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Trump’s Foreign Policy: A riddle inside a mystery ins...


World, Politics

Trump’s Foreign Policy: A riddle inside a mystery inside an enigma

Okay, time to railroad. The new US president-elect has to figure out what his foreign policy will be and who will staff it. No more time for those one-liners and zingers that helped get him get elected. J. BROOKS SPECTOR tries to decipher what’s going on. It is still hard going.

Well, okay, that’s done. Protests or anti-Trump marches are not, however. There will be more of that soon enough, probably leading into the actual inauguration day events. And this is because, improbably, and implausibly, a genuine political neophyte, real estate developer, branding and marketing genius, and reality show television star, Donald J Trump, will become the next American president in a little over two months from now.

In his supposedly quixotic quest for the job, it turned out that Donald J Trump had actually found a vein of the body politic that led directly to the heart of the anxieties, fears (and not a few bigotries) held by a significant chunk of the American population in the time of great and on-going economic change. Fear job losses? Vote Trump. Angry about Mexican immigrants and Muslim extremists? Vote Trump. Worried about minority populations usurping the older white normality? Vote Trump. Fearful of all those social changes like LGBTI rights? Vote Trump. And on and on it went.

While Trump became infamous for doling out tweets and sound bites of his cures for all these grave ills, so far, his campaign, and now his incoming administration, has been notoriously parsimonious with the details of any plans from the man who is now the president-elect for the new administration in its foreign affairs. This has been especially true, save for those punch lines delivered in his speeches in order to whip up the emotions of the crowds at his rallies. More troubling still, besides a startling dearth of fully set out ideas, so far at least, there has been a real dearth of more than a few names of experienced hands being mentioned who will be likely to populate a Trump administration in foreign policy, international economic affairs, or national security.

Troublingly, Donald Trump has sometimes been on two or more sides of a topic in his public statements – and sometimes even within the same speech. There is, of course, some merit to be found in keeping one’s opponents off guard, but this becomes a problem when that obscurity or smokescreen extends to offering any clarity to one’s friends and allies as well.

Teasing out the strands of any Trumpian foreign policy doctrine (or doctrines), at least from what he has said already, basically just gives some bullet points for possible consideration. So far, at least, this information has not really been developed sufficiently to be more than bullet points, even though he has been on the hunt for the presidency for nearly two years. Such a tabula rasa does more than confound Americans professionally engaged in these topics. In fact, the expanse of blank white space where the Trump foreign policy guidelines should be inscribed is already starting to trouble other national leaders and to breed uncertainty about where the US stands on a number of potentially explosive issues.

And a president’s powers in foreign policy are broad and deep. As Daniel Byman, a Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution think tank notes,

For those looking for some consolation after Donald Trump’s triumph, it is tempting to hope that his actual power will be limited. On the domestic side, of course, there is the constraining power of Congress, America’s federal structure, and the courts. And on the foreign policy side, scholars often point to the international system, arguing that power balances, the demands of allies, and other factors beyond the control of any one country will limit foreign policy options. For those who want the president to shake things up, this is bad news. But for those who worry about a new president’s agenda, this view of things is reassuring.

I question the validity of this small comfort. On trade the president can levy penalties on other countries for supposedly manipulating their currency, raise tariffs, and otherwise destroy existing arrangements like NAFTA. As commander-in-chief, the president has tremendous power. Technically he cannot bring our nation to war without congressional authorisation, but he can threaten force and, as President Obama has shown, bomb other countries with at best a weak legal rationale. These are pretty big powers.”

Some of that is exactly what will be keeping people who worry about what a President Trump would do up at nights.

At the minimum, in thinking of a Trump foreign policy agenda, given his earlier words on the campaign trail about the possibilities of a closer embrace with Russia and the expense and bother of Nato, and the way it is funded unfairly by America, it seems a pretty good bet to shake things up. Surely the people working in foreign ministries in capitals as diverse as Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius – not to mention Berlin, Paris, Rome, Ankara, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Bucharest, Warsaw, Kiev and even Seoul and Tokyo – are already turning into a new species of runic scholars, trying to glimpse the inner meanings of those Trumpian tweets and one-liners for their respective futures.

In part, besides the very modest attention foreign policy issues gained from Trump during the campaign aside from those quips and rejoinders, this lack of clarity may be a function of the fact that there was no fully fleshed-out team of foreign policy advisers in the campaign-now-pivoting-to-transition-team in position to articulate the policy choices and concerns. Alternatively, there may be reluctance on the part of the president-elect to contemplate the importance of these issues and thus a substantive lack of interest in them as major challenges for the nation.

His attention may really be focused on domestic issues, taxes, infrastructure and building stuff, given his business background. This lack of focus on foreign policy could also be a hangover from his habit of describing foreign policy problems as the result of all those “dumb” officials, their “stupid decisions” and their “loser” status (and thus things he could solve in a “New York minute”). If that, foreign policy was just a useful tool for skewering or bludgeoning his campaign opponents – both in the primary season and then on into the general election.

But now that he has been elected, here comes the hard part – no more snappy one-liners and angry tweets. He and his team (at least as soon as it is called into being) must begin to turn that put-down style rhetoric into actual policy ideas, and begin gently junking the bad (foolish or truly dangerous) bits, and doing it all without infuriating his supporters who embraced those notions. Consider just how little time there really is to get started on all this. There is only a little more than two months before the Trump tribe takes over and, unlike prior transitions, there really isn’t an obvious team in waiting ready to step in, especially since so many Republican-style foreign policy and international economic policy vets had already signed letters several months back to say they would rather be drawn and quartered and then fed to carnivorous ducks than serve in a Trump administration. Moreover, given the scattershot approach to policy already demonstrated by Trump, there is no obvious core of alternative figures at established think tanks or universities to go to for some heavy lifting help – and quickly too.

Discussing the Trump economic advisers team, but with words that are actually applicable to the foreign affairs and the national security area as well, The Vox noted the other day,

The character of Trump’s list may have to do with the candidate’s belief that he’d be better off without the help of government veterans and credentialed academics. It also might have to do with the fact that the most experienced economic policy hands in the Republican Party have largely shunned Trump.

Greg Mankiw, for example, is a Harvard economist who served in the George W. Bush administration. In a recent blog post, he wrote that Trump wouldn’t get his vote because he finds Trump’s protectionist views “disqualifying”. John McCain’s top 2008 economic adviser — and former head of the Congressional Budget Office — Douglas Holtz-Eakin savaged Trump’s economic ideas, describing his plans for mass deportation of immigrants as ‘utterly unworkable’.

Glenn Hubbard, Mitt Romney’s top economic adviser and former adviser to George W. Bush, hasn’t been too kind to Trump either. He argues that Trump’s trade policies would ‘raise the prices of consumer goods for all Americans, raising the cost of living, especially for the poor.’

So, let us try to tackle some of the key foreign policy concerns piece-by-piece. The Hill newsletter, an excellent source of information on the doings of the US Government and with a real focus on Capitol Hill, wrote yesterday on the Trumpian foreign policy line,

On the foreign policy front, GOP lawmakers are looking toward a tougher approach against radical Islamic terrorism and re-implementing sanctions against Iran.

Trump repeatedly bashed Clinton and Obama throughout the campaign for telegraphing its military plans, giving militants time to flee US strikes. Trump has called for aggressive operations to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He has called for rebuilding the military and improving intelligence capabilities, which will likely require more funding from Congress. Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) called the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism ‘real and growing’ in his statement congratulating Trump on his victory.”

In addition, throughout the campaign, Trump made the establishment of a better American relationship with Russia one of the few points he spent much time speaking about in any sort of depth. Still, much of the Trumpian rhetoric still seemed to depend on his argument that he could work with Vladimir Putin more effectively than Hillary Clinton could because the two men (and thus, by extension, their countries) would get along much better than the soon-to-depart US president has managed to do.

And this is because the president-elect is a strong man and knows how to bargain effectively with strong men, presumably after wrestling with Wall Street bankers and other shylocks. In essence, Trump’s obvious admiration for that tough authoritarian figure ensconced in Moscow seems to hint at a new balance of global power relationships, significantly at variance with his sharp comments about China’s mendacious trade regimen and international financial behaviour.

Wait a minute, here. This is triggering a distant memory of something that was bold and strategic, way back in the mists of the early 1970s. Ah, there it is. Got it. It was Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon’s unexpected rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China, even during the Vietnam War, complete with that ping-pong diplomacy and Nixon’s secret visit to Beijing, that was carried out to establish an effective counterweight against a surging Soviet Union, smack in the midst of the Cold War.

For years, this new relationship served a useful purpose in helping keep the USSR in check – for both Democratic and Republican presidents. Given Trump’s animosity towards Chinese trade and financial behaviour, and given his willingness to achieve a new and warmer connection with Putin and his country, if there is one strategic option the Trumpians may be exploring (even if, as a conscious organising strategic principle, they may only be barely aware of it themselves), it may be a repositioning pivot towards Russia and away from China. This would be in aid of keeping China boxed in and off balance in order to reap trade rewards downstream once the Chinese are on the back foot.

Of course, that would effectively pair the US with a nation that has a static population and a faltering economy, that generates few real exports besides oil, natural gas and heavy weapons, permits pressure on a shrinking democratic space, and holds territorial designs on a variety of neighbouring territories – as well as its apparent lament for a kind of hegemony over significant chunks of the old USSR – or czarist Russia. Moreover, a tilt towards Russia would inevitably mean much would need to be forgiven in the interests of this new co-dominion that would be in position to offset a growing China.

(Remember that one of the first actions Trump has pledged to do once he and Melania move into the White House is to declare China a currency exchange manipulator, a declaration that could trigger retaliatory measures, including punitive tariffs on Chinese exports to the US.)

Making such a strategic move would, of course, run counter to American efforts, up till now, that have been aimed at bolstering the political stability, growth of democratic prospects, and the viable independence of states like Georgia and Ukraine, and decrying any forcible territorial nibbling Russia has already undertaken. But if the overarching goal is to achieve a geopolitical strategic counterbalance to China, oh well, much could be forgiven. And at least some kind of organising strategic principle may be better than nothing at all. Maybe.

A second aspect to the Trumpian rhetorical foreign policy has been that other nations, heretofore longstanding US allies, must now pull their own weight in their own defence or be driven out beyond the “circle of trust” and American protection. This presumably includes major Nato allies South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, just for starters. There appears to be little recognition that some of these nations – especially the East Asian ones – already pay for most of the costs of American bases on their territory.

While the Nato nations clearly should be contributing appropriately to their own defence costs, would breaking Nato apart – given its contribution in creating a cohesive multinational approach towards the region’s defence – be an appropriate response to budgetary gaps? The incoming Trump administration still must work through such a tangle of ideas before it can come to a coherent strategic vision.

Concurrently, flip statements that the East Asian nations and the Saudis should consider their own nuclear umbrellas for their defence seems unlikely to contribute to regional stability, especially given the historical animosities between Korea and Japan and Japan and China. Moreover, there is that rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance that is contributing to actual hostilities in Yemen between their forces and/or proxy fighters. Meanwhile, the Trumpian position on Israel seems to be strongly supportive of the Binyamin Netanyahu government’s forward positions on the West Bank and something of an avoidance of reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. Of course, this is generally a classical Republican view consistent with that party’s earlier embrace of Netanyahu and his policies, so perhaps, less change there than in other areas from Republican orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, the approach to Mexico is seen largely in terms of Trump’s argument that Mexico’s vacuuming up of American jobs has come about as a result of NAFTA, and it is a source of all that is horrible by virtue of the immigration of some “bad hombres” bearing drugs, carrying out murder, rape and pillage, and stealing jobs from honest workers. This is a cartoon of a foreign policy, even without the artful fantasy of that “beautiful, big wall” along the Rio Grande River and the rest of the border that the Mexicans will, somehow, be forced to pay for out of their export earnings – or some such. As a midterm paper, this one would get marked, “needs more development”.

Along the way, the Trumpian foreign policy seems to see the rest of the world largely in terms of problems it exports to the US, such as those phantom Syrian terrorists, the Muslim immigrants determined to establish “sharia law” in America, or who have applauded the idea of further 9/11s. This is also married to the idea that the Iran nuclear accord signed with the P5+1 nations is a disaster that must be disavowed immediately. Moreover, he – and he alone, he has told us – has a secret plan to combat, and defeat, ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And as a part of that grand effort, he will team up with the Russians to sort out the Syrian charnel house more generally. (See above for the grand strategic plan.)

But there are no obvious ideas on how to deal with the UN or with the issues of global climate change (other than to label it a Chinese hoax to pump up their exports at America’s expense) and that the US will renounce the newly signed global climate accord. Similarly, there seems to be no sense of how to address any of the other global issues such as refugees, non-state terror actors beyond ISIS, global food security, economic development, international lending and access to capital, or a dozen or so more other big concerns.

Africa, including South Africa, of course, has largely been left out of this discussion so far – save for a sense that development assistance programmes are largely a waste of money and that the continent is a place that generates intractable problems America should shy away from if possible. Where that quite leaves key US Government programmes that operate in the region such as Pepfar, Power Africa, the Millennium Challenge Account, and President Obama’s signature initiative, YALI – the Young African Leader Initiative – would seem unclear.

And so, here’s a problem to solve: If the Trump administration really needs to find funds for its new infrastructure plans at the same time as it hopes to cut taxes and doesn’t want to explode the deficit, programmes like these would seem to be possible sources of funds for harvesting. That is, unless compelling justifications can be made for them inside Congress and among influential supporters aligned to the incoming president, besides saying they are “doing good work” or are “very nice to have”.

Further, given Trumpian rhetoric that excoriates trade agreements and programmes that do not provide full, complementary benefits to the US such as AGOA – the US law that offers duty free access to the US market for African exports – there might eventually be trouble on that front too. South Africans in particular should begin preparing hard for lengthy negotiations that could eventually replace AGOA with a genuine bilateral trade agreement – but in order to compete with a hard-headed Trump team, South Africa must be fully prepared and able to argue the mutual benefits, with their A-team engaged in this battle.

Of course it is still very early days, but that transition period of less than three months melts away quickly. Signalling the names of planned appointees must begin in earnest soon, and these nominees must be able to staff out their respective domains as well with lower-level names. As of this moment, while no appointments have been made, several names are already being floated, and they should be noted here.

These include Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for Defence; Tennessee Senator Robert Corker for State (or former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich! Go ahead, imagine the conversation between Gingrich and UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson); former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton for some as yet undefined senior national security position; retired General John Flynn for his National Security adviser (since he was apparently doing much of this for the candidate already); and hizzoner Rudi Giuliani for Attorney-General and general tough guy. And, of course, Dune Capital’s Steve Mnuchin seems destined for the position of treasury secretary, based on his advisory role during the campaign. None of these names are gauzy, dreamy internationalists. Not a one of them.

Until now, there seem to have been no rumours of who would be appointed as Trump’s US Trade Representative. The USTR is a cabinet-level post with a small but highly skilled professional staff that has the primary responsibility of being the administration’s trade negotiator. Given Trump’s ideas about trade, this would seem to be a crucial appointment – as a kind of chief trade enforcer and economic consigliore rolled into one.

There is a long way to go yet, as the Trump administration settles into view, but there is, as we have already noted, actually very little time for it to come together and move beyond the catchy sound bites and kvetchy tweets, and on to actual nominations and more thoroughly thought-through position papers. As these names are presented, and as their confirmation hearings are scheduled with the Senate, we may finally find out how Donald Trump actually plans to turn those words into actual policies. Until then, the guessing and fretting takes place. DM

Photo: US President elect Donald Trump (C), with his wife Melania Trump (L), and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), gives the thumbs up after a meeting in the Majority Leaders office in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 10 November 2016. Earlier in the day President-elect Trump met with US President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. EPA/SHAWN THEW


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