The word that defines George W. Bush’s era is neocon.* Neocons were those who believed in America’s projection of power in a world where the dichotomy of good and evil was clear, based on the neocons’ conservative values. To them, Iraq, Iran and North Korea were the “Axis of Evil,” and they pressed ahead with the war in Iraq. While successful in toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime, the war drove some of the armed Sunni elements – which supported the Hussein regime – underground, and now they have resurfaced as members of the Islamic State.
As Donald Trump’s administration begins, that certain style of governance is being brought back. As the result of failures in the Iraq War, the security neocon had become a thing of history. The few who remain just barely do so among the think tanks of Washington, D.C. Yet the Trump administration reflects the neocons of the past in two respects. The first is the dichotomy. While the security neocon of the past marshaled the dichotomy of good versus evil, the Trump administration is calling forth the dichotomy of America’s benefit versus America’s loss. The second aspect reflecting the neocon influence of the past is the unilateral way of doing things that relies primarily on power. The security neocons and the Trump administration are similar to each other in that they show a tendency to rely solely on brute force to achieve their goal. Hence, the “national interest neocon” makes its debut.
The Trump administration’s new “Axis of Evil’ are China, Iran and North Korea. During their confirmation hearings, nominees for Trump’s cabinet expressed views that China is an unreliable country based on its unfair trade practice, expansion into the South China Sea, and unwillingness to take the hardline on the North Korean issue, or that Obama’s Iranian nuclear deal is flawed in that it underestimates Iran’s nuclear ambition, and that North Korea is a threat to the American mainland and must be put in its place with trade sanctions.
Trump’s national interest neocons are, however, not exact replicas of the Bush administration neocons. Bush’s neocons were thorough in dividing the world between friend and foe. Russia was the enemy and NATO states in Europe were the allies that needed support. But Trump’s national interest neocons do not hold clear distinction between friends and foes. There is only America and not-America. In his inaugural address on Jan. 20, President Trump declared, “From this moment on it’s going to be America first.” It was difficult to imagine we would ever hear statements such as America “defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own” or that “we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry” in contemporary American history. Some fear that this is not an expression of "America first" that puts America’s interest at top priority, but instead, the expression of jingoism that holds only America is allowed to prosper on Earth.
In the past, America’s strength was in its power to convince other countries to follow her lead voluntarily. Such was the America that emphasized democracy and human rights, urging others to respect freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. But this new America is leaning toward physical power rather than soft power. This, in turn, is creating a chain reaction around the globe that makes others pursue power above all as well. There was once a time in Korean history where all our neighbors were vying for supremacy during the early 20th century. It is rather eerie to see that kind of atmosphere resurgent again.
*Translator's note: The author uses term "neocon" to describe any political group or ideology that shows somewhat hawkish behavior in favor of "conservative" values. So you'll see terms like "security neocon" or "national interest neocon" instead of "security hawk" or "trade hawk.”