World, Analysis, Americas

Trump’s Jacksonian agenda

Looking to the issue mainly from an American foreign policy perspective, one can argue that Trump’s vision represents the Jacksonian school of thought

Trump’s Jacksonian agenda

By Tarık Oguzlu


On the eve of his visit to Hamburg to attend the G-20 meeting, U.S. President Donald Trump paid an official visit to Poland. Apart from his messages concerning the American commitment to NATO and the unease with the Russian behaviors in Ukraine, what attracted the global attention most was the speech he delivered to a Polish crowd in Warsaw on July 6, 2017.

In his speech, Trump painted a Western civilization based on traditional values of Christianity, family, technological achievements, human rights, freedom and liberal values that need to be protected against multiple challenges emanating from different quarters.

Despite the fact that Trump adopted a particular discourse evincing both liberal and illiberal tones, he preferred to define the Western civilization in a self-other context and he unequivocally underlined that it needs to be protected against outsiders.

To him, the time to pull up the drawbridge to defend the Fortress West has finally arrived. Trump overtly questioned the will of the Westerners to survive in the emerging world order which has been increasingly characterized by the rise of non-Western powers as well as transnational groups and movements that put the erosion of Western imprint in global order at the center of their strategic calculations.

Some even saw Trump as the embodiment of late Samuel P. Huntington’s infamous ‘clash of civilizations’ theory.

Wilsonians vs. Jacksonians

Looking to the issue mainly from an American foreign policy perspective, one can argue that Trump’s vision represents the Jacksonian school of thought.

Of alternative foreign policy schools in the U.S., the liberal school holds that the United States is truly an exceptional country and the values that Americans deem sacred are inherently secular and universal.

What sets the U.S. apart from other nations is that American nationalism is very much defined in civic-political terms. Constitutionalism, liberal democracy, multiculturalism, human rights, protection of minorities, small government, checks and balances and the rule of law are the quintessential American values that define what many call the 'American creed'.

To be an American, what is required most is the adoption of these secular political values. Ethnic background, skin color, religious denomination and native language do not have any place in the secular definition of American nationalism.

Attributing existential value to such essentialist factors, as mentioned above in the definition of national identity, is what other nations have been doing since the time immemorial.

Both the Wilsonian liberal internationalism and neoconservatism depict the American values, viz. the values that lie at the center of Western civilization, as universal.

Whereas the former is highly optimist about the capability of others to adopt such values were they given the right opportunities and should the United States pursue a peaceful internationalist democracy promotion strategy within multi-lateral institutional platforms, the latter is overtly pessimist in this regard and holds that the liberal character of the American Empire does also endow the American decision makers with the responsibility of democratizing recalcitrant nations even by using coercive methods.

The world order that came into being in the aftermath of the World War II is a successful implementation of the Wilsonian principles at the hands of successive American presidents, of which Harry S. Truman, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama stand out the most.

Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that the history came to an end with the victory of liberal democracy against the totalitarian communism following the dissolution of the Soviet Union is the most articulate representation of this liberal logic.

The neoconservative variant of the liberal school is also universalist in its aspirations, yet it puts an overwhelming emphasis on the use of force in its enlargement beyond the core liberal area.

Adopting unilateral mechanisms, putting the U.S. above international law, discarding multi-lateral alliance arrangements and defining the U.S. as a missionary nation seem to describe the neoconservative foreign policy practices adopted by the George W. Bush presidency.

His goal was to help establish a universal American empire by imposing American values onto others through 'crusades against infidels'. The Reagan administration of 1980 can also be seen as the precursor of this mentality with President Ronald Reagan defining the Soviet Union as the evil empire.

On the other hand, the realist school seems to be based on different assumptions. The Jeffersonian-Hamiltonian variant believes in the universality and exceptionality of American civilization and norms too, yet it takes a highly realist and pragmatic stance on foreign policy.

To this school, the best the U.S. could do is to become a role-model for others by perfecting American democracy at home and avoiding long-term alliance-like arrangements with others abroad.

Acting as a shining star upon the hill, the U.S. could offer an inspiring example for others, yet it is not the business of the Americans to dictate their way of life onto others. Interest-oriented pragmatic relations with others should shape the main contours of American foreign policy thinking.

WASP values

The other variant of the realist school is what many American foreign policy experts identify as the Jacksonian school of thought.

Trump seems to be originally located within this camp despite his Warsaw speech in which he defined the boundaries of the Western civilization in such a broad way as to encompass the north Atlantic and western and eastern European countries.

Jacksonian thinking is essentialist in that what defines the core American nationalism and values are the historical legacy of the White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant Americans (WASP). Huntington's book 'Who are we?' explains this thesis convincingly.

Trump does not believe that the historical experiences of the so-called WASP community are universal and should be held in esteem by others. It is neither the business of the Americans to impose their values onto others nor should the U.S. put liberal values and human rights at the center of its foreign policy practices.

This approach is essentially pragmatic and transactional in its foreign policy orientation and extremely defensive in the protection of the core WASP values against the potential contenders at home and abroad.

Trump’s idea to build a way across the Mexican border and limit the freedom of movement of the nationals of some Islamic states to the U.S. are exemplary in this regard. This approach embraces a narrower, more exclusionary, more essentialist and more defensive stance on the definition of American national identity and the Western civilization than the liberal school of thought.

This approach disputes the American exceptionalism and puts the U.S. in the same group of countries that define their national identity and civilizational grounding on the basis of strong essentialist characters, such as ethnic nationality, kinship, faith, race, or language.

Against the above background, Trump’s Warsaw speech should be considered as the projection of his Jacksonian agenda on the so-called Western community of nations in North America and western and eastern Europe.

Such a vision is very much in line with Chinese and Russian civilizational and strategic thinking and may not augur well for the strengthening of a global community of nations based on universal secular political values, let alone holding the traditional transatlantic community of nations strong enough to deal with the divisive Chinese and Russian policies.

Trump’s Jacksonian moment in Warsaw has not been received well in major western European capitals, particularly in Berlin and Paris, and it is beyond doubt that Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron’s vision of the Western civilization is at odds with that of Trump.

The reactions within the West against Trump’s conceptualization of the Western civilization warrant a detailed analysis in another article.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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