Despite the hand-wringing of the Trumpophobes, there’s a lot of rationality and realism behind the president-elect’s evolving strategy.
- By Edward LuttwakEdward Luttwak is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.
The global funk over President-elect Donald Trump’s nascent foreign policy — from Sen. John McCain’s declaration that his Russia policy is “unacceptable” to hysterical over-interpretations of his intentions regarding China and trade — will not last long. On Nov. 17, when Trump meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the inevitable “normalization” of the new U.S. administration will start in earnest. Trump has declared that Japan should spend more on defense to share the burden of containing China more evenly, but there will be no rude demands. At the very most, at the next summit, or the one after that, Trump might suggest that a greater Japanese effort would be welcome. Because Abe has actually done much to strengthen Japan and do more for the alliance, the two leaders will find an understanding easily enough.
As for China and its maritime expansionism, Trump’s other policies matter more than his China policy in and of itself. Disengagement from Afghanistan and Iraq — no more troops will go in and those there will soon return home — and a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine would release U.S. military resources for the containment of China. That will facilitate a more muscular response to China’s island-grabbing in the Philippines, aggressive patrolling around Japan’s southernmost islands, and periodic intrusions into Vietnamese waters. President Barack Obama’s White House staff kept refusing U.S. Pacific Command suggestions for “freedom of navigation” patrols through the South China Sea in the hope that verbal persuasion alone would stop Chinese incursions. In diplomatic circles, it was reported that National Security Advisor Susan Rice opined that Beijing was “shapeable,” as if China were a very small country with not much of a history. Trump is unlikely to share such illusions, and he appears not likely to stop Pacific Command from doing its job of “keeping the sea lanes open” — the polite expression for denying Chinese territorial claims over coral reefs, rocks, and shoals.
If Trump’s Russia policy is successful, it will reduce tensions and thus the need to send more U.S. forces to Europe to strengthen the NATO alliance. But subject to that, Trump has said many times that he will press for more fairness in alliance burden-sharing, especially by NATO’s richer members. Some in Europe have already said any such attempt by Trump would instead prompt the establishment of Europe’s own united armed forces, finally overcoming objections from all sides. That would indeed be a curious response, because it would mean spending very much more than Trump would ask for. The more likely outcome is that Trump will get his increases — perhaps to the agreed-upon 2 percent of GDP.
That said, no distinctive Europe policy is likely to come from Trump. His vocal support for Brexit clearly showed his Euroskepticism. Like an increasing number of Europeans, he appears to view the European Union as a failed experiment devoured by its own bureaucracy and the euro monetary system as destructive to economic growth. On the other hand, no American president can say much on the subject once he is in office, and he can do even less, because the United States has no say in Europe’s own institutions. Yet even a silent Trump will encourage Euroskeptic politicians everywhere, perhaps tipping the balance in some countries, incidentally keeping the argument focused on liberty versus bureaucracy, as opposed to authoritarian or racist arguments.
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, one might think that matters must go from very bad — its bitter quarrel with Obama over the Iran nuclear deal — to worse, given that Trump has said many times that he views “radical Islam” as a hostile ideology. Saudi Arabia has been the main source of this brand of Islam worldwide, followed by India (yes, secular India gives a tax exemption to the enormous Deobandi seminary that spawned the Taliban). But the Trump administration will not start religious quarrels and is not likely to abandon established diplomatic doctrine on sovereign immunity — despite it having been violated by the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act,” passed in late September over Obama’s veto, that allows civil lawsuits against Saudi Arabia.
Against all this, there is something much more important: In his eagerness to reach a nuclear accord with Iran, Obama disregarded Israeli and Saudi security concerns — they are under attack by Iran every day — and treated their objections with icy contempt. By contrast, Obama’s officials acted like excited teenagers with their Iranian counterparts. The Saudis took it personally as a betrayal — Washington consorting with its enemies against its friends. Although Trump will not repudiate the Iran accords he so loudly criticized (he can’t do so alone, as it’s a multilateral agreement), he will stand strong against Tehran. His officials will not tolerate any deviations from the nuclear deal, will not move toward lifting the ballistic missile and terrorism sanctions, and if Iran’s Revolutionary Guards try to humiliate Trump with naval provocations as they did with Obama, the U.S. Navy will sink a small boat or two, and U.S.-Saudi relations will be splendid once more.
For many, it was Trump’s criticism of recent trade treaties that was most alarming. A belief in free trade these days is something of a religion, and that made Trump an apostate. Yes, Trump would not sanction the Trans-Pacific Partnership that seeks to remove many customs barriers between the 12 nations that have signed the agreement, but that is as far as his apostasy will go: He will not withdraw the United States from the Word Trade Organization, and he will not cancel any existing trade treaty, including the North American Free Trade Agreement he kept attacking during the campaign. That treaty is U.S. law like any other treaty, and presidents cannot change the law; only Congress can, and it will not. On the other hand, Trump would certainly invoke the existing anti-dumping trade barrier provisions that his predecessors were very reluctant to use, for example to protect the U.S. steel industry from the flood of Chinese steel. True, that would allow the Chinese to retaliate against the dumping of U.S. exports — except there is no such thing. Look instead for fiscal measures to discourage U.S. industries to migrate abroad, offset by the lower corporate tax that will reduce the incentive to offshore anyway. So, yes, Wall Street was right to oppose Trump, and industrial workers were right to back him.
It is all very reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s arrival. Nobody believed that the United States could renounce coexistence — going totally against the establishment consensus — but Reagan did that, simply refusing to endorse détente. The outcome was not a nuclear war and the end of the world but rather the end of the Soviet Union. This time there is something else to end: the enormously costly pursuit of wars in countries where the United States keeps failing.
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