What is President-elect Donald Trump up to on foreign policy? It’s a question with no clear answer. Some will dismiss his appointments and tweets as expressing no more than the impulses of an ignorant and undisciplined temperament – no more premeditated than the lunges of a rattlesnake.
Others may recall that similar things were said (by me, as well as many others) about his campaign strategy. But examination of the entrails of the election returns suggests that Trump was following a deliberate strategy based on shrewd insight when he risked antagonizing white college-educated voters in the process of appealing to non-college-educated whites.
Antagonizing college graduates cost him scads of popular votes – but zero electoral votes – in states such as California, Arizona, Texas and Georgia. But his appeal to non-college-educated whites in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District won him just enough popular votes to capture 100 electoral votes that had gone for President Barack Obama in 2012.
So maybe Trump knew what he was doing. It seems to me that like many rich men, he has original insights that, together with hard work and good luck, have made him successful, even while showing boundless ignorance or mindless delusion about other things.
So let’s examine Trump’s actions and comments on foreign policy so far in that light and in light of the speculations of historian and Henry Kissinger biographer Niall Ferguson, who, in an American Interest article last month, sketched out what a “Kissinger-inspired strategy” by Trump might look like.
Ferguson argued that Trump is pursuing what Kissinger’s most admired American statesman, Theodore Roosevelt, also sought: “a world run by regional great powers with strong men in command, all of whom understand that any lasting international order must be based on the balance of power.”
That seems in line with Trump’s moves vis-a-vis China. He ostentatiously took a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president, and the first foreign leader to make a postelection visit to Trump Tower was Japan’s Shinzo Abe. Both are signals that Trump will look askance at China’s moves to establish sovereignty in the first island chain.
But then he tapped as ambassador to Beijing Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, whose friendship with Xi Jinping goes back to the Chinese leader’s visit to Iowa in 1985. Those moves look like a good cop-bad cop routine. Trump wants some changes in trade relations with China and limits on its probes in the South China Sea and will build up U.S. military forces. But there’s room for acceptance of China as a great power.
There’s room for acceptance of Russia, too, as suggested by the secretary of state nomination of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, self-proclaimed friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s. He may be opposed by Republican senators who, like Mitt Romney in 2012, see Russia as “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.” But perhaps Trump favors Kissinger’s proposal for a neutral and decentralized (i.e., dominated and partitioned) Ukraine, with an end to sanctions on Russia. Tillerson would be a good choice if that were your goal.
This would make the Baltic States and Poland understandably nervous, but they could take some comfort in Trump’s reaffirmation of our NATO pledge to defend them and in the fact that Pentagon nominee James Mattis has gone out of his way to honor Estonia for its sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As for the rest of Europe, Ferguson cited Kissinger’s urging that it move “from bureaucratic introspection back to strategic responsibility.” Finance ministers, stung by Trump’s campaign criticisms, are ponying up more money to meet their NATO defense spending commitments; German Chancellor Angela Merkel is backing down from her disastrous decision to welcome 1 million “refugees.”
Long-standing U.S. cheerleading for the European Union reached a crescendo when President Obama threatened that Britain would go to “the back of the queue” if it voted to leave the EU. Trump supported Brexit and has supported a U.S.-U.K. free trade agreement. He obviously doesn’t have much use for multinational talking shops.
In the Middle East, will Trump ditch the Iranian nuclear deal or police it aggressively? Will he bolster the tacit Sunni-Israeli alliance against the expansion of Iranian influence? Unclear, though Mattis and Tillerson could help with both.
Trump’s moves and picks so far are not inconsistent with Ferguson’s supposition that his strategy is to seek accommodations with regional powers led by strongmen, showing even less regard for and paying even less lip service to human rights than Obama. We’ll see.