The Oxford dictionary announced this week that its word of the year is ‘post truth’ – facts defeated by often-repeated slogans emotional in character. It will not surprise anyone to find out that the term has its origins in the American presidential campaign and in the Brexit referendum.
What will American foreign policy look like under President-elect Trump? Will it follow the post-truth logic of his election campaign? Early signs suggest so.
During the campaign, in the topsy turvy world of our times, enemies became friends and friends were put on notice not to take America for granted. Russia-US relations have been hostile during the Obama presidencies, yet Trump and Putin believe that they can do business. President Assad of Syria, demonised by American leaders for the last five years, can now look forward to working with the 45th President of the United States, whom Assad believes a ‘natural ally’.
Traditional allies, meanwhile, should not take America’s support for granted. Japan and South Korea may have to defend themselves rather than rely on the security guarantee that has protected them for over fifty years. The other 27 member states of NATO will be asked to pay much more for their collective defence.
Trump’s China is an economic rival unfairly taking money and jobs out of the American economy. This again appears to be a post-truth claim. American citizens chose to buy Chinese products in an open market place. Nobody forced them to buy imported goods over locally-made alternatives.
Post-truth politics was not invented in 2016 however. The aftermath of 9/11 saw American and its key allies create a wholly false narrative about the threat posed by Iraq. The manipulation of public opinion about the case for war against Iraq was so successful that opinion polls showed that the majority of American citizens believed that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks even when this claim had no basis in fact.
One stark reality far from post-truth is that the next President of the United States will be given the nuclear briefcase that allows him to launch any number of up to 2000 strategic nuclear missiles without asking anyone’s permission.
President Obama has already messaged his successor regarding the need for the President to show more restraint in office than he did during the campaign. But it would be optimistic in the extreme to expect Donald Trump to deploy the kind of diplomatic maturity that will be needed in crisis situations.
Imagine a scenario in which President Trump is informed by his Defense Secretary about a potential North Korean strike on American soil. Would he be capable of the restraint that J.F.Kennedy showed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962? Even in the heat of the moment, Kennedy was able to reject both war and capitulation in favour of a third way that allowed both sides to save face.
Previous American Presidents who had little or no understanding of foreign policy relied heavily on their advisors; many also sought to supplement their political education by reading biographies and popular history. Will Trump learn from the lessons of history? His ‘post truth’ constructions are an ominous beginning.