December 04, 2016
Trump’s Foreign Policy: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
In this most memorable of U.S. elections, it has become generally received wisdom that Donald Trump will have us slouching towards a dangerously erratic, populist authoritarianism with profoundly negative implications for the U.S.'s standing in the world, with attendant deleterious shocks to the broader international system. Will it be that dire? Perhaps, but with myriad commentators rhetorical overdrive running at fuller throttle than perhaps ever before, it seems advisable to have a closer look at what Trump’s policy—at least to the extent we can divine it--might portend for the global scene. I will begin with the ‘good’, and proceed to the more unsavory aspects.
The Good: Trump has at least three generally positive core insights that can be ascertained from perusing his (haphazardly improvised, being polite) foreign policy musings:
1) The United States cannot have the same foreign policy some ~$20 trillion in debt as it did during the period when it enjoyed a far more robust creditor-nation position. Period. Full stop. The serial fantasies of nation-building in the far-away environs of Fallujah and Kandahar, the billions upon billions of squandered aid (including to unreliable, supposed client-state allies), the thousands of lives shattered essentially for naught—all this neo-Wilsonian and neo-conservative reverie must end in favor of more realism, as well as nation-building at home. Trump’s (re)-adopted America First moniker is of course highly unfortunate given its Lindberghian historical connotations, but there’s a reason it struck a nerve (along with his signature ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan) amidst the lumpen-proletariat in America’s heartland dealing with structural declines in labor participation, stagnating middle class wages, and increasingly decrepit infrastructure. And while it’s charming we have thousands of ‘analysts’ in their Washington habitats essentially blindly advising how to ‘destroy the village to save it’ across the far-flung neo-colonial archipelagos, any self-respecting industry would have seen these tired voices shown the door long ago. The American public is exhausted by these endless follies and squandering of blood and treasure.
2) With America’s ‘hyper-puissance’ moment behind it (lasting roughly from the halcyon days of the end of the Cold War to the 9/11 overreactions, most notably the miserable blunder of Iraq) we are inexorably moving towards a geopolitical era defined more by regional security architecture. Trump has been widely derided for his somewhat mercantilist and transactional view of inter-state relations. Much of this derision may well have been merited, at least on occasion. And yet, amidst the mockery about how he might be just fine with a nuclear-armed Japan or South Korea or such (arguably a bit exaggerated, if one reads the transcripts in question more judiciously in overall context), there is actually a deeper insight afoot. As Henry Kissinger has written in his ‘World Order’, the “contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various regions, and to relate these regional orders to one another” (emphasis in original).
The point here is that the United States can no longer pose and preen as some grand behemoth upholding an indomitable Pax America bestriding the entire globe. Countries of true scope and power like China and Russia have compelling, core interests they will defend to the end. Barring risking a major power conflict or such, the U.S. must re-calibrate the scope of its ambitions to defend its interests by better interrelating regional security understandings to each other. We have seen the dangers of our clumsy over-reach in Russia’s ‘near abroad’ and we may risk seeing it in not dissimilar fashion with respect to China. Put differently, we cannot persuasively be the world’s policeman given resource constraints--and by playing pretend we still nonetheless are--we not only aggravate situations by too exuberantly emboldening the supposed ‘good guys' to dangerously over-reach, but also avoid the necessary work of re-ordering the global system to the new realities.
While somewhat heretical, I know, this may mean that we will not have, for instance, large American troop presences in South Korea and Japan for decades hence in de facto perpetuity (although I am certainly not recommending some immediate, precipitous withdrawal--or even one short to medium-term--especially given the very sensitive North Korean situation as well as the still considerable room for continued Sino-Japanese misunderstandings, among other geopolitical headwinds in Asia). It may also mean we will stop breathlessly cheer-leading ceaseless expansion of treaty commitments in Russia’s ‘near abroad’, to the actual detriment of those to whom we falsely advertise we’ll parachute the cavalry in, but come crunch-time, don't or wouldn't, of which I address related themes more below. Similar logic could also be extrapolated with regard to our apparently ceaseless presence in theaters like Iraq, not to mention Afghanistan.
3) Trump’s skepticism of NATO is not unmerited, especially given NATO expansion was pursued too vaingloriously after the Cold War. It is sometimes difficult to put oneself in another’s shoes and peruse the world from a materially different vantage point, such as Russia’s. Yet few exercises can prove as valuable in forging better diplomatic understandings. George Kennan, perhaps the greatest of American diplomats, intuited late in his life after a distinguished career in the trenches of Soviet-American diplomacy that NATO expansion would be a terrible blunder vis-à-vis its dire, long-term implications to the bilateral relationship with Moscow. Currently, Washington’s provincial self-echoing chambers have become consumed by anti-Russian hysteria, romanticizing neighboring ‘front-line’ states, and never deigning to examine the deeper historical forces driving Putin’s annexation of Crimea (or more of a ‘de-annexation’, at least to the Russian mind). More specifically, the Administration’s transparent meddling in Kiev constituted a ‘red-line’ for Putin, especially given the manner his client was ingloriously defenestrated, reminiscent of regime change on the heels of the U.S.-Russian misunderstandings around Libya, and points beyond. Behind this, of course, were also fears of eventual NATO expansion into a Ukraine deeply entwined with Russia over many centuries, and often seen as something of a pan-Slavic cordon sanitaire by many in Moscow.
More broadly than the Ukraine example, and since the end of the Cold War, various countries have merrily queued up to join the alliance, often providing a small fig-leaf of soldiers to an American deployment to help guarantee they are on, say, a Don Rumsfeld’s or Ash Carter’s ‘good list’. Such show-boating masks the deeper reality that NATO is not really ‘fit for purpose’ as per its prior incarnation to fend off the Warsaw Pact and its aggrandizement has needlessly rankled the Russians. Indeed, it has become something of a bloated, often dysfunctional alliance, with membership rustled up more for parochial self-interested ends than any particularly noble purpose and very few countries reliably anteing up the full 2% GDP target commitment.
In short, while Trump’s rhetoric has veered into over-casualness on this issue (among many others), the fundamental thrust of his overall posture described in the above “1” through “3” is far from indefensible, namely, a recognition of America’s imperiled finances and urgent needs at home, that regional actors are assiduously cobbling together security architecture we cannot over the long-term rival and/or wholly control (albeit Trump's recent Taiwan phone kerfuffle and follow-on 'diplomacy-by-tweets' doesn't bode well here) and that we are needlessly antagonizing Russia and China over issues like NATO ‘front-line’ states and/or the specter of more intrusive U.S. naval activity in the South China Sea (again, however, both areas where Trump's policy hasn't yet 'settled').
Irrespective, here’s the huge catch: while the above may point to an under-rated worldview it will only bear real fruit (and not risk clumsy conflagrations) if and only if properly executed. As T.S. Eliot put it in The Hollow Men: between the idea and the reality falls the shadow, or for our purposes here the exigencies of competent foreign policy execution.
This, in turn, brings us to ‘the bad’.
The Bad: The bad in my mind is quite simple. Trump is mostly improvising on the world’s greatest stage with little appetite to truly grapple with the issues beyond his high level ‘gut’ instincts (we see this in his foreign policy interviews with the New York Times and Washington Post where he mouths his policies in highly improvised fashion and then pauses seeking approbation as if still unsure of fundamental moorings buttressing his putative world vision). And despite some of his instincts potentially being positive, given he is a neophyte in this realm by any serious measure, it is imperative that Trump would be surrounded by top quality advisors providing best-in-class advice. It is tempting to imagine somehow the likes of Brent Scowcroft (for geopolitical strategy), James Baker (for helping translate Trump’s deal-making skills from the wild hurly-burly of 1980’s New York real estate to the international scene, or even a Jon Hunstman (to potentially help soften Trump’s policy rough edges, not least on PRC-related policy matters--as we dramatically saw with Taiwan last week--although it must be said Huntsman's attempted damage control in context of his desire for SecState didn't exactly enhance his loftiness).
There are myriad other examples of this policy execution risk. For instance, and laudably, Trump suggests he wants to assiduously tackle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (at least to the extent it isn't all but dead and buried). Yet he talks of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which would represent the death knell of any deal (unless arguably simultaneously accompanied by a second U.S. Embassy to Palestine in Arab East Jerusalem, as Jerusalem represents the thorniest of so-called ‘final status’ issues, not good fare for ‘shoot from the hip’, up-front rigmarole). Or Trump assures us of his many “friends” and deep understanding of China, but appears unaware--or seriously under-appreciates--the foundational tenets of the One-China policy, Taiwan Relations Act, and/or how critical a core interest, even near existential, the Taiwan issue is for Beijing. We also see room for regression around loose talk of possibly torpedoing the Iran deal, although it appears Trump is minded to focus more on rhetoric around policing the effort more robustly than actually dismantling the accord.
Instead, however, of buttressing his ranks with top-shelf players as mentioned above (though I will confess none of them are getting any younger, to include Henry Kissinger) we instead have been presented with the specter of highly sub-optimal human capital being brought to bear. As aggravating factor too, we have had broad-scale defections from Trump of the so-called GOP 'Never Trump' types (the serried ranks of foreign policy ‘experts’, increasingly more a self-reverential, group-think herd). They have been splendid at crying ‘shocked, shocked’ from the sidelines whilst conveniently neglecting their own pivotal roles in helping create Trumpism by stoking a gross over-reaction to 9/11. Without re-litigating these manifold hypocrisies here, in this vacuum we have seen the more Jacksonian pugilistic types rally around Trump, whether General Mike Flynn, the detestable Don Rumsfeld and still fevered Dick Cheney, a folie de grandeur infused Newt Gingrich, the uber-interventionist John Bolton, among others. Meantime candidates making the rounds for the critical post of Secretary of State impress little more. Mitt Romney has the superficial ‘look’ of a Secretary of State (if an oleaginous plutocratic sheen counts as such), but is a craven opportunist with little real foreign policy gravitas. Meantime, David Petraeus would seem far too focused on counter-insurgency fancy in MENA, and irrespective a ‘troika of Generals’ across State, Defense and the NSA would seem like at least one too many military men manning the commanding civilian heights. Related, a hyper-militaristic view of the ISIS challenge (see, Rudy Giuliani) could translate to Curtis LeMay type bombing campaigns through ‘Syraq’ and risk slipping dangerously towards a civilizational conflict underpinned by heady doses of Islamophobia.
More fundamentally, who among say a Romney, Petraeus or certainly Bolton would have the necessary high-level deal-making skills and nuanced foreign policy gravitas to forge fundamentally re-fashioned relations with Beijing or Moscow? So while Trump may occasionally have worthy instincts on some matters whom will help him translate them into a responsibly calibrated worldview rather than a pugnacious nationalism that could risk badly backfiring? Might a Secretary of State Jon Huntsman (or Bob Corker), perhaps accompanied by a Deputy Secretary Richard Haass? Maybe, but this seems a long-shot regardless (Update: Rumors of Rex Tillerson however are more auspicious, a proven board-room player with seasoned real world experience could prove a powerful antidote to the tyranny of adolescently armchair, policy-paper fantasy, albeit much would depend too on the selection for Deputy Secretary).
The Ugly: Last, we have 'the ugly'. Foremost for me, Trump has glibly and odiously cheer-led the return of torture tactics (before backtracking that such measures would have to be legal, albeit he’d look at changing the laws, and then subsequently signaling after a recent meeting with General Mattis that he may be reappraising the efficacy of torture leading to his possibly dropping his obscenely ill-advised advocacy of it). This is a civilizational red-line for any post-Enlightenment society, torture must be relegated to the ash-heap of any self-respecting polity as with, say, slavery or piracy.
Beyond this Trump has engaged in absurd musings that he would ban adherents of one of the world three great monotheistic religions, Islam, from entering the United States for some period until such ostensible time as a Trump Administration would deign to give the all-clear. This is absurd on multiple levels (not least that it represents approximately a quarter of humanity) and he’s tried to back-track in favor of discussing ‘extreme vetting’ from certain (as yet unspecified, save hapless Syria) countries--but along with his signature 'Mexico wall’ issue--the implications of flirting with religious tests for entry to the United States, or the depressing symbolism of building some 'Great Wall' across our southern border, all are body-shocks to the image of the United States as a shining city on the hill welcoming the world’s weak and oppressed.
Yes, a nation must have non-negligible, well enforceable borders and must ensure its basic security, but no, a crude lock-down is not the answer and would be toxic vis-à-vis America’s heretofore DNA. Let us hope and pray Defense Secretary-designate Mattis' views on torture will prevail, that Trump will avoid the hideousness of Muslim registries and bans, and that the border issue will be handled, if robustly enough regarding fulfilling aspects of his campaign promises regarding border security, without reversion to too primitive a vision of Fortress America.
Finally, of course, we have the climate change denialism. Can one extract some comfort from reports Trump's daughter is galvanized by the issue, or that he recently met Al Gore to discuss the issue? No one really knows, and as with so many of the matters at play, we have a work in production regarding 'firming' policy and can presume we will see many 'one step forward, two steps back' type dynamics as the Administration takes power.
Where Does This Leave Us?
So, given the mixed bag above, what might all this portend? Can one really realistically conjure some best case where, perhaps, Trump is ultimately just some Rockefeller Republican in nativist drag who focuses his ‘tough guy’ act mostly on trade deals but on ‘high politics’ around international security issues ultimately tacks more towards a nuanced realism than some crude Jacksonian nationalism? There are positive glimmers, such as his apparent enthusiasm to forge a much overdue rapprochement with Russia, but he doesn’t yet appear to have the advisors to help seriously accomplish same, and then of course we also have the ‘red-lines’ for any civilized actor on issues like torture. But given the reality of Trump’s victory (which I suspected might well occur--given the epic blunders of Iraq vainly fought by ‘flyover’ non-elites, booked-ended by the debauched self-dealing of elites around the global financial crisis; not to mention the extremely underwhelming prospect of a de haut en bas Clinton restoration) we may have to work to help wean him towards the better directions his instincts might take him, rather than the worst. It’s our collective destiny as a nation, after all, and sitting it all out in transfixed revulsion does not appear the wisest option at hand.
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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