The Coming “Day One” Challenge to Trump’s Foreign Policy
In The Twenty Years’ Crisis (1939) the famed historian E.H. Carr, warned of the perils of chaos and insecurity in the international system, especially the dangers of a status quo power refraining from using “soft” and “hard” power to maintain stability in the global system. Today, we stand at a similar juncture, with a president-elect who appears to place blind faith in “the art of the deal” and his conviction that America does too much for the world. Superficially, Donald Trump’s comments appear fresh and appealing to a public that finds his tone and pitch markedly different from anything they have seen before. But this same public understands little about the complexities foreign policy. His unstudied approach to international relations is blind to the blood, treasure, and negotiations managed by previous administrations to create a world system that America benefits from immensely. Trump appears to not realize that America is a status quo power that benefits from an international order that the U.S. played a large role in building and from which it benefits.
Trump faces a problem of his own creation. His words and those of most of his team indicate a hodgepodge understanding of America’s role in maintaining an international order that administrations since World War II created, and what the world still requires for stability. While the appointments of retired generals James Mattis (Secretary of Defense) and John Kelly (Department of Homeland Security) are positive steps, the appointment of former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson (who presided over extensive business interactions with Russian firms) and many others are representative of Trump’s overall disregard for how the U.S. exercises power. This disconnect is reflected in Trump’s rejection of historical precedent, which may please some of his supporters, but around the world, rivals smell the scent of weakness and uncertainty, and allies adjust and hedge in anticipation.
Trump Undermines Himself
Trump has tipped his hand, creating three major problems that will face his presidency from day one. First, Trump’s election was a Pyrrhic victory in that his divisive tactics and speeches enabled him to win the electoral college, but not the popular vote. Losing the popular vote by about 2.8 million votes hardly provides a mandate or the requisite political capital to govern. Given the divisive style of his campaign, a White House team full of controversial figures, and adherence to violating diplomatic and political norms, his administration will find it difficult to craft policies that domestic and foreign observers will see as legitimate or sustainable.
Even with numerous retired generals in the Trump administration, an apolitical Mattis is scoffing at many of Trump’s Pentagon appointments is practically the only bright spot. Trump’s team has also has considerable number of ties to Russia, signaling undue foreign influence. Combine this with intelligence reports indicating that Russia actively intervened in the American election to help Trump get elected, and now one has to question the reliability of future U.S. policies with Russia. One must also wonder the rationale for Trump and his team taking so long to reluctantly accept such findings from national security agencies.
How would the national security bureaucracy react if Trump forged a shady deal with Putin that played out within months of his inauguration? Such questions may arise, given the questionable history of Rex Tillerson, and others with pro-Putin views expected in his cabinet. Does Russia hold a ‘trump card’ given that they have not leaked any Republican emails? Worse yet, has Trump so delegitimized himself to his national security bureaucracy that they might not trust each other during an international crisis?
Second, Trump’s presidential transition and controversial picks highlight a lack of attention to how America and other countries exercise power in the world. Bromancing Russian President Putin, questioning the value of NATO or defense of its members, and abdicating American leadership on Pacific trade to China showcase a weak understanding of American power projection. Indeed, Trump’s provocations and disrespect towards China through Tweets and a phone call with Taiwan, are exactly why the Chinese illegally seized an American underwater drone in international waters.
Trump’s decision to surround himself with individuals that speak so unfavorably of Islam with ease and share a belief that international law constrains the American war on terror, suggests that Trump and company, view the religious faith of more than a fifth of humanity as the primary threat in the world. This stance ignores the fact that cooperation with Muslims, such as our NATO ally Turkey, and throughout the world generates immensely important information needed to defeat terrorists. What luck will American troops have in conducting counterinsurgency operations across the Middle East and in other Islamic countries, if Trump’s team keeps making inflammatory comments about Muslims? No wonder numerous terrorist organizations celebrated the election outcome, with one group even saying that America was “struck with disaster at the hands of their own voters.”
If there is a consistent theme in Trump’s formulation of U.S. interests and foreign policy, it is to ‘speak loudly and brag about America’s big stick’. Trump’s braggadocio gives the appearance of extorting allies, while maintaining murky business relationships with non-allied countries. Such a strategy is hardly appropriate in a post-9/11 era where non-state actors can inflict immense damage against the U.S. and its allies. Treating allies through a quid pro quo lens is scarcely an effective strategy in collecting coalitional intelligence, given the rise in transnational threats.
Finally, a lack of coherent adherence to traditional strains of American foreign policy conveys weakness. While it is true that most presidents develop their own distinctive styles – employing them pragmatically – Trump’s carelessness in rhetoric in conjunction with his distaste for America’s hegemonic position, international laws, and trade deals, foreshadows uncertainty and a lack of commitment to the contemporary order. Uncertainty is bad for an international system of states dependent upon the reliability of American behavior.
To skeptics, one should evaluate the consequences of Trump’s interaction with foreign leaders, such as his bizarre call to the leader of Pakistan, provocative communication with the Taiwanese president, and many more. It is almost as if Trump does not comprehend the ‘ABCs’ of foreign policy that even most liberals and conservatives agree to in maintaining American hegemony. Or maybe Trump is just ‘trolling’ the world one Tweet and call at a time?
Trump’s Illiberal Foreign Policy?
A nascent Trump doctrine appears to be unpredictable, transactional, and unilateral. This creates uncertainty in the minds of allies and enemies alike as to whether the U.S. will pursue long-term interests and stability or abide by the whims of an erratic president who thinks that he can make deals with a world that is inherently subordinate to his desires. Moreover, the possibility of extensive conflicts of interest will leave observers to wonder whether Trump is acting for personal gain – or for his country’s interests. Already, hordes of foreign diplomats are flocking to Trump’s luxury hotel near the White House, hoping to curry favor with the incoming president. This is not a winning recipe for an American president to develop and conduct an effective foreign policy.
The inherent uncertainty built into Trump’s style of foreign policy threatens American power in fundamental ways. The president-elect’s proclamations erode American reliability and predictability, which are foundational to deterrence and compellence. Even if Trump wants to go it alone in the world, it is hard to see how the U.S. can exercise power under such conditions. Instead, the conduct of foreign policy is likely to involve domestic battles between a president lacking political acumen and a political and economic establishment that is desperate to hold on to America’s prominent and influential position. Most likely, Trump will then turn to the people who voted for him, using divisive populist rhetoric, leading to increased domestic political instability. Collectively, this could accelerate global uncertainty, creating significant opportunities for foes to seize upon.
Furthermore, Trump’s public persona, to which some have referred to as Nixon’s madman strategy, is dismissive of special relationships developed with countries over time that share political, diplomatic, cultural, military, and historical ties. Alliances that are foundations of American power in the international system appear destined to face an ahistorical transactional framework that has no consideration or basic precept of power. Trump’s conceptualization of the international system created by the United States and cultivated during the Cold War and after appears to be faltering.
Finally, Trump’s personalist worldview stands as a type of illiberal American foreign policy that will be remembered as the critical element in the decline of American power. Perhaps Trump thinks the world will remain relatively benign and supportive of what America wants, and that most will follow his rules and Tweets. This vision is blind to the realities of chaos and insecurity in the international system that E.H. Carr once cautioned.
American Power Weakened
Trump’s flaws are easily read overseas as a man that lacks the dedication and understanding of what makes America powerful. It is no surprise then that Russia celebrated the election of Trump. Such a perception of Trump makes the international system ripe for rising and revisionist powers seeking to mold a new international order on their terms. It would be reasonable to expect some states to test Trump on day one. Already, major powers, such as Russia, recently moved its most advanced nuclear missile systems deeper into Eastern Europe, and China, flew a nuclear bomber into the South China Sea while stealing an American underwater naval drone. Further tests might include: Russia moving military forces into neighboring states to “protect” ethnic Russians; China proclaiming to militarily defend the entirety of the South China economic exclusion zone; Iran declaring a tax on vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz; Pakistani forces infiltrating Kashmir; or even China “unleashing” North Korea on South Korea. Such acts might be remembered as pivotal moments that put a nail in the coffin of Pax Americana.
Trump is the agent of this potentially radical decline in American power. But he is not alone in blame. The circumstances of his elevation to office show that the political establishment in this country has abandoned the interests of rural Americans. Moreover, America faces the possibility of prolonged domestic instability projected onto the world stage. Worse yet, the American educational system has become so weak that Vietnam is now considered to have a better educational system; such an educational decline is hardly helpful in making an educated public that appreciates democracy. No wonder the average Trump voter thinks “What’s the big deal?” about Russian hacking. Such realities are dangerous because the stability of the international system since World War II largely rests upon the stability of the American political system. Now, Trump paves the way for world disorder, or at a minimum, an opportunity for Russia, China, and others to claim a greater share of the world aligned with their interests; resulting in a multipolar world full of regional powers.
Meanwhile, Trump seems to believe that America needs to be run like a mafia security racket, demanding protection money to prop up a military it cannot afford. Trump’s “post-truth” politicking might have gotten him elected as the leader of the free world, but such post-truth rhetoric does not work in dealing with other states where objective truths of power mean more than populist platitudes. The truth is, American power is dependent upon the right blend of “hard” and “soft” power; not Trump’s caricature of power.
If Trump and his team do not articulate reasonable stances on America’s role in the world by day one, it is probable that there will be significant realignments against U.S. interests. If it were 1938 again, Donald Trump would be Neville Chamberlain at the Munich Conference, proactively appeasing rising powers. But the difference now is that such arrangements might enrich himself and his friends at the expense of American hegemony. But as E.H. Car warned, it is fatal to ignore political reality.