The coherent and successful foreign policy Ronald Reagan pursued from 1981 to 1989 might be referred to, at least in retrospect, as “conservative internationalism”. The American political scientist Henry R. Nau, in Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan (2013), argues that conservative internationalism features the best aspects of the three main US foreign policy traditions—liberal internationalism, realism or realpolitik, and nationalism—and in doing so creates a fourth, often overlooked, tradition. Conservative internationalism, according to Nau, aims to promote freedom no less than does liberal internationalism, augment diplomatic outreach with military superiority as does realpolitik, and maintain national sovereignty as per anti-globalist patriotism. Mike Pompeo, former director of the CIA, and Secretary of State from 2018 to 2021, makes the case in Never Give an Inch that the Trump administration, sometimes despite Trump himself, followed a conservative internationalist path and that its “peace through strength” attitude mostly worked.
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Conservative internationalism, so defined, was the mainstay of US foreign policy for most of the Cold War years. There were exceptions. One of them was the realpolitik of Nixon and Kissinger bringing Beijing in from the cold in 1972 as leverage against the Kremlin. Nonetheless, it was the imprudence of liberal internationalism that explains why our power elites in the West thereafter downplayed Beijing’s imperial ambitions. Trump vociferously disputed the long-accepted Washington (plus Wall Street, the mainstream, academia, Hollywood and so on) consensus that Sino-American relations were a win-win for both sides. In Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (2015), Trump fired off this broadside at Beijing:
They have destroyed entire industries by utilizing low-wage workers, cost us tens of thousands of jobs, spied on our businesses, stolen our technology, and have manipulated and devalued their currency, which makes importing our goods more expensive—and sometimes, impossible.
Especially in the beginning, Trump saw China less as a political and military adversary than an economic one. As Pompeo notes, the President was “more inclined to view power through a financial lens”. Nevertheless, Trump gathered around himself a collection of brilliant China hands who understood that the triumph of Xi’s “China Dream” would be the Free World’s nightmare. We know who the leading figures were—Mike Pompeo, Robert O’Brien, Peter Navarro, John Bolton, Keith Krachs, Alex Azar, Miles Yu and twenty-three others—because all were sanctioned by Beijing on Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day. It was a warning, writes Pompeo, to America’s political class (and their immediate families), who profit from business-as-usual with Beijing. To borrow from T.S. Eliot: Don’t disturb the universe.
The Trump administration’s harder line on China upset not only Beijing but also China’s apologists in the West. Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former prime minister and current ambassador to the United States, described Trump as “nuts” on the ABC’s Q&A in 2017. A year later, in a speech for Asia Society New York, Rudd blamed the crisis in US-China relations entirely on Trump, who had undercut “the traditional moorings of US-China relations” and threatened the stability of the global economy with the introduction of tariffs on Chinese imports. Rudd predicted that as a result of Trump’s America First protectionism, China would further liberalise its economy in 2019 and so take advantage of the White House’s lack of commitment to free trade. As it happened, Beijing cut a deal with the Trump administration in January 2020. Xi agreed to a so-called “phase-one trade deal” committing China to buy an extra $200 billion worth of goods from America over the ensuing two years. Beijing, according to reports, ended up purchasing only 57 per cent of the goods it had agreed at the time to buy, and certainly US-China trade remained as lopsided as ever in favour of China. Nevertheless, the West—not least Australia after Beijing’s attempt to devastate our export industries—is now more aware of Beijing’s intention to use trade as leverage to achieve its political objectives. Today it is not uncommon for politicians in the West, progressive and conservative alike, to question China’s dominance in the global supply chain of medicines, rare earths, computer parts and so on. These issues were rarely part of public debate in America before Trump began his presidential run in 2015.
In his 2018 address to Asia Society New York, Rudd spoke of “reformers” in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) steering the state towards “competitive neutrality between foreign firms and domestic firms, as well as between private firms and state-owned enterprises”. The subsequent failure of the communist state to adopt a “competitive neutrality”, asserts Rudd in “The World According to Xi Jinping” (Foreign Affairs, November-December 2022), was the result of General Secretary Xi re-connecting with his Marxist-Leninist roots and bringing “pragmatic, non-ideological governance to a crashing halt”.
For Pompeo, in contrast, the CCP as a whole—as a totalitarian system of domination—is the problem. Controlled by a secretive and all-powerful elite teeming with belligerent paranoia, the Party undermines the autonomy and integrity of every institution, every enterprise and every person in China, including billionaires such as Jack Ma: “There is no such thing as a Chinese private company … The Communist state can legally own or take control of any economic and business entity or force you to operate as directed by state authorities.” And now a version of this tyrannical process is going global. Admitting China into the World Trade Organisation did not, as liberal internationalists such as President Bill Clinton predicted, liberalise the CCP; instead, it undermined the WTO.
It was a similar story with the World Health Organisation, as exemplified by Beijing’s manipulation of the organisation during Covid. Never Give an Inch discloses that Trump briefly turned against Pompeo when Pompeo openly questioned Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus on March 25, 2020, during a press conference at the State Department: “[China] was the first country to know about the risk to the world from this virus, and they repeatedly delayed sharing that information with the globe.” A day later, in a call between Trump and Xi, a conversation Xi knew Pompeo would be able to overhear, the Chinese leader berated Pompeo for defaming the Chinese people and putting at risk the trade deal signed in January. Trump, at the next meeting Pompeo attended in the Oval Office, expressed his anger in front of those gathered in the room—an anger directed not at Xi but at Pompeo: “You guys need to know Xi hates this guy. Mike, you’re putting us all at risk—the PPE, our trade deal. Stop, for God’s sake!” This tells us Beijing has the capacity to browbeat even a rambunctious economic nationalist like Donald Trump.
A key aspect of conservative internationalism is containing the imperial ambitions of the most potent opponents of the West. Truman and Reagan, in their different ways, stood up to the Soviet empire during the Cold War. How did Trump fare? In the case of China, the mercurial Trump proved a more combative figure than his mild and conciliatory predecessor. While Obama authorised the mission that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death and an astonishing 567 lethal drone strikes targeting Salafi-jihadists in Pakistan, Yemen and Syria, when it came to China (and Russia and Iran), Obama was a chronic mollifier. As a result, Beijing, Moscow and Tehran treated him with contempt. At the 2017 G20 meeting in Hangzhou, for instance, the Chinese authorities refused to give Obama a normal red-carpet welcome (provided to all the other eighteen participating national leaders), forcing the US President and his entourage to disembark from Air Force One through the rarely-used emergency exit. Trump, in contrast, found a number of ways to make Xi accountable, starting with the year-long tariff face-off and ending with the order to sell over $4 billion of high-tech weaponry to Taiwan in October 2020 intended to “counter or deter maritime aggressions, coastal blockades and amphibious assaults”, while Pompeo labelled the CCP an exponent of genocide for its barbarism in Xinjiang. Beijing’s Xinhua news service tweeted, “Good riddance, Donald Trump!” and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, called the US Secretary of State “a doomsday clown”—but all this, of course, came on January 20, 2021, when Trump was no longer in office.
Pompeo insists that had Trump won a second term, Putin would not have invaded Ukraine. John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor (2018-19) and previously George W. Bush’s hawkish ambassador to the United Nations (2005-06), asserted the exact opposite in April last year: “I think in a second [Trump] term, the Russians would already be in Kyiv.” A scathing critic of Donald Trump’s character, Bolton’s essential thesis is that the protracted Russia Hoax (2016 to 2019), along with Hunter Biden’s problematic financial dealings with Ukraine’s Burisma energy company, made Trump a Ukraine sceptic, much in the same way some America First partisans, more isolationist than internationalist, are cynical about the $100 billion Biden administration has so far earmarked for the Ukraine war. For Trump detractors, his July 2018 performance in Helsinki at a joint press conference with the Russian president proves he was under the spell of (or being blackmailed by) Putin. As even Pompeo acknowledges: “To stand next to Putin and say that he believed Putin’s claims that he didn’t meddle in the US election was very Trumpian. It was also a mistake.”
Nevertheless, the Trump administration delivered to Kyiv many of the anti-tank launchers and missiles which proved so effective in the first crucial weeks of the Ukraine war. The seriousness of this weapons transfer, along with the “shows of strength that President Trump put on in private conversations with Putin”, induced the Russian leader “to delay his ambitions in Ukraine”. Never Give an Inch provides two stunning examples, in Syria alone, of Trump taking a hard line with the Russians. In the Battle of Khasham, February 2018, Trump ordered MQ-9 Reaper drones, F-22 stealth fighter jets, B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-Apache helicopters to attack the pro-Assad fighters, including Wagner troops, approaching the US base at Khasham. According to Pompeo, “[d]ozens if not hundreds of Russians were killed”, a slaughter that could have been avoided if the Kremlin had responded to Washington’s original request to halt the threat to Khasham. But the Russians learnt their lesson. The next year, before the US mounted its successful raid on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s headquarters, the Russians were warned to keep their fighter jets grounded: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Russians acquiesced that night, more than a year and a half after the episode at Khasham. This is the deterrence—in this case tactical deterrence—that follows drawing red lines and defending them.”
What about NATO? What a majority of its members had failed to do, complained Trump from the very beginning of his time in office, was pay their own way—2 per cent of GDP, a figure agreed upon in 2006. The New York Times, citing unnamed senior administration officials (quite possibly John Bolton), carried reports in 2018 that Trump intended to unilaterally withdraw the US from NATO unless every member pledged to spend the agreed 2 per cent on defence spending. Trump, apparently, got his way at NATO’s unscheduled 2018 crisis meeting because afterwards he announced that withdrawing from NATO was unnecessary. “NATO is much stronger now than it was two days ago,” he told reporters in Brussels. Trump’s anger at the financial state of NATO might be interpreted in a variety of ways. At the time, NATO’s former secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, blamed Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy, for questioning NATO and retreating from world affairs: “He has withdrawn from world affairs and that is why we see all the chaos right now. The world needs leadership and only America can provide that leadership.” For those who believe Putin is Trump’s “favourite dictator”, threatening to tear asunder the Euro-Atlantic alliance was to do the Kremlin’s handiwork. Pompeo puts Trump’s legacy in a very different light: “But what did Putin actually get from America during our four years? A rebuilt American military and more American troops forward deployed in Europe. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s general secretary, said NATO became stronger, and he is right.”
Today, undeniably, Biden can also claim that “NATO is stronger than it’s ever been”, but there is a caveat. It took Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine for Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz to experience the epiphany of a “historical turning point” and decide to spend an extra $100 billion on defence. Moreover, most of the thirty members are now struggling to provide timely deliveries of weapons to Ukraine, bearing out Trump’s criticism that too many NATO countries expected the US to save them and did not invest adequately in defence. Appeasement and dissoluteness invite war, and Pompeo is only stating a fact when he writes: “I’ve been accused of being an ultrahawk and a warmonger, by members of both parties. But on my watch no new wars erupted, and peace spread because deterrence works and we led without fear.”
The Biden administration, responsible for the chaos accompanying the US departure from Afghanistan in August 2021, did not project strength and resolution on the eve of the Ukraine war. Although President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken and the rest of the team were forewarned by US intelligence about Russia’s intentions, they proved incapable of dissuading Putin from his course of action. Biden, reportedly, had two phone conversations with Putin before the February 24 invasion but failed to deter him. Biden’s seeming equivocation on the eve of hostilities—“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do”—left the world confused and the Ukrainian government shaken. Biden had to call a second press conference to clarify his position. These days Volodymyr Zelenskyy is full of praise for Joe Biden, not least the US President’s surprise visit to Kyiv on February 20 this year: “Historic. Timely. Brave. I welcomed @POTUS in Kyiv as Russian full-scale aggression approaches its one-year mark.” Then again, if Biden had stopped Putin in his tracks back on February 20, 2022, the American leader would not have needed to make a historic, timely and brave visit to a war-torn Ukraine.
Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love
by Mike Pompeo
HarperCollins, 2023, 464 pages, $55