ARAB WORLD – Interview with Stephen M. Walt: “Trump is very sceptical of stupid wars in the Middle East”


On the 8th of November 2016 the American people voted for their head of state. They had the choice between a veteran of US politics, former first lady, current secretary of state – Hillary Clinton – and an experienced business man, political newcomer, vociferous orator – Donald Trump. When on the following day the results came in and it was clear that ‘the Donald’ would be the President-elect of the United States of America, the result of the vote surprised, perplexed and even shocked people around the world.

ARAB WORLD - November 2016 - Dorian KRONENWERTH'[1753]Nonetheless, leaders have congratulated Donald Trump on his victory, not least from all over the Arab and Muslim world, where US policy has a strong impact. In Iran the clerics were surprised, in Saudi-Arabia, Bahrain and the Emirates the leaders were pleased. Palestine is hoping, Israel too. But many questions arise about what the Trump administration will do, how it will behave and what the situation is, in which it will have to operate – it certainly is a complex net of issues, through which Donald Trump will have to navigate.

Stephen M. Walt is Professor of International Affairs and Faculty Chair of the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is one of the major references on defensive realism and has been greatly active in academic literature on international relations theory, as well as writing numerous books and articlesin specialised media.

Dorian Kronenwerth met Stephen M. Walt sharing his views for The Maghreb and Orient Courier.

Dorian Kronenwerth – Professor Walt, let us begin with a theoretical approach: would you consider Donald Trump to be a defensive realist? Has he understood that striving for global hegemony is neither the only, nor the best way for states to position themselves and to survive in the international system? Or is it just a coincidence that his foreign policy looks somewhat into such a direction?

Stephen M. Walt – I don’t think Trump has actually a well-formed, sophisticated or necessarily coherent view about American foreign policy; so I am reluctant to call him a defensive realist or any kind of realist, or anything else.

I think you could basically say that he is very much a sort of American nationalist who has a rather transactional approach to how foreign policy ought to be conducted; that it’s all about the short-term deal-making in the moment and not about a long-term perspective about what America’s relations with the rest of the world should be. It certainly not about trying to build an institutional structure or a world order of any particular kind.

He also, at least judging from the campaign, does not have a particularly sophisticated or in-depth understanding of many international issues. That said, I think that the success of his campaign is partly, only partly, based on his attack on the set of ideas and policies that both democrats and republicans have implemented ever since the end of the cold war, if not before: his criticism of nation-building, his concerns about American allies perennially free-riding, his emphasis that US foreign policy should be about what is good for America first and foremost and not just about what’s good for everybody else. And finally his very sceptical approach towards globalisation; all those points are in various ways at odds with many of the things that both democrat and republican Presidents have done, said and pursued for a long time.

A last point on this: it was also an attack essentially on the entire foreign policy establishment, as being out of touch, elitist and unaccountable in some respects. That resonated very powerfully with lots of people. To me the most interesting question is what he actually chooses to do, or will try to do, and whether he will be successful in essentially taming that very large, extensive, well-developed establishment and moving American policy in another direction or whether he will essentially get co-opted by that establishment and will end up doing a lot of the same things that have been done in the past.

Dorian Kronenwerth – So would you say that the election of Donald Trump ushers in the definite end of the world order as we know it – and with it the decline of the American influence?

S. M. WaltWe have not had a President in decades who has been as sceptical of these familiar conventional wisdoms of American foreign policy. He has been more critical of NATO than any other President since NATO was formed, he has been critical of our support for key allies in Asia, he has already said he is going to walk away from the Trans-Pacific partnership, which was a critical trade pact designed partly for economic reasons, but mostly for geo-strategic purposes concerning China and to strengthen the bonds of the US with its critical allies in Asia. He already suggests some real departures from what has happened in the past and my guess is that he will be able to follow through on some of them. He has said he wants a different relationship with Russia and believes that some of the negative aspects of that relationship are due to actions taken by his predecessors. So I think he would like to rewind that back. Whether he will be successful at doing that and what the consequences of it will be remains to be seen. But I think there is probably greater uncertainty about the course of American foreign policy today than at any point in the past twenty-five years.

Dorian Kronenwerth – To what extent do you think the Trump administration will seize the opportunity to break with tradition and perhaps even bring about a real paradigm shift in American foreign policy?

S. M. WaltThere is no question that if Trump pursued the agenda that he outlined in the campaign, it would be a very sharp break with 50 years, or at least 25 years of American foreign policy. We would no longer be the indispensable nation, we would no longer be the lynchpin of a liberal world order. So yes, if he does what he said in the campaign, then yes, it will be different. But he has not done that yet and it remains to be seen whether he will be able to.One possibility is that he does it, that he does it successfully and then we have a different relationship with the world, but it is actually one that works better. A second possibility is that he does it, but he does it pretty badly, ineptly and actually causing problems that could have been avoided. The third possibility is that he actually either doesn’t try or doesn’t succeed and American policy kind of reverts back to the familiar patterns of American leadership and trying to manage lots of global problems. But it is too early to tell, which one of those it will be.

Dorian Kronenwerth What do you think about the potential candidates for becoming Secretary of State? Furthermore, how relevant will the choice be in shaping policy? (At the time of this interview no announcements had been made)

S. M. Walt – It is not obvious how critical those appointments are going to be and that has also been true of other Presidents. In the case of President Nixon with Kissinger it mattered who the Secretary of State was; in the case of the first President Bush and Jim Baker, it mattered who the Secretary of State was; in the case of the second President Bush and Colin Powell, it didn’t make that much difference, because Powell did not have that much influence and I would argue with respect to President Obama and Hillary Clinton that she did not have much influence on American policy, but that it was mostly run out of the White house – whether you think that was a good idea or not. So just knowing who the Secretary of State will be, does not tell you very much – it depends on whether that particular person does or does not have Trump’s ear or is marginalised or loses a lot of fights with the other key members of the cabinet and the white house staff or not. It is way too early to tell. He could pick an establishment figure, but even then he could simply ignore that advice. Such an establishment figure could be there to reassure the general public, whilst Trump goes off and does whatever he wants – not saying this is going to happen, but at this point just knowing who he has picked for different positions in the cabinet will not tell us into which direction American policy is going to head.

Dorian Kronenwerth – Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that the Islamic State needs to be destroyed. Does this mean that 2017 may see yet another US military intervention on the ground in the Middle East?

S. M. Walt – Several points: there are American ground troops there now, just not very many of them. Second, he has consistently been very sceptical of nation-building enterprises and stupid wars in the Middle East, so for him to make a major recommitment of American forces would be a reversal. Third, he will inherit a situation where ISIS has been consistently loosing over the past year or two and without an enormous American investment, so he will benefit from the success of Obama’s policy if ISIS is defeated or at least continues to lose territory. That is the result of the policies that Obama put in place and Trump might decide to leave those in place and just take credit for them when they succeed.

That said, some of the people he has appointed – most notably Michael Flynn, the national security advisor – have a very hard-line attitude towards dealing with organisations like ISIS. I think that is also true of James Mattis, who has been rumoured as a candidate for secretary of defence. So you could have some voices in there that are pushing him to do more. Second, even if he does not do more right now, and even if ISIS eventually does lose more ground control, the problem of so-called violent extremism is not going to go away. There are many other groups such as ISIS, and some of these groups may eventually emerge in power in parts of Syria; they are not going away in Libya or Yemen or any number of other places. So the idea that ISIS’ defeat ends this problem once and for all is wrong. This means that a Trump administration is going to have to decide whether the US should still be on the front lines against terrorist organisations or whether or not it should disengage and leave that problem primarily to local allies.

Dorian Kronenwerth – Just how damaging to the United States do you believe Trump’s more than hinted-at Islamophobia to be?

S. M. WaltI do not think it will have an enormous impact on America’s relation towards Muslim governments. I think he will try to deal with them on a business-like basis. Most of those governments have always been pretty good at ignoring things that US Presidents may have said that were not particularly tactful. But it probably has already been a great recruitment opportunity for anti-American organisations and terrorist organisations in the Middle East, because he has – or people associated with him – said some pretty remarkable things about Islam as a religion and the Islamic world in general and that is ‘manna from heaven’ if you are an ISIS recruiter or an Al-Qaeda recruiter.

Dorian Kronenwerth – What do you reckon will President Trump make of the Sunni and Shi’a divide?

S. M. Walt – Trump appears to be bringing in a number of people who are very weary if not hostile to Iran and even if he keeps the Iran nuclear deal in place – which I think he should and I think he probably will – he will do nothing significant to improve relations with Iran. This will again align him with the Sunni side that has been very hostile to Iran. But what is interesting is that he has a trade-off, that he also has at least sounded like he would live with Assad staying in power in Damascus. Of course Assad and Iran are closely aligned and they are also somewhat comfortably aligned with Russia. So if he moves closer to Russia and accepts Assad, that removes a conflict with Iran as well. It is more evidence that he has not had to think any of these things through and how he reconciles these tensions is going to be interesting.

Dorian Kronenwerth – Moving onto Israel: Trump said that he supports a two-state solution, but that Palestinians need to cease aggressions. How do you think the relationship with Israel will evolve under the Trump administration?

S. M. WaltHe said at one point, early in his campaign, that an Israeli-Palestinian peace would be ‘the ultimate deal’ and that he would be better able to produce one because he would be even-handed. Then he backed away from that and he took basically the same position that every one running for the position of President in the United States takes: yes, we want a two-state solution and no, we are never going to put any pressure on Israel. I believe he will stay out of that issue almost entirely. I think he would recognise that it is not something where he is likely to be successful. The last two Presidents have tried hard to get a two-state solution, both of them have failed. There is no political benefit for him trying to do it. The prospects for doing it today are worse than they have been in 25 years, so I believe he will give Israel a free hand and leave it at that, but he will do as little as possible vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians.

Dorian Kronenwerth – On the home front, what links does Trump have towards the Israeli lobby?

S. M. Walt – Well people have talked about the fact that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is an orthodox Jew and very influential in Trump’s inner circle. I think the American Jewish community is now split and will continue to split on this issue. There is a group whose sole or primary purpose is to promote Israel and to maintain a close tie between the USA and Israel. They are going to go along with Trump as long as he is supportive of Israel. They are kind of ‘one-issue’ people. But there are other people in the American-Jewish community who are very alarmed by his anti-liberal tendencies and some of the genuinely anti-Semitic groups that have openly embraced Trump – and that he has not rejected. Whatever Trump’s own views might be, he has not criticised, tried to silence, or distanced himself from some of those groups that are clearly anti-Semitic. That is what makes some people in the American-Jewish community very nervous. I also believe that despite the Arab-Israeli conflict, whenever you get a President or his close associates talking about registering segments of the American population, making them sign up on some list or place on ethnic or religious ground, this makes many American Jews very uncomfortable – for understandable historical reasons; and it should make all Americans very uncomfortable as well. So I think we are going to see some real tensions in that world of whether you want to support Trump or whether you want to oppose him.

Dorian Kronenwerth – Do you think that Trump’s administration will be one looking at the interests of big business?

S. M. WaltI think that he will almost certainly try to make decisions that benefit American business and broadly the American economy. A President who mismanaged the American economy in some fundamental way is going to be in enormous political trouble and Trump got elected in part because of a substantial segment of the American population that felt they had been left out of all of the benefits of globalisation and that nobody was paying attention to their interests. If he doesn’t deliver to them, or things get worse for them, he will be in real political trouble. The question then is, does he have a theory, or an approach, or a set of policies to go that will in fact deliver. What he has suggested is that he is going to reduce regulation and he wants to do a lot of infrastructure spending. My guess is that in the short term this will have a positive effect for business. Whether that ultimately trickles down to the rest of the country in a way that people can really feel and notice and give him credit for remains to be seen. The second big question isone of definitions: when he says that he is going to be a pro-business President, does he mean all businesses? His businesses? Or just the businesses that politically support him? And I think one serious concern are Trump’s conflicts of interest and his willingness to pay back people who opposed him, to use the power available to him to punish his critics and to reward his followers – this will really be at an unprecedented level. When you have a President who has expressed his open admiration for someone like Vladimir Putin as a strong leader, and of course Putin has done an enormous amount of playing favourites and punishing opponents, it is at least a little bit worrisome.

Dorian Kronenwerth – Is there really a safeguard against Trump?

S.M. Walt – It all depends. There are checks and balances, so he cannot get a federal budget past without congressional approval. He cannot inaugurate any major policy changes without getting congress to support it. But of course the Republican party controls both the house and the senate right now. There are things Democrats could do to make that more difficult and there are some Republicans that could disagree with some steps he might do in one direction or another. So it is not like he could take the oath of office, go into the Oval office and immediately turn the constitution upside-down. But this is an individual who has broken all the other rules of running for office and nobody has ever behaved like he has behaved in any election and then won. He does appear to have a gift for manipulating public opinion and public perceptions, by social media, by relying upon alternative media, by attacking critics immediately. The fact that the cast of the play Hamilton made this rather polite statement (on Friday the 18th of November), not rude in the slightest to the Vice-President-elect when he attended, and immediately got a firestorm of criticism from Trump gives you a sense of how he believes in running the Presidency. He is going to attack anyone who criticises him and of course at the same time he will want to reward anybody who is supporting him. And that in ways that no other President has ever tried – and whether or not he succeeds is going to be an interesting question to watch.

Dorian Kronenwerth – A little removed from the Middle East and foreign policy, do you think that the media, as fourth pillar of democracy, have failed in their task?

S. M. Walt – There is no question that the media failed badly throughout the campaign. I think leaders of media organisations now acknowledge that they did not know how to cover Trump and that they were fascinated; they knew they could sell a lot of papers and get a lot of viewers by pandering to him. And they did, because none of them ultimately did take him seriously. So we are going to get a look at what the modern American media is really like. And that’s not to say that they should be relentlessly critical to him. They should be relentlessly neutral –that they should go after him and investigate what he is doing and if it is the right thing, and if what he says is accurate and if his policies are successful, then they should say so. But if they’re not, then they should say that too. We will see how good a job they will do. I have to say I am not as confident as I used to be.

Dorian Kronenwerth – Swinging back towards politics, Mrs Clinton undeniably would have been an experienced President in matters of international relations, although arguably with a mixed reputation, especially concerning her legacy in Libya. Some doubted her candidacy to the Presidency, because she seemed too eager to leave her mark on the world (i.e. Libya). How do you see Mr Trump in comparison?

S. M. Walt – Hillary Clinton was the embodiment of the standard US consensus on foreign policy and if you looked at the set of advisors she had during the campaign on foreign policy, they defined the foreign policy establishment; she was conventional wisdom personified: “American leadership is essential”, “It is better to try and fail than not to try at all”, “It is our right and responsibility to spread American ideals around the world”, “These alliances that we keep taking are central to our security”… She really did embody the conventional wisdom and as I said at the outset, the fact that the voters rejected her, I think, is in part, not entirely, a sign of how that approach to the world had failed over the last 25 years. What Trump was saying, and I’m quoting him here, that “American foreign policy was a complete and total disaster” might be overstating it, but it was mostly a failure. We have actually done quite badly for the last 25 years or so. Whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya, or Syria … I would also say that our handling of relations with Russia, with China – the failure to connect globalisation to domestic programmes, that could deal adequately with the consequences … it has not been a good 25 years. Trump picked up on that. The only question on that is whether he will do better than she would have done.

Trump has the following problem: if he goes with people who are radicals on foreign policy, who really want a different foreign policy, most of these people have very little experience and they are going to make enormous mistakes, because they just don’t know what they’re doing when they try to actually run a government. So even if they had the right ideas, they probably won’t do them particularly well. If, on the other hand, he brings in some experienced hands who know what they’re doing, they’re not going to want to follow a radical policy, they’ll want to drag him back towards the more familiar set of actions and priorities. And if you get both groups, so some from the one and some from the other, then you have big fights within the administration. So in a sense, he will actually have a tough time in putting together an effective foreign policy that does not either repeat mistakes of the past or create a whole new set of mistakes.

Dorian Kronenwerth – Bottom line: Trump will maybe not do as much foreign policy wise at the end of the day?

S. M. Walt – If he is smart, he will try and do as little as possible overseas, because the more he does outside the United States, the less likely he is going to fix anything here at home.

But I would like to add to this is that the international system has a way of grabbing a President’s attention, whether they want it to or not. There are 192 other countries and they sometimes do interesting things that no one expects…



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Dorian Kronenwerth

Political Scientist and Economist - Managing Editor for English

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