Prof Michael Brenner
Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, USA
International Advisor, Ground Report India

At this moment of unprecedented upheaval, it is striking that some things never change.  We are being subject to a tidal wave of interpretation and speculation as to what a Trump administration means for American foreign relations in regard to inter alia Russia, Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, the "pivot to Asia," trans-Atlantic ties and, of course, Mexico. It is neither natural nor appropriate, though, to make believe that Washington is experiencing a transition of power to be approached in standard terms. The unpalatable truth is that we have no idea as to what Trump will do or not do.

Trump's campaign remarks are the sole evidence available for indications of the direction that he will take. That is an extremely flimsy basis for forecasting actions abroad. For two reasons. First, candidates’ calculated sound bites while running almost never are a reliable guide to their actions or thinking - in its rudimentary form or as it takes shape under the influence of real life conditions and the counsel of advisers. Second, Trump's comments about foreign policy were mere points of demagoguery meant, as with everything else he said, to appeal to the primitive instincts of an aroused audience. There is not the slightest sign that he had thought seriously about any of it. Donald Trump finds serious thinking itself an alien mental activity. Moreover, he has few experienced advisors in his entourage. The one notable exception is the chairman of his national security advisory panel, James Woolsey, former Director of the CIA. Woolsey himself is an uber-hawk whose views on all matters of consequence align with those of the neo-cons, the Cheney-like hard nationalists and Hillary Clinton - and are diametrically opposite to Trump's much publicized iconoclastic remarks.

So what we will be seeing between now and the Inauguration, and afterwards, is a mad scramble by a horde of aspirants for the power and access to occupy Donald Trump's mind - if they can find it.

This is the disconcerting reality. Since it provides little of substance for the habitual commentators, they are inclined to play a game of make-believe - conjuring supposedly meaningful evidence from what is a kaleidoscope of emotional outbursts and a fantasia of day dreams.  There is good reason to believe that within six months of Trump’s taking office, when his administrations undertakes its first half-baked measures abroad, there will be a temptation to writing about a supposed “Trump Doctrine.” The premise of a return to something like “normally” will be unjustified.

If Truth be told, the America we have known and imagined is ended. It never will return. In terms of relations with others, image is of enormous importance. The United States has gained great advantage from being seen as exceptional. From its earliest days, it fascinated and gave inspiration as the first working democracy, as the embodiment of the hope-filled New World, as the land of the common man and common decency. Later, as it grew into a world power, it held the allure for many as being somehow beyond the world’s pervasive tawdriness. These images held even as contradicted by slavery and racism, by imperial wars of expansion against Mexico and Spain, by signs of hypocrisy. America did tip the balance in favor of the right side in two world wars; it did demonstrate uncommon magnanimity in its support for German and Japanese reconstruction and democracy.  Even when playing the game of power politics, it retained a measure of credibility as the one underwriter and arbitrator to whom others might resort.

The resulting “soft power” or “soft influence” has been a unique asset. Already dissipated to a high degree over the decades of the Global War On Terror, it now is destined to fade into a shadow of its former self. A blatantly racist, xenophobic, studiously ignorant, and belligerent country cannot retain the respect of other governments or the high regard of their peoples. A country so feckless as to choose Trump the buffoon as its President is mocking itself. The negative impact will be compounded as the United States is riven by internal conflicts of all kinds, repressive actions and perhaps another serious economic crisis. 

We can expect that whoever winds up in senior policy positions in a Trump administration will downplay these intangibles - if they even acknowledge them. In this, they will be encouraged by the tradition of self-delusion that has become a feature of American thinking about its place in the world. Think of the Middle East where just about everything that we have been doing since 2001 has been guided by a fantastic view of the region – from Iraq, to Syria, to Yemen, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the Gulf, to Turkey, to Palestine and Israel. This tendency to divorce ourselves from reality so as to perpetuate myths of American omnipotence and superiority is also witnessed at the operational level.

These self-delusional practices have prepared the psychological ground for the grand illusion to come in assuming that the America of Trump will continue to draw the world’s admiration and its deference to American leadership.

The inclination to “normalize” the transition in treating Trump, his utterances and his odd-lot entourage as if they somehow could be squeezed into conventional molds is understandable. It is a manifestation of an unwitting coping strategy for coming to terms with the shattering event of his election. Americans in general are pursuing a similar psychological strategy for the sake of preserving the conception of themselves and their country that is a foundation stone of their identity. Hence, the impulse to minimize the singularity of this revolutionary development without precedent – not only in the United States but anywhere in the democratic world. This is one instance where American “exceptionalism” is not prized.

This is a natural reaction to a brutal Truth about Americans – and its dire consequences. For the choice of Trump reveals many Americans as politically immature. To vote for Trump is the ultimate act of political immaturity. There are, of course, identifiable reasons why many were drawn to the flamboyant candidate, why his demagoguery resonated, why his exaggerated imagery struck a receptive nerve. However, for that emotional response to translate into the actual selection of this man to be President crosses a critical threshold. Children – at times – let emotion rule their conduct.  Children disregard consequences. Grown-ups do not.

The combination of an intemperate, uninformed Presidency and a populace that has lost its grip on the world’s realities does not bode well for American foreign policy.

About Author

Prof Michael Brenner, PhD

is a recognized authority on risk assessment & management, American foreign policy, and geopolitics. He is a "Fellow" of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin and a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS-Johns Hopkins.  He also is Emeritus Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas until 2012.

His record of publication on a broad span of international issues is complementary to his extensive activities in the policy realm. He has been an advisor to the United States government, a consultant to global corporations, a prominent participant in the programs of leading Washington think tanks and a prolific commentator on public affairs.  He contributes essays regularly to the Huffington Post, the National Journal, and the Pakistani Spectator and also has written for al-Arabiya. Prof Brenner’s consulting includes the United States Departments of State and Defense, the Foreign Service Institute, Westinghouse Corporation and Mellon Bank.

Professor Brenner has worked in the energy field for 30 years. He directed a project on International Energy & Natural Resource Issues sponsored by the Exxon Educational Foundation that produced a series of 20 case studies. He contributed studies of the Persian Gulf Reflagging Crisis, Oil as a Coercive Instrument in the 1970s, United States – China Bilateral Nuclear Accord, and US-France Dealings in Nuclear Energy. In addition, he organized the Pittsburgh Energy Seminar while at the Graduate School of Public & International Affairs, was Rapporteur for the Conference on Technology Transfer: Government & Industry in the Energy Sector at M.I.T. In the environmental policy field, he has conducted research on environmental management issues at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (La Jolla), Natural Sciences Research Council (London), and the Center For International Affairs (Harvard University). He is the author of America’s Environmental Dilemma (Lexington Books) and The Scientific Advisory Function (Scripps Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 70 articles and published papers on a wide range of topics.   His most recent works are:; Democracy Promotion and Islam; Fear and Dread In The Middle East (also translated into Arabic);; Toward A More Independent Europe  (Royal Institute of International Relations), Brussels), Narcissistic Public Personalities & Our Times..  His writings include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation), the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform);  Institute of International Affairs at Cornell University (The Functionalist Theory of European Integration); the Brookings Institution (Reconcilable Differences, US-French Relations In The New Era) and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. Prof Brenner has directed multinational research projects with colleagues in France, England, Germany and Italy supported by grants from the Ford Foundation, NATO and the Commission of the European Union.

Brenner is an invited lecturer at major universities and institutes in the United States and abroad, including Georgetown University, UCLA, the National Defense University, the State Department, Sorbonne, Ecole des Sciences Politiques, Royal Institute of International Affairs, International Institute of Strategic Studies (London), King’s College of the University of London, German Council on Foreign Relations, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and Universita di Firenze.

Brenner has held previous teaching and research appointments at Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Brookings Institution, University of California – San Diego, University of California – Berkeley, and Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the National Defense University.  He also has been a Fellow of the Center on France & the United States in Paris.

His memberships include: APSA, ISA, IISS, Forum du Futur (Paris).

Prof Brenner is proficient in French and English.

  • Ph.D. Political Science, University of California, Berkeley
  • M.A. Political Science, University of California, Berkeley
  • B.A. Political Science, Summa Cum Lauda, Phi Beta Kappa , Brooklyne College – CUNY
  • Certificate, International Relations, Stockholm University, Sweden
  • About the author



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