The war of words between China and the US flared again this week with warnings from Beijing that any move by Washington to implement a naval blockade in the South China Sea would trigger an armed conflict.
However, these tensions with China are just one of several global flashpoints that are testing the declared America First policy of President Donald Trump.
America First sounds like a laudable aspiration. But it would be naive to think that the US can simply reorient inwards and behave like a good global neighbor. Its economic power interests are dependent on foreign dominance, which in turn implies conflict and war with other nations. This is the harsh reality of US-led capitalism, regardless of what kind of president occupies the White House.
Trump campaigned on a platform of scaling back US military overseas interventions. In his inaugural speech on January 20, he again emphasized his America First pledge, whereby the focus of his presidency would be a nationalist-driven building of US economy and society. The overseas military adventurism of his predecessors, Barack Obama and George W Bush, and others before them, would be jettisoned in order to prioritize American interests at home.
Trump declared at his swearing-in on Capitol Hill that the US would «seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world» and «not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but let it shine as an example for others to follow». The days of foreign militarism were over, he said, so that American infrastructure would not fall into «disrepair and decay».
Nonetheless, within days of making those grand utterances, the Trump administration looks very much like any other predecessor in terms of willingness to continue getting embroiled in foreign conflicts.
Tensions with China this week featured prominently in the headlines. «Is Trump ready for war in the South China Sea?» asked the Washington Post. This followed a statement from the White House saying that it was prepared to block China’s access to reclaimed islands in the disputed strategic sea. Such a naval blockade by the US would constitute an act of war. It goes way beyond what the Obama administration ever gambled on in its wrangling with China over the contested territory.
The provocative brinkmanship by the Trump administration over the South China Sea is, disturbingly, only the latest in a series of perceived insults to Beijing. Trump has repeated accusations against China of unfair trading practices, threatening to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese exports, and he has scoffed at Washington’s long-held One China Policy, casting aspersions on Beijing’s historical claims over Taiwan.
The gravity of the US-China standoff was underscored by news reports that Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles have been newly stationed in the country’s northeast region, which are capable of targeting the US mainland. The move is bound to be seen as a response by Beijing to the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric.
If this were not perplexing enough, China is only one of several other global flashpoints that the Trump presidency seems to be playing with fire. North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and the ongoing escalation of NATO forces on Russia’s western borders are other major risks.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jung Un earlier this month vowed that his country would continue developing ICBM technology to eventually reach the capability of striking the US. (Hundreds of American nuclear missiles are already capable of striking North Korea, but this asymmetry is somehow deemed acceptable.) In typical cryptic language, Trump hit back at Kim Jung Un through a twitter soundbite, saying: «It’s not going to happen!» That curt message could be construed as meaning a pre-emptive American attack on the already isolated and heavily sanctioned Korean nation. Such veiled American threats will only incite further militarism.
If Trump were serious about taking care of domestic American business and society as a priority, he should be negotiating a draw-down of tens of thousands of US forces which have been on the Korean Peninsula for six decades since the Korean War ended in 1953. Not only troops, but also American warplanes, warships, missiles and punitive sanctions. Trump should be reviving multilateral regional talks with Pyongyang to establish a process of normalizing diplomatic relations. Instead Trump is continuing a failed and ticking time-bomb policy of militarism towards Pyongyang.
On Iran, Trump has again poured oil on troubled waters, rather than pursuing peaceful diplomacy. He has threatened to tear up the international nuclear accord, calling it «the worst deal ever». This week, Iran said that the US was failing to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated last year between Tehran and six other parties, including Russia, China and the European Union. Iranian vexation is understandable considering that US obstructionism to the deal’s implementation is costing Iran billions of dollars in lost trade opportunities.
Trump’s appointment of General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as Defense Secretary bodes for a much more hostile stance towards Iran. While serving in Iraq as a Marine commander, Mattis was known for hawkish views on Iran over the latter’s alleged support for Iraqi insurgents. The new Pentagon chief also wants to hit back with force over ongoing tensions in the Persian Gulf between Iranian and American navy vessels. An explosive incident could happen any day and Trump’s hot heads are itching to escalate.
Further fueling those tensions with Iran are reports that Trump has been holding talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on «how to contain the Iranian threat» in the region. If Trump follows through on tearing up the nuclear deal with Iran, it can be expected that Iran will resume its nuclear program and step up its testing of ICBMs. Thus fulfilling the desires of Trump’s hawkish cabal to strike at Iran.
Another potential flashpoint is Venezuela. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, last week announced that he would seek regime change against the «incompetent and dysfunctional government» in that South American country. In reply to Congressional questions concerning Trump’s still-to-be confirmed appointment, Tillerson said: «If confirmed, I would urge close cooperation with our friends in the hemisphere, particularly Venezuela’s neighbors Brazil and Colombia, as well as multilateral bodies such as the OAS, to seek a negotiated transition to democratic rule in Venezuela».
A «negotiated transition to democratic rule» is euphemistic language for regime change. Such a view from Trump’s would-be top diplomat marks a radical uptick in hostility towards the government of Nicolas Maduro compared with that under the Obama administration. The latter certainly slapped sanctions on Caracas and fomented internal political opponents to the socialist government. But Tillerson is now openly calling into question the legitimacy of the Venezuelan government, making unilateral demands for a «transition to democratic rule».
Venezuela is where Tillerson’s background as chief executive of Exxon Mobil becomes embroiled with American big business interests and personal vendetta. Exxon Mobil is the leading US oil giant, which Tillerson headed up until only a few weeks ago when Trump tapped him for the State Department. The company lost up to $16 billion in property and other assets when the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor, nationalized its holdings in 2007. An international court of arbitration ruled in 2014 that the country should compensate the oil company with $1.6 billion – that is, only about 10 per cent of what Exxon Mobil had sued for. Some industry insiders say Tillerson has never forgiven Venezuela for «burning him».
If – and it seems likely next week – the US Senate finalizes Tillerson’s confirmation as Secretary of State, a key issue to watch will be whether Washington slaps more sanctions on the Venezuelan government over and above those already imposed by the former Obama administration. Washington may also cut back on oil imports from the South American supplier, thus putting more economic pressure on an already fragile Venezuelan economy. And, as Tillerson replied during his Congressional hearings, a further provocative move would be for Washington to begin openly agitating for political transition to «democratic rule» in Venezuela.
With regards to Russia, this may seem an unlikely volatile international scenario, given that Donald Trump has frequently called for restoring normal relations with Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular. But apart from personal overtures for more cordial communications, the overall geopolitical situation continues to deteriorate.
This week, German and Belgian troops of the US-led NATO military alliance took up new positions in Lithuania adjacent to Russian territory. They are part of a continuing NATO reinforcement in Poland and the Baltic states, which earlier this month saw thousands of American troops and hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers newly arrived from the US. This relentless buildup of NATO forces on Russia’s border has been condemned by Moscow as an «aggression». Yet, the NATO escalation continues apace with the hollow official justification that it is aimed at «defending Europe from a Russian invasion».
Trump’s Cabinet members, including his Defense Secretary James Mattis and new CIA chief Mike Pompeo, as well as Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, have all expressed fulsome support for NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. The same Cabinet members have tendentiously laid the blame for tensions on Russia for its alleged annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine. Indeed, Tillerson has compared the territorial claims by China in the South China Sea to the «taking of Crimea by Russia».
At least five international areas are fraught with incendiary tensions that are testing the Trump presidency’s self-declared America First policy. In all of the areas, the Trump administration bears responsibility for further stoking apprehensions. If the new president were true to his promise of scaling back American militarism abroad and devoting his supposed business acumen to reviving the US domestic economy and society, then what we should be witnessing is a determined effort to diffuse international antagonism. The opposite seems to be underway with regard to China, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Russia.
In a lot of favorable commentary about President Trump it is averred that his America First policy is a welcome departure from American «globalists», «neoconservatives» and «neoliberals». The assumption is that Trump’s brand of purported nationalist politics is a new departure from warmongering American policies.
That seems to be a naive perspective and false differentiation of American politics. Regardless of semantics, American corporate capitalism is predicated on imperialist hegemony, conflict and war. Even if Trump shifts economic production back to the US, the country will still need to dominate overseas markets for exploiting natural resources and exporting its commodities. That implies pursuing the same foreign policy underpinned by militaristic force that has been a hallmark of the US for decades.
Keep in mind the inherently aggressive nature of the United States as a modern capitalist state. Since its founding in 1776, out of 241 years of existence, the country has been at war for almost 90 per cent of that time, according to several historical accounts. Not a decade has gone by when the US was not involved in some kind of war, coup, counter-coup or proxy conflict. War is a fundamental function of American capitalism.
And the election of Donald Trump is not going to change that objective fact, despite the rhetoric otherwise.