By Michael A. Genovese
Continuity, predictability, and order—the signs of a stable world, of a world of diplomacy, of norm enforcement, and yes, of power politics. Yet, not all times are orderly, and not all leaders crave stability. Enter Donald J. Trump to whom unpredictability is the preferred option.
Transformational leaders seek a basic reordering of policy, power, and politics. The status quo is the enemy, and a new order is sought.
Trump sees himself as a transformational leader who will not only “make America great again,” but will bend other nations and the forces of history to his will.
Such monumental ambition suggests a monumental ego. Widely seen as a narcissistic egoist, Trump actually believes, as he said during the campaign about the Islamic State, “I know more than the generals.” And asked with whom he consults candidate Trump replied, “I consult with myself,” adding, “I’m a very smart guy.”
So how is this self-proclaimed very smart guy likely to change American global policy?
The War Against Terrorists. Trump’s get tough(er) rhetoric, “I will reintroduce torture,” and “we will go after the families of the terrorists,” suggest a more aggressive more militaristic approach to dealing with terror. Yet this tough talk should be understood in the context of other Trump statements suggesting a deep reluctance to get involved in military conflicts and nation-building abroad. Being pulled in two different directions may be something that Trump is able to manage in his head, but converting these conflicting views into policy will be difficult to reconcile on the ground. If President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism policy could be characterized as “Bush-lite,” Trump’s policy is likely to extend these policies even further than did President George W. Bush, both at home and abroad. More intrusive surveillance, torture of suspects, and militarization of anti-terrorism all are back on the table.
U.S. Nuclear Policy. Breaking from over 50 years of efforts at nuclear non-proliferation, Trump has called for an expansion of America’s nuclear arsenal, a policy that will surely be seen as highly threatening to our adversaries, perplexing to our allies, and almost certain to trigger another arms race with Russia, China, and others. Trump’s flippant comment that he wants Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons suggests that we will face a more armed and more dangerous world.
Trade. Prepare for either trade wars or Chinese capitulation. My money is on a limited trade war. Trump wants to impose taxes/tariffs on all Chinese goods coming into the United States (at a 45 percent rate during the campaign, chiseled down to 5 percent of late). Is this a policy proposal or a negotiating ploy? The problem is that most adversaries will see most of what Trump does as a negotiating ploy and will not take some of his proposals seriously. Trump has also said he will pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and renegotiate NAFTA. Goodbye free trade, hello trade wars.
Global Climate Policy. During the campaign, Trump called global warming a Chinese plot, and candidate Trump has already announced that he will pull the plug on U.S. support of the Paris Agreement. Additionally, his anti-regulatory policies and recent Cabinet appointments signal a retreat from environmentalism and an open door for industry. This will isolate the United States from the rest of the world and cause friction between the U.S. and its allies.
Refugees. The U.S. will not be opening its doors to refugees—not under a Trump presidency. His call during the campaign to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. (from which he “may” be backing away a bit) and his call for more aggressive vetting of anyone trying to gain entry will mean that Trump is handing the refugee crisis over to the Europeans. This will strain relations with our allies while also serving as a rejection of American history and tradition (as the Statue of Liberty reminds us, “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…”).
Russia. The bizarre bromance between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump is seen by many as a sign of just how easily Trump can be manipulated. “He said nice things about me,” said Trump of Putin—flattery is all that was needed to win Trump’s heart. Here “need” is the operative word: Trump needs to feel important, big, a man. Small price for Putin to pay for a weakened NATO, a reduced U. S. opposition in the Ukraine and elsewhere, and the boost in status that Putin will get at home. But being “Putin’s Poodle” has consequences beyond the ego of Donald Trump. Being a puppet of Russia would threaten our security as well as long-standing relations with NATO. In the pre-inauguration kerfuffle over Russian involvement in trying to disrupt and influence the 2016 presidential election, Trump, after calling the investigation a “witch hunt,” went on to defend Putin, assured the public that Julian Assange said that he did not get the hacked material from the Russians (he did), and suggested that he trusted Putin and Assange more than the U.S. intelligence agencies he was about to oversee. And while Trump finally “almost” admitted that, yes, Russia did hack the Democratic Party, he went on to blame the Democrats for their poor security—a case of blaming the victim for the crime.
NATO. Make them pay, or else. Trump has already signaled that the U.S. might not come to the aid of NATO allies nor fulfill our commitment to mutual security unless all our allies pay up. Our NATO allies are understandably worried that the novice Trump does not understand how historically important the U.S.-NATO alliance has been. It is being reduced to a commercial transaction where “what have you done for me lately?” takes precedence over our security needs.
Israel. As the recent imbroglio over the United States’ failure to block a U.N. resolution regarding Israeli settlements demonstrates, Donald Trump is likely to be a strong ally of Israel, but not necessarily a good friend. Giving Israel everything it wants (relocation of the capital to Jerusalem, new settlements, etc.) may be what Israel wants, but as Secretary John Kerry’s recent speech suggests, it may not always be what Israel needs. Trump is not well versed in the history of the region and will be susceptible to ill-informed judgments and poorly devised policies in this region, as well as others.
Cuba. Republicans want to reverse Obama’s Cuba opening, and Trump seems inclined to go along with the party. While Trump may not sever ties, he will certainly put more distance between the U.S. and Cuba and stall progress.
North Korea. Donald Trump has openly embraced the “madman theory” of foreign affairs leadership: If they think you are mad and will do some wild and dangerous thing, adversaries are likely to tread lightly when dealing with the U.S. The problem here is that in Kim Jung Un, North Korea has a leader who really is a madman. How does a fake madman deal with a real madman? With whom does the “great negotiator” negotiate when the person at the other end of the table is not rational and doesn’t play by the same rules?
U.S. Global Leadership. Is the era of Pax Americana over, and a new age of Retreat Americana coming? Trump’s manifest ignorance of foreign affairs may mean that he will pursue only an “America first” strategy, ignoring our historic leadership role in the world. What would a world where the U.S. retreats from global leadership look like? Does that open the door for another power, such as China, to fill the vacuum left by the United States’ exit? An “America first” strategy abandons the great strength of the West: cooperation and joint efforts toward security.
So what are we to expect of a Trump foreign policy? Allow me to quote that great Bette Davis for guidance: “Hang on boys, we’re in for a bumpy ride.”
Michael A. Genovese is President of the World Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University and is the author of fifty books, including The Post-Heroic Presidency (with Todd Belt), Praeger Publishers.
[Photo courtesy of Caleb Smith]