Why Trump’s America Rejects Globalization

For the first time in 70 years, Americans have a chance to vote for an outspoken protectionist from a major party. How did we get here?

A simple message
A simple message
Dominique Moïsi


PARIS â€" In November, for the first time since the U.S. presidential election of 1940, when incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt beat Republican challenger Wendell Willkie, we are set to witness a face-off between an interventionist Democrat and an isolationist Republican.

These two types of politicians represent the essence of American nationalism, and they’ve alternated holding power from the birth of the Republic till the U.S. entered World War II.

So how can we interpret this resurgence of isolationism in 2016? How can we explain some Americans calling Donald Trump a modern-day Andrew Jackson? This comparison is certainly flattering, but it’s misleading: Jackson was first and foremost a great soldier; Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a successful businessman.

It's very trendy to be a populist in 2016. Protectionism is all right, too, even though it's nonsense in economic terms. But to be an isolationist when you aspire to become president of the world's most powerful country â€" one that still has unique international responsibilities â€" ultimately amounts to a non sequitur.

It is true that isolationism and interventionism are both expressions of nationalism. Nationalism has two sides. One consists in building walls (Trump), the other in building bridges (Hillary Clinton).

The candidate who could become the first female president of the U.S. is profoundly "traditional" in her relationship to the world. More naturally interventionist than Barack Obama’s foreign policy, Clinton is in line with her husband’s approach, if not Ronald Reagan’s: a blend of humanist idealism and cold pragmatism.

What's new, even revolutionary, in the 2016 election is that a character so profoundly anachronistic in terms of strategic thinking could become the GOP’s candidate, despite or perhaps thanks to the outrageousness of his remarks.

The underlying reason for this evolution is connected to America's relationship to globalization. As the 20th century came to a close, we used to say that the U.S. was the great beneficiary of a globalized world. And objectively speaking, this was true. But a significant number of American citizens no longer agree, even viewing themselves as victims of globalization. In rallying behind Trump's isolationist and protectionist stance, they aim to protect themselves from a process they can longer seem to control.

Greedy China, freeloading Europe

The U.S. economy might be growing and its unemployment rate might be the stuff of dreams for most European countries, but one statistic undermines all that: more than 80% of Americans haven't recovered the standard of living they enjoyed before the financial and economic crisis of 2007.

Foreclosure on the America Dream â€" Photo: Kevin Dooley

These Americans don’t just blame current political leaders, linking economic frustration with racist prejudice along the way â€" "What else could we expect from a black president?" â€"they're also pointing fingers at the rest of the world. It’s the Chinese, who are engaging in unfair competition, even though labor costs have increased significantly in recent years. Or it’s the Europeans, who do nothing or almost nothing to share the burden of collective security. And it’s those Middle Eastern countries that, to thank you for your help, turn against you and baldly finance terrorism.

Of course, there are elements of truth in this diagnosis. There are shades of Reagan in Trump's "America and Americans first" stances. But there's a mixture of nationalism, navel-gazing, populism and, more importantly, underlying narcissism, in Trump.

"Myself and my energy are the embodiement of my political project," he seems to say, sounding to a French ear like Nicolas Sarkozy at times. This new emphasis reflects the evolution of modern emotions.

In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy encouraged Americans to ask what they could do for America. He was a "Berliner" alongside West Germans during the Cold War. He presented himself as a direct heir of the Founding Fathers, even though his Catholicism and Irish origins struck a discordant note in this lineage. He gave America a young, elegant, almost aristocratic face. Donald Trump is the absolute antithesis of both Obama and JFK.

In purely rational terms, Trump's view of the world may seem contradictory, if not incoherent. But as the world â€" from Britain in the shadow of Brexit, to the U.S., in the shadow of Trump â€" faces the possible triumph of humanity’s most negative emotions, let's not overlook the risks involved in seeing the world’s biggest military power dive headfirst into profoundly irrational behavior.

We hope that American voters will ultimately offer the best protection against Trump. Indeed, he should have the vast majority of blacks, Latinos and women against him. Countless well-educated and prosperous voters profoundly reject his persona and positions.

But we can no longer dismiss Trump’s vision for America's foreign policy with a wave of the hand. We've done it too often in the past, and we’re still paying the consequences. The era of intellectual, if not social, arrogance is over.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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