Land of the Free and home of the 'Rogue'
President Trump says he'll make the USA a safer place. It remains to be seen what other states will do, says Dr. Alison Holmes, Asst. Professor of International Studies and Politics at Humboldt State University, CA and former Transatlantic Studies Fellow at Yale
The United States regularly comes in for abuse for its self-interested/culturally crass/unnecessarily aggressive foreign policy. Ironically, it comes in for almost equal abuse for NOT acting fast enough / aggressively enough / clearly enough in various parts of the world. What the US can generally be counted on to do, is go through the dance of trying to do the 'right thing', the act that 'promotes democracy' and celebrates 'the people'. Sounds predictable enough, right? But what if the real 'new' feature of US foreign policy is not false news or alternative facts but a new era in which the United States throws off all the old rules of great powers supporting order and balance? What if, instead of a 'kinder gentler nation', to use the words of George HW Bush, we have assumed the posture of a rogue state?
In terms of international relations theory, the history of the rogue state is, not surprisingly, checkered. Indeed both Noam Chomsky and William Blum have regularly declared the US as the biggest rogue state of them all – but they arguably intended that to be a barb against hypocrisy. Perhaps they were more prescient than they could know as the United States seems to be moving in the direction of acting on those ideas.
The two most relevant questions would seem to be: what's new about that – if anything? Second, what difference would it make - if it were true?
The answer to the first question is clearly nothing – the United States acting rogue is hardly new. Chomsky and Blum are hardly the first to point out that not only the United States but almost any 'great power' has also been the great rogue of its time. Even as states were building the new international bodies, norms and alliances that make up international society, they were also busy building empires through military means and shoring up their international positions and reputations in the far corners of the world through power and coercion.
The term has gained new application in the post-Cold War world and to use the colorful words of Ronald Reagan in more recent time, the 'outlaws' were a 'collection of misfits, loony tunes, and squalid criminals'. The Clinton Administration was slightly more diplomatic as they declared outlaw states to be those who 'choose to remain outside the family [of democratic nations] but also assault its basic values'. In that moment, five were specifically labeled as 'rogue': N. Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Libya, all on the grounds that they all pursued weapons of mass destruction, supported terrorism, severely abused their own citizens as well as being vocal critics of the United States. Interestingly Cuba didn't really fit all of the requirements and there were certainly others who avoided the label – such as Syria and Pakistan, because the United States had other hopes and plans for their engagement in the international community at the time.
As these players gradually shed the four requirements, Madeleine Albright decided in 2000, the last six months of Clinton's presidency, to discontinue the use of the term 'rogue' in favor of the much softer option: 'states of concern'.
This suggests that the second question may therefore be the more important point. If President Trump is indeed moving the United States towards the role of 'wild card' or even a 'loony tune' what difference does that make?
There are two options here. The first is the one making headlines alternating between cries of horror and dismay in the left leaning press, which is to say that the United States is increasingly demanding that allies 'carry their fair share' and even in the most delicate of situations, opting to leave 'all the options on the table'. A new kind of 'shock and awe' is reverberating around the world as country after country is insulted then incited in turn. Yet it is simultaneously true that the new president has only wholeheartedly embraced one of the most traditional cornerstones of foreign policy iterated by Lord Palmerston (and much later by Henry Kissinger): 'We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow...'. The hue and cry can only be attributed to the idealistic notion that the United States is supposed to be on the side of democracy and order. Its role, first as superpower then as hyperpower, should be the beacon on the hill and judged by its support for at least holding the ring in conflict situations if not facilitating and maintaining the peace around the world.
The second option is that President Trump's volatility, unpredictability and utter disdain for protocol and procedure may just give notice to would-be rogues that the real danger is not from those we expect to be bad, precisely because we are prepared for them to do bad things. It is surely a more serious threat when those we expect to be good – or at least try to be good - suddenly shift policy or disregard prior agreements or understandings.
Realist international theory, or realpolitik, has, at its core, the idea that there is no authority above the state and that states must therefore decide any course of action in the context of an anarchical world. The pluralist or idealist would robustly respond to such ideas with the assertion that states rarely behave with a purely short-termist approach and can only operate in the world by assuming that, rather than a war of all against all, partnership is not only possible but necessary and complex networks of interdependence are the sinews of international society.
Enter this debate of high theory, a newly reborn United States. Convinced of the reality of realist politics and without the subtlety of diplomatic discourse or patience to understand the pervasive webs of interconnection at the international level, the new Administration is charging forward with the most classic, most traditional, most rigid and constraining idea of statecraft since Machiavelli advised the Prince. If you don't know which way the animal will charge, is it any wonder that some, like North Korea, make noise and others try not to bait the beast and silently accept jibe and jest, as with Mexico and Germany.
President Trump asserts that his approach will make the United States a safer place. It remains to be seen if other states will begin to declare the United States a rogue or outlaw and what, if any recourse they will attempt. It may be that the US is simply too big to taunt and you just can't tell what a rogue will do.