The recent narrative about the US-led liberal international order has been one of decline and of America retreating into isolationism. Its critics and proponents alike claim that its demise is near, especially since the Trump administration took office and with the rise of other global powers. In this article, I use Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to argue that far less has changed in the mindset and narrative of the US foreign-policy establishment than we might think. While the policies and speeches of Trump and Obama differ a great deal, the US grand strategy nonetheless has been more linear.
In Gramsci’s definition, hegemony refers to the relationship between the dominant hegemonic class and the subaltern and submissive classes, where the latter are not ruled by force but, importantly, by the power and reach of ideas that come from the hegemonic class – this class sets the boundaries of debate and reality. The central contention in this article is that the Trump administration is pursuing a foreign policy that maintains American primacy and is not outside the boundaries of orthodox foreign-policy thinking. Secondly, the American foreign-policy establishment, with its ideological flexibility, the ‘common-sense’ lesson about isolation it teaches and the available staff to fill positions in the executive, is able to maintain the status quo of American primacy even with political insurgents in the White House.
Both the 2008 and 2016 elections caused crises in the American foreign-policy establishment because they brought in ‘subaltern’ outsiders wanting to change both how American foreign policy is managed and its outcomes. Obama’s aim was to stop the militaristic unilateralism of Bush, and Trump sought to end the deliberative multilateralism of Obama. Yet, Obama was and Trump has so far been committed to American primacy; that is, America having global military and economic powers, and being the guarantor of security in Europe, the Middle East and northeast Asia.
Gramsci argues that hegemonic leadership survives crises because it is flexible enough to accommodate outsiders with new ideas and experiences. The current foreign-policy establishment is not a monolithic bloc, nor is it a secretive cabal; it is rather a coalition that shares a set of interests, instincts and philosophies, from academics to the companies in the military-industrial complex, from liberal internationalists to conservative nationalists, and from hawks to some doves in Congress and think tanks. It is to an extent insulated from the polarised electorate because it occupies positions that are mostly unelected and advisory in capacity. What binds these disparate ideological positions together is a common understanding of American primacy.
While Trump came into power as an outsider, his policy on Iran has been entirely within the ideological boundaries of orthodox Republican Party thinking.
Gramsci saw that although differences and disagreements occur within the hegemonic class, it does not lose its power. In an almost Hegelian dialectic, he conceptualises ideological struggles as continuous, in that the functional parts of the old system are maintained while newer aspects are brought in. The same can be seen in US foreign policy, where ideas and points of view are more often built on and reformed than being radically altered. Obama continued the second Bush administration’s preference for special forces and drones, rather than conventional troops deployment (although he did pursue a troop surge in Afghanistan), and Trump, if anything, has increased these tactics. The Bush-era language describing counterterrorism policy deepened under Obama, rather than radically changing. This isn’t to argue that presidents are willing fools to the foreign-policy establishment; they have their own campaign promises which they do or do not fulfill depending on their feasibility and political will and capital. However, the candidates rarely stray too far from the pursuit of primacy; their struggle to ‘win’ policy implementation is far more likely to build on than reverse what came before.
Even when there has been a major policy change, as with the Iran nuclear deal, the fundamental point that Iran is a threat to American primacy and has to be constrained somehow has remained the same. For Obama, liberal internationalism had the ideological means to contain Iran, through dialogue, multilateralism and the lifting of economic sanctions, while, conservative nationalists have always favoured no deal, economic sanctions and unilateral declarations of military strikes. However, both sets of the establishment agree that Iran is a problem to be solved through US power. While Trump came into power as an outsider, his policy on Iran is off the shelf, and has been entirely within the ideological boundaries of orthodox Republican Party thinking.
Orthodox thinking argues that dissent from engagement with the world is like the isolationist 1930s. The term ‘isolationism’ is often used in relation to America’s supposedly idle foreign policy during the 1930s, when racist nationalisms were taking over Japan and Germany. The appeasement of Hitler is characterised as the worst policy of this era, and a result of not preparing militarily for the ‘inevitable’ war. This partly helps justify high defence spending. The Trump administration and the Republican Party has deployed the conventional, ‘commonsensical’ 1930s’ lesson that the appeasement of Hitler’s Germany was just papering over the cracks of what had always been an aggressive dictatorship bent on domination, much like – in their view – Iran. Through this framing of dissent, the foreign-policy establishment is able narrow the field of what is politically acceptable and what a sound strategy looks like. Thus, if a president wants a friendship with Iran, of the sort that the US has with Saudi Arabia, there would be little support in Congress and it would be difficult to fill important cabinet positions to pursue it.
Likewise, Trump has been idiosyncratic in his dialogue with Kim Jong-un, but the underlying strategy is to stop North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons; this is the same grand strategy as that of previous presidents. Similarly, Trump has been bluntly confrontational over NATO defence spending, but his administration has increased sanctions on Russia, supplied Ukraine with lethal arms and strengthened America’s position in Eastern Europe. Bush snubbed NATO allies during the Iraq war and Obama, too, pressured European countries to increase defence spending. Ultimately, it is too early to say if the Trump administration has radically altered the US grand strategy, but so far there has been less change than initially expected. The threats to US primacy and security are the same; thus, while tactics change, the strategy remains the same.
Elections and insurgents aren’t enough to change US foreign policy alone.
Gramsci observes that intellectuals, through technical expertise and leadership, help organise political culture. This idea can also apply to the foreign-policy establishment, in that there are far more experts and officials with conventional thinking on foreign policy to serve successive presidential cabinets or advise members of Congress. To be sure, Trump has policy wishes that run counter to conventional thinking, for example, threatening US withdrawal from NATO, or giving in to Russian revision of European borders. But this is tempered by conservative nationalists like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, as well General Mattis, none of whom favour the deep retrenchment that Trump once argued for.
The American-led liberal hegemony could be a myth, or a folly leading America to risk and ruin, or the only thing holding back another world war, but the point here is not to argue whether these are truths or falsehoods. Instead, within the confines of this article, Gramscian theory allows us to see that elections and insurgents aren’t enough to change US foreign policy alone. His theory of hegemony, ideology and intellectuals allows us to question where power lies and how it is used, and this in turn directs our attention to the wider structure of American foreign policy.