Trump’s Vassal State Problem
A recurring theme among our media betters is a disbelief that President Trump would treat the other members of the G-7 with so much more disdain than he treats Russia, China and North Korea. Their difficulty is because for all of their expertise and hubris, they can’t get past their navel gazing. If they simply opened their eyes and thought about it, the reason for this would be so obvious it would jump up and slap them in the face.
The reason is not that Trump is a bombastic crybaby, nor that he lacks empathy, nor that he misunderstands history. It isn’t that he disregards what are regarded as diplomatic and foreign policy norms. It has nothing to do with his narcissism or love of McDonald’s burgers.
Indeed, he gave us the biggest clue to the one driving theme of his foreign policy in the impromptu news conference prior to the start of the G-7 confab this past weekend. Mr. Trump said, “We have a world to run.” Was he talking about the assembled “world leaders” of the G-7? Or was he alluding to something else?
One of the most interesting things I constantly hear is that President Trump has no grasp of history, no concept of the United States role in shaping world affairs, or the post-WWII international order. I don’t think that’s the case whatsoever. If anything, he has demonstrated a more focused understanding of those things than the talking heads on TV, or the failed diplomats who clutter the airwaves with their talking points. They prattle incessantly about a world order that has never existed anywhere except in their minds. It was the relentless pursuit of this fiction that led to many of the disastrous American foreign policy actions over the last 25 years.
Trump regards the lesser members of the western alliance (what we usually refer to as “first world nations”) as nothing more than vassal states. For those of you who don’t understand the concept (Hi, cast members of Morning Joe!), a vassal state is one that has pledged loyalty to a larger state. It receives a promise of security from external threats and financial assistance, along with a pledge of limiting interference in internal politics. In exchange, the vassal provides some military forces and pays tribute to the dominant partner.
Vassal states have existed for as long as human civilization. The Egyptians and Hittites both had clients in the Middle East even before anyone invented writing. (We know this because the earliest written tablets known to us, from both Egypt and Anatolia, describe those civilizations relationships with everyone from the Ammorites to the Sumerians). And contrary to popular myth, they did not disappear with the end of the First World War.
If you stop to think about the post-WWII order, this is exactly the scenario the world found itself in. There were two dominant states (the USA & USSR), and each had a collection of vassals. For the US, those vassals were the members of NATO, Japan, Australia, and other various small countries. The Soviets had vassal clients in the Warsaw Pact, China, Cuba and most of the Arab world. The occasional squabbles between vassals on opposing sides led to conflagrations that would involve the sponsors (the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1950’s and 60’s, or Vietnam, or the Korean War). Presidents from Truman through Bush 41 might have smiled at their allies, but they never treated them as equals. If they had, Jimmy Carter never would have been able to strong-arm Menachem Begin into the concessions needed for the Camp David Accords. Bush never would have rounded up the international force to launch Desert Storm. And so on, and so forth.
Like it or not, this is the world view that the President has. He sees Russia reasserting its control over her vassals (Ukraine, most prominently). He sees China moving to gain an equal footing as the United States, without any actual vassals (but not for lack of effort). He sees North Korea as a vassal of China, but one that is recalcitrant and one that China refuses to hold tight enough rein on.
Within this framework, he sees the other members of the western post-war coalition as forgetting their rightful place. He won’t treat them as equals because in his world view, they are NOT equals. They are vassals, subservient and reliant on the United States for their very existence. Additionally, he sees the fecklessness of the three administrations immediately prior to his as largely responsible for the sad state of affairs between the US and our “clients.”
In the same vein, he treats Russia and China as equals because in his world view, they are our equals. Each is a dominant nation, like the United States. While the vassals, like bratty children kicking at our shins, complain about unfair treatment, Trump is staying focused on where he believes the real international political struggle begins and ends: the battle between the three superpowers for world supremacy. He sees an opportunity to, at worst, turn North Korea into an independent player (much like Marshall Tito’s Yugoslavia was) or at best, reunify the Korean Peninsula as a client state of the USA.
He may be right in his view of a modern realpolitik. The problem he runs into as that while the client/sponsor relationship was an unacknowledged fact for the late 20th century, the 21st is somewhat different. Yes, the client states are still dependent on the US for their international security. But whereas once their economies were independently reliant on the US, that is no longer the case. The last 25 years has seen the global economy changed from one of many clients subservient to one dominant economy, to a symbiotic economic relationship between nations. What’s more, the tangle of trade agreements and international corporations is such that any disruption anywhere in the flow of goods threatens the economic order of the planet., threatening a conflagration that would make the last two world wars pale by comparison.
This is the conundrum facing the American President. During the height of the Cold War, the US economy accounted for nearly half of all global economic activity. As of last year, we accounted for less than 18%. While we may hold all the cards militarily, we are now trying to draw to an inside straight economically. The notion of returning international trade to one where most economic activities is controlled by US companies is less an economic decision than a militarily strategic one. Heck, the President said as much when he imposed the latest tariffs. In the face of this situation, our nation is faced with two choices. We can attempt to rebuild the original postwar order, or we can remove ourselves from a position of global dominance, recalling and reducing our military strength.
When you look through the prism of vassal state relationships, you can see which option the President has opted for. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, it has been his stated world view for the better part of 40 years now. That nobody in the media seems capable of grasping this is the only surprising thing about it.