when an American government set firm red lines and had the credibility to back those red lines up – a credibility that the Chinese did not believe Barack Obama had. Contrary to what many analysts write, China’s economy is not as strong as many believe it to be, and China has much more to lose, both economically and politically, through confrontation with the United States than does the United States. Trump has a better grasp of American economic and political leverage with the Chinese than did Obama, and will make judicious use of that leverage while also providing plenty of positive incentives to discourage things like intellectual property theft.

Will Trump resist Moscow’s claims to leadership in the post-Soviet space?

I’ve already answered this, to some degree, above. Contrary to what many believe, Donald Trump is not likely to reach a grand bargain with Vladimir Putin that cedes to Putin a “sphere of influence” in the post-Soviet space. Many of Trump’s advisors see Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin as a threat to the U.S.-led international order, and see its authoritarian, anti-democratic values as incompatible with America’s view of the world. At the same time, Donald Trump is not going to attempt to aggressively spread democracy, but sees the U.S. role in the world as being to demonstrate the superiority of free markets and representative government through the success of our own political system, not through aggressively trying to force other countries to accept it. 

The conflicts in the former Soviet Union – Karabakh, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova – will they will be the focus of Trump’s administration?

Trump’s focus is going to be radical Islam, including both the threat from non-state actors such as Daesh and al Qaeda, as well as from state actors and sponsors of terror, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as on the challenge from China, which Trump believes threatens to undermine the prosperity and continued economic and political rise of the Asia-Pacific region. This hierarchy of strategic threat perceptions is likely to cause Trump and his team to give a backseat to the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, and the simmering struggle for influence in much of the rest of the post-Soviet space. Trump will not cede a “sphere of influence here to Putin,” but neither is he likely to move to a major confrontation over this space. I believe that Trump and his team will make the disagreement with Moscow over the post-Soviet space the subject for long-term talks that will evolve hopefully in a positive direction as trust and cooperation are built in other areas – that would be my expectation.

Members of the Trump Administration have called Iran a major threat and terrorist state. Will this lead to U.S. military intervention in Iran?

If by a U.S. “military intervention” in Iran you mean an invasion, no, of course not.  Airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities are also not very likely. Trump and his team will use American military power in order to backstop, or support, the international system and its norms, but will not use it in an aggressive fashion, as should be clear from Trump’s consistent criticisms during the Presidential campaign of past U.S. leaders who, Trump believes, were too ready to use the U.S. military in order to remake the world in our image. The United States has greater means to influence Iran than just “military intervention,” a fact that Trump and his advisors have repeatedly referenced when they have mentioned their belief that U.S. sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and then the Obama Administration handed away U.S. leverage too easily for an agreement of questionable value.

All of that being said, what is likely, particularly if Tehran continues to attempt to threaten U.S. and allied ships operating in the Persian Gulf, is a more muscular U.S. response to Iranian provocations than was the case under President Obama. The humiliating image of American sailors on their knees before Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces, being forced to “apologize” for operating in international waters, will not be repeated. Nor will the U.S. Navy under President Trump be as restrained as it was forced to be under Obama in the face of swarms of small, Iranian fastboats making threatening approaches to U.S. naval vessels in international waters. Should Iranian boats threaten U.S. naval vessels’ ability to operate in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere in international waters near Iran through such things as threatening approaches to U.S. naval vessels, I would expect the U.S. naval surface combatant to shoot a couple of Iranian boats out of the water if they do not respond to U.S. warnings.

Trump believes that a show of resolve will illustrate credibility, and he further believes that Obama utterly lacked credibility, and also that this lack of credibility was one of the reasons the international order deteriorated so badly under Obama’s watch. Once credibility is established, Trump and his team believe, the actual use of force becomes much less necessary. If Iran doubts U.S. credibility under Trump, Trump will allow the U.S. Navy to defend itself against Iranian threats forcefully. This is the area in which I believe that actual military conflict, although limited, is most likely.