The most aggressive nationalist in Donald Trump’s administration has been kicked to the sidelines.
Steve Bannon, who served as Trump’s chief strategist, left the White House in mid-August after giving a candid interview to a liberal U.S. magazine. After a career of outrageous statements, Bannon finally said something in this interview that was completely unacceptable in Washington, DC, and that hastened his departure.
Bannon said that “there’s no military solution” to the conflict between the United States and North Korea.
Although other members of the administration, such as Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, had already concluded that any military conflict with North Korea would be “catastrophic,” the official White House position was that a military attack was still “on the table.” Indeed, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has even talked about launching a “preventive war” against Pyongyang.
But Bannon dismissed all talk of military action. For Bannon, North Korea was a distraction from the real struggle the United States should be waging: against China. Bannon was one of the major reasons why Donald Trump, when he was focusing on his message of economic nationalism during the 2016 presidential campaign, directed so much fury at Beijing. The Republican candidate singled out China for its trade surplus with the United States, its currency policy, and its approach to intellectual property. Trump promised, as president, to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office.
That didn’t happen. As president, Trump has instead taken a very different approach to China. At a friendly summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Mar-a-Lago in April, Trump backed off from all of his hostile criticism. He managed to extract a few trade concessions from Xi – on American beef and financial services – and again called on China to help persuade North Korea to abandon its confrontational posture. It seemed to be a repudiation of everything Steve Bannon had said about China.
Apparently there was all along a conflict within the Trump administration between those like Bannon, who wanted to confront China, and other administration figures like National Economic Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin who emphasized the benefits of a better U.S.-China relationship. This internal conflict explains the incoherence of Trump’s China policy, with the president criticizing Beijing in the morning and praising it in the afternoon.
Now that Bannon is out, will Trump’s Asia policy change?
This month, the United States and South Korea went ahead with its annual military exercise despite North Korea’s warning that it might launch a couple missiles into the sea around Guam. However, South Korean leader Moon Jae-in has, like Bannon, spoken out against war on the Korean peninsula, even a very limited military option. And the United States has not sent to the region the additional troops or hardware necessary for any significant military attack on North Korea.
So, even though it continues to talk of a military attack as a possible option, the Trump administration is making no additional moves in that direction.
Meanwhile, voices within the administration that favor a strong U.S.-China relationship will only grow more important, which makes any substantial revival of the “Pacific pivot” unlikely. The Obama administration designed the pivot, which included both a military and an economic dimension, to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Trump has already nixed the economic part, the multi-country trade deal known as the Trans Pacific Partnership. The administration will continue to sell arms to its Asian allies – including a $1.4 billion deal for Taiwan – but the reorientation of the Pentagon’s force posture from the Middle East to Asia is no longer a priority in Washington.
Meanwhile, just because the economic nationalism position is weaker within the administration, it won’t go away. Steve Bannon will be returning to Breitbart News, where he will champion the same positions he held before Trump was ever a presidential candidate. Bannon has long supported the erection of trade barriers to protect U.S. manufacturing and agriculture (and U.S. jobs) and the reduction of U.S. government spending by limiting U.S. military engagement overseas. This is the “America First” platform that won Trump the votes of Americans tired of war without end and disgusted with economic policies that have widened the gap between rich and poor.
Now on the outside, Bannon will take aim at the “globalists” and the “militarists” who support the status quo. The “globalists” include former Wall Street financiers like Cohn as well as Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The hawks, meanwhile, include Mattis and McMaster. In essence, Bannon is taking on the liberal-conservative consensus on U.S. foreign policy: an internationalist commitment to free trade and a militarist commitment to both the existing U.S. force posture and the budget that makes it possible.
Returning to Breitbart News, Bannon will attempt to rally the base that elected Trump in order to continue to put pressure on the president to fulfill his campaign pledges. If Trump listens instead to the “globalists” and the “militarists,” Bannon may even help the Republican Party gather the votes necessary for impeachment. Having promised to go “to war for Trump against his opponents,” Bannon could just as quickly go to war against Trump.
If Donald Trump were a more conventional politician, the departure of Bannon would signal that his administration is moving in a more routine conservative direction and that Trump himself is morphing into a more predictable politician like George W. Bush. But Trump is anything but conventional. He could decide from one day to the next that he is disappointed with China and wants to heighten tensions with Beijing. Or he could suddenly decide to negotiate directly with North Korea.
Trump lacks a coherent ideology. Before Bannon, he was basically a conspiracy theorist who gained a political following by claiming that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. After Bannon, perhaps he’ll sound more like some combination of Gary Cohn and Jim Mattis. Or perhaps, without an ideologue whispering in his ear, Trump will become even more unmoored from reality than he already is.
Hankyoreh, August 27, 2017