When a Superpower leads with its chin

The memory-free Australian press likes to couch Donald Trump as a random mad man taking America down untrodden paths to disaster. In truth he is something more complex and less easily judged for the dependent ally. Leaders do not spring from holes in the ground. They are their political culture, parties and people manifest.

Through his work at The National Interest, it was Australia’s Owen Harries who did much to define the dominant and competing traditions of American foreign policy that offer better insights into the Trump phenomenon.  Harries and his contributors identified two predominant schools of thought. The first was Wilsonianism, an idealistic ideology derived from President Woodrow Wilson that saw American ideals of democracy and capitalism as the best hope and future for the world. It is internationalist, interventionist and alliance-driven. The second school was Jacksonianism. Derived from President Andrew Jackson, it is a “realist” ideology that saw merit in domestic focus and the celebration of the common man. It is martial, honor-bound and rights-driven but is only dragged kicking and screaming into foreign wars (for more read Walter Russell Mead).

For the past century, Wilsonianism has dominated American foreign policy with only fits and starts of Jacksonian rebellion. Through two world wars and many regional skirmishes, America has remained largely committed to the creation of a global liberal order, (some might say empire), oscillating between bouts of fantastic idealism and realpolitik but by and large shaping the world in its image.

However, today that continuum has been disrupted. America has elected a thoroughly Jacksonian President in Donald Trump with his “America First” doctrine, and the cracks that that creates for the global order are widening fast.

The opening schism played out in the Middle East. There we saw Donald Trump throw aside the liberal order of his predecessor – that was dealing with the rise of Iran – in favour of a simplistic embrace of those nations that were prepared to buy American weapons. Saudi Arabia was first out with the credit card and we saw immediate fallout for US allies in the region as Saudi read the signal as a withdrawal of the US soft and hard power that gives meaning to the global liberal order. Qatar has been on the receiving end of that turn of events and must be wondering what is the upside in hosting a gigantic US base these days!

A second and much bigger crack in the global order is opening around North Korea. It, too, has noted the revival of the Jacksonian order, and has seized the opportunity to press outward its military sphere of influence.

Neither of these in themselves is anything much to worry about for investors. Both are small nations and neither has any great ambition beyond regional self-interests.

However, these are no more than the opening feints within a much larger game that the great powers will also play against a Jacksonian US. On that basis, the North Korean crisis especially has resonance with what is to come.

Donald Trump’s new world order began with classic Jacksonian hostility towards China as a rising commercial power weakening the lot of the US common man. China has played along, opting for dialogue over drama, allowing the US to make the running in whichever direction it sees fit. It has gone some way down the path of Korean de-nuclearisation too, imposing sanctions and pretending to some co-operation with the US as its withdrawal from North Asia throws up its first challenge.

But behind those gestures, the realpolitik of the DPRK as a Chinese strategic proxy remains. South Korea is a US ally and the north is it counterweight for China. So, as Trump’s Jacksonian withdrawal transpires, China is also asserting its power into the region by allowing the DPRK to run roughshod over the liberal order.

This is the key to the period ahead. Trump’s Jacksonian impulse is a paradox. It is not going to result in a smooth world of American first prosperity and power. On the contrary, it is going to egg-on every tin pot dictator and rising power to ever greater transgressions against the Wilsonian liberal order when in their interests to do so.

America First has no military way to counter this on a day-to-day basis. By definition, it aims to retreat from global responsibility even as its unintended consequences grow. This is a stunning and ongoing humiliation for the withdrawing Superpower. In effect, America now leads with its chin wherever it goes.

We can thus expect its rhetoric to mount ever higher to conceal crumbling imperial foundations. This will be amplified by the megaphone diplomacy of a clearly narcissistic president.

Thus for markets it will mean heightened anxiety, oddly amid less actual martial outcomes.

But this conclusion comes with one rather large asterisk. Jacksonian presidents do not willingly fight foreign wars but they do prize and build their militaries and, when finally stoked to action, use them more ruthlessly that other foreign policy schools. That makes flash points like the North Korean conflict deeply asymmetric. If it ultimately comes to blows it will be very ugly indeed.

In the meantime, where the rubber will hit the road for markets is when these issues tip over into more obvious policies of domestic import to the Jacksonian common man. On this front trade looms large, from Politico over the weekend:

President Donald Trump is ready to launch a new trade crackdown on China next week, an administration official confirmed.

Trump on Monday will call for an investigation into China over allegations that the nation violated U.S. intellectual property rights and forced technology transfers, the official said. While it’s unclear how much detail Trump will get into in the announcement, administration officials expect U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to open an investigation against China under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974.

The pending announcement comes amid heightened tension between the United States and China, even after the Trump administration scored a victory in persuading Beijing to sign onto new United Nations sanctions on North Korea.

It is not clear whether China has the motivation to close off the spigot entirely with North Korea. China is North Korea’s main trading partner, and it is not interested in seeing the economic collapse of the regime, which could send a flood of refugees into China and destabilize its northern provinces.

The ordering of the investigation will not immediately impose sanctions but could lead to steep tariffs on Chinese goods. Trump has expressed frustration in recent months over what he sees as China’s unfair trade policies.

The closely watched announcement appears to have bipartisan support, although Democrats have accused Trump of not being tough enough on trade.

Trump suggested in comments to reporters on Thursday that he might be more lenient on China if officials take more aggressive action to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon that could strike the United States. But it appears his longstanding frustration with China has remained.

In a world now thoroughly shaped by Wilsonian liberalism, the new Jacksonian order is a paradox. It will increase conflict as it seeks less. It will reduce war as it postures for more. It will shrink prosperity as it seeks to raise it. It will suck the US towards any region it seeks to abandon.

Houses and Holes
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  1. Great write up mate!

    “The first was Wilsonianism, an idealistic ideology derived from President Woodrow Wilson that saw American ideals of democracy and capitalism as the best hope and future for the world. It is internationalist, interventionist and alliance-driven. The second school was Jacksonianism. Derived from President Andrew Jackson, it is a “realist” ideology that saw merit in domestic focus and the celebration of the common man. It is martial, honor-bound and rights-driven but is only dragged kicking and screaming into foreign wars”

    I did not know that. I like how Ronald Reagan removed solar panels from the roof of the White House for “cleaning”. The left wing thinks that putting solar panels on 1 building will save the planet? Put the solar panels on barren land – not a heavily guarded building that has snipers on the roof.

    During question time, a politician suggested to PM Howard that solar panels should be put on the AUS parliament!

  2. Thats a bit shrill H&H. Its far more strategic than that. China has been actively supporting N. Korea – playing the double game… see post coped last week (June 24th). Inside running on trade negotiations.

    Xi has not kept his word, and nor should he have preferential trade conditions – which was the carrot.

    Trump won’t attack North Korea, but he is about to take his anger out on China. China knows this is the outcome – and doesn’t care. Some things cannot be costed.

    Painful time for Australia though. Our punishment backing the US will come in time.

    • migtronixMEMBER

      Anger out on China? Are you serious? What part of deal making involves taking out your anger on the biggest trader on the block? That’s not how you cut deals. Seeking leverage and bolstering your position with a PR campaign on the other hand…
      Trump wants to deliver jobs not Jobs.

      • Mig Spot on: How about this from links.
        “Meanwhile drug overdoses, many due to opioids coming from China, are the leading cause of death of Americans under 50.”
        WW. Its exactly the same on the Gold Coast. The next generations are so full of drugs of all nature they are incapable of rational decision. The coaches of the local footy teams say that if they had truly known the extent of the dysfunction here, they would never have taken the role.
        Both the USA and Straya need some serious hard line leadership or the future for both joints is forgone. The mayor up here says he is going to ask the property developers to ensure the future of the coast post the comm games. It looks as though he is on drugs as well.

  3. migtronixMEMBER

    Jacksonian? Last I heard Andrew Jackson killed the bank and Janet Yellen is still breathing…

  4. migtronixMEMBER

    Let’s get some perspective – Obama the peace prize winner was at war for 8 out of the 8 years he was in office. Two more than Bush II. You can’t turn a machine that has spent 14 years living off war into a Jacksonian continental protector overnight.

    • Also importantly, North Korea had been on its current trajectory (with regards to missile and nuclear weapons testing) well before Trump took office. Years before.

      It was under Obama – and his ‘strategic patience’ – that KJU learned he could get away with whatever he wanted (short of an attack, of course).

  5. The critics of The Doanld are falling like dominoes.
    Anti Trump. uncle Rupert, if he has another year like the last one, is out of business.
    Newscorp’s ; The Australian, Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph — had their book value slashed by almost 40%. Another $40 million round of cost-cutting — on top of last year’s $40 million in cuts — was flagged.
    News Corp also wrote down the value of its 50% stake in Foxtel by $290 million.
    Meanwhile back at the ranch, the US market booms
    So how come??

    • This reads like a time capsule message… can you Boomerang comments in MB? Anyway, Rupe’s Fox News have their nose firmly stuck in the orange POTUS’ sphincter. Rupert is anything but anti Trump.

    • Wiley – what are you talking about? Rupert is a close family friend of the Trumps, is god father and trustee to some of the Trump kids and has long phone calls with Mr Trump at least once a week. Murdock’s Fox Network, the largest cable network in the US, is Mr Trump’s most effective spruiker. The demise of Mr Murdock’s Australian mastheads has nothing to do with how they cover Mr Trump.

  6. Ronin8317MEMBER

    Trump’s philosophy is not Jacksonian or Wilsonian : he is in a class of his own where the ‘what is good for Trump’ is the primary concern, and concern from the ‘establishment’ a distance second. What happened to Qatar shows this : Trump simply threw his military and foreign affair advisers under the bus and clinched a deal with Saudi to makes him look good. It is all about Trump, not US national interest.

    • migtronixMEMBER

      Right, so it’s good for Trump, a 70 year old billionaire, to have his and his family attacked everyday? But Obama off giving million dollar speeches? I guess he was just Clintonian

    • Exactly this. And even if one made the argument that these mixing schools were part of the tradition of the people who put him into office, it still fails the sniff test. All the man does is post on twitter and think that he’s the CEO of his own company. This is not what a great many of his constituents expected. He’s more Republican than the Republicans. And that’s not what the electorate wanted.

    • Exactly. He is an irrational man who couldn’t begin to comprehend a rational foreign policy.

  7. China has stated emphatically that they will defend Nth Korea if the US attacks. A hot war in the region would see the United States obliterated in weeks. Absolutely nothing they could do short of nuclear options.

    That said it’s entirely in China’s interests to see North Korea eradicated – the Chinese would immediately impose themselves right to the border with South Korea annex the entire country and the US would be no better off – outside the show of force.

    The US military and CIA know all of this and have absolve ZERO interest in engaging in a hot war with China in the region in what would be an absolutely catastrophic humiliation and shift he global power balance forever.

    So what is going on here ?

    The same thing which happens on a weekly basis – and muppets line up with their incredibly moronic theories. Fact is – this is purely about a show of force for domestic politics to look tough.

    Trump is at war with Nth Korea (or was it Venezeula, or Syria, or Qatar, or Yemen, or Afghanistan, or Iran – I forget, because he has declared war against all of them in the past few months each time there is a domestic issue) – at war with North Korea for ONE SINGLE REASON – domestic support – anyone who questions Trump – is now questioning a leader at war with North Korea – and is a TRAITOR.

    The whole “i want to sound smart with my jacksonian / wilsonian” rhetoric is just absurd and belongs on


    Honestly the Diplomat is embarrassing enough – no need to infect the rest of the internet with it.


    • Who’s the dope? Trump hasn’t declared war on anyone. And the US obliterated in a hot war within weeks? Give me some of what you are smoking. Aren’t you the guy with multiple degrees? Snigger.

      • C.M.BurnsMEMBER

        Multiple degrees, numerous account names and a raging hard-on for China that just won’t go down no matter how much it’s stroked.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Multiple degrees including master in international relations – if you can believe that… Leviathan is a character…

      • Hey look at me – I can totally ignore what people said, then just make up my own narrative and attack that and try and de-ligitimize the person without ever addressing the points.

        A hot war in the region would see the United States obliterated in weeks.

        Yes – they absolutely would. Do you think an aircraft carrier – or even two – off the coast of China is going to stand up to the entire might of the Chinese military ? Are you smoking crack ? What a completely fucking absurd proposition.

        Yes – China would wipe the US clean off the board IN THE REGION.

        No ifs, no buts, no maybe’s.

        As far as Trump “declaring war” – where did I say that ? Seriously – you are totally absurd. The implication is that Trump is engaging in a verbal stoush with North Korea.

        You really are a moron.


        And yes – I have degrees in Economics, International Relations, Political Theory and Philosophy. So what.

        If that means I don’t sit there chanting USA, USA, USA like some feckless fucktard – then good for me.

        My views on China are based on their military capability, their manufacturing capability, their history, their socio political command economy and a plethora of other factors.

        There are plenty here who just think the same thoughts they did 10 years ago – that its a country of patent infringers and the USA is some untouchable jedi force.

        There really are some knuckle dragging buffoons around here.

      • Ronin8317MEMBER

        Why would the US fight a war with China with aircraft carriers? There are already bases in South Korea and Japan, and then there is Taiwan. US troops will invade and take over Taiwan, install a puppet government that declares independence, and China will exhaust itself trying to recapture it. India will be involved by instigating rebellion in Tibet , and Xinjang will ‘suddenly’ have a ‘liberation army’ of ‘moderate Mulsim beheaders’ trying to impose a Caliphate. A land invasion is pointless : the strategy is to force China to wear itself out fighting war on its own soil.

      • Not so fast George, America can park their 10 Aircraft carriers around China and slap them 24 hrs a day for however long they like whilst her people live relatively normal lives back home.

        Not to mention all of her bases around Asia.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        FFS when was the last time the US attacked anyone that features heavily in their supply chain?

      • Just goes to show how utterly dopey you can be and accrue degrees presumably from likeminded professors.

    • innocent bystander

      how Boolean of you

      “… As far as Trump “declaring war” – where did I say that ? Seriously – you are totally absurd … “

      “… because he has declared war against all of them in the past few months each time there is a domestic issue …”

    • Good for Manhattan. It was approaching Australia as unlivable when I went there last month. The USA is importing inflation that it exported with QE.