Stephen Bannon may have been a political adviser to President Donald Trump, but his firing Friday could have an impact on U.S. foreign policy from Europe to the Middle East and Asia.
Bannon’s exit clears an obstacle for backers of an active U.S. foreign policy in line with recent presidencies — and is a resounding win for Bannon’s internal rival, national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
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Bannon was a regular participant in national security debates, often as an opponent of military action and a harsh critic of international bodies like the United Nations and the European Union.
He has also been a withering critic of diplomatic, military and intelligence professionals—“globalists” he says have repeatedly shown bad judgment, particularly when it comes to U.S. military interventions abroad. That put him at loggerheads with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as McMaster.
“If you look at the balance of power of isolationists versus internationalists in the White House now, it seems safe to say that the pendulum has swung towards the internationalists,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Though Bannon has not described himself as an “isolationist,” he has proudly adopted Trump’s “America First” motto, which he says argues for spending less blood and treasure overseas for anything less than America’s most vital interests.
He has also alarmed European leaders with his criticism of the E.U. and his expressed support for some European nationalist movements. Bannon actively backed Great Britain’s 2016 “Brexit” from the E.U. and introduced Trump to its chief political advocate, the populist British politician Nigel Farage.
“Our European allies are happy about Bannon’s departure,” said Jorge Benitez, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.
In the immediate term, foreign policy insiders agreed, Bannon’s departure also could increase the chances of a U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan—a plan championed by McMaster but strongly opposed by Bannon, who managed to draw out debate on the issue with direct appeals to Trump.
More generally, it will remove an internal brake on U.S. military action abroad. Bannon has argued greater U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria and was among the few White House officials to oppose President Donald Trump’s early-April missile strike in Syria.
Bannon is not totally conflict averse: He calls for a far stronger U.S. posture against China and has warned that war with Beijing could be inevitable. But he pressed Trump to take economic, not military action against Beijing.
And on Wednesday, Bannon told the American Prospect magazine that there is “no military solution” to Trump’s standoff with North Korea—undermining the president’s recent military threats against that country, and echoing China’s view of the situation.
Beyond the policy realm, Bannon’s exit is a clear victory for national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who at times seemed to be in zero-sum struggle with the Trump adviser for power and influence in the White House.
Foreign policy veterans were startled when, in early February, Trump designated Bannon as a member of the National Security Council’s elite principals committee—calling it unprecedented for a White House political adviser to have a reserved seat at the table for life-and-death debates.
McMaster stripped Bannon of his official NSC position in April, after succeeding the ousted Michael Flynn—a Bannon ally—as national security adviser. Bannon continued to attend NSC meetings and debates about foreign policy in the Oval Office. But Bannon resented McMaster for demoting him, and for purging several Flynn allies from the NSC.
Bannon and McMaster also sharply differed on how Trump should discuss terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda. Bannon favors using the phrase “radical Islamic extremism,” but McMaster has largely prevented Trump from saying it in public on the grounds that it could alienate moderate Muslims who hear it as an attack on their religion.
McMaster’s defenders have accused Bannon of spearheading a campaign of leaks meant to undermine the top national security aide.
“The campaign to get him out was clearly coming from Bannon or his allies,” said Brian McKeon, a former NSC chief of staff and senior Pentagon policy official in the Obama administration. “The national security adviser’s job is hard enough without having to always look over your shoulder to see who’s trying to knife you.
“This will make McMaster’s days a little easier,” he added.
Likely to share McMaster’s satisfaction at Bannon’s ouster is Tillerson, who chafed at Bannon’s role in State Department personnel decisions. Speaking to the American Prospect this week, Bannon boasted that he was working to remove Tillerson’s top official for China and East Asia.
“I’m getting Susan Thornton out at State,” Bannon said in the interview.
In a pointed show of support the next morning, Tillerson shook Thornton’s hand in front of television cameras.
And when Tillerson recommended in February that Trump nominate former Reagan and George W. Bush administration official Elliott Abrams to be his deputy, Bannon intervened to block the choice, according to Abrams.
“Bannon’s departure probably means a return to normalcy, where the State and Defense Departments will have greater influence on foreign policy,” Abrams said.
Bannon also told the Prospect that he was “changing out people” on the Pentagon’s China desk. Mattis, too, has had personnel disputes with the White House.
“Anything that Tillerson and Mattis really push for will now have a better chance of winning out—for better and for worse,” Abrams added.
Abrams and others said that Bannon’s exit makes it more likely that McMaster and Mattis will convince Trump to send more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the subject of a meeting among Trump and his national security team at Camp David today.
Some sources downplayed the significance of Bannon’s departure, however—noting that, on military and diplomatic issues, Bannon was more dissenter than policy maker.
Ben Rhodes, a former top national security aide to former President Barack Obama, said Bannon’s main contributions was his backing for Trump’s early executive orders restricting travel from several Muslim-majority countries. Bannon was also a defender of his friend and ally Sebastian Gorka, a controversial White House adviser who often appears on television.
“On national security, it was hard to see Bannon’s influence anywhere other than the Muslim ban and Gorka doing cable hits, so I don’t think it changes that much,” Rhodes said, adding: “It does suggest a greater likelihood of a troop increase in Afghanistan.”
And several sources cautioned that while Bannon may not longer occupy the White House, his worldview is still frequently reflected in the words of the most powerful policymaker of all: President Trump.
European allies “will not be popping champagne corks because their main source of worry remains in the White House, Donald Trump,” Benitez said. “Most Europeans blame Trump personally rather than Bannon or other subordinates for damaging transatlantic relations.”
“The president gets the last vote,” McKeon added. “And he has a different approach to foreign policy than all his predecessors.”
Eliana Johnson contributed reporting