(Photo credit: DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump’s grand strategic dilemmas
Trump’s grand strategy is thus at odds with longstanding traditions in American foreign policy and poses an acute threat to the liberal international order that has underwritten U.S. security and prosperity for the past seven decades. Yet, even on its own terms, Trump’s grand strategy is plagued by internal tensions and dilemmas that will make it difficult to achieve the president’s stated objectives. There are many problems, but here we emphasize six.
First, it will be difficult for Trump to reconcile his policies toward Russia and Iran on the one hand with his desire to defeat the Islamic State on the other. Trump’s apparent desire to go all-in with Russian President Vladimir Putin — and perhaps Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — to fight the Islamic State in Syria is likely to backfire. President Barack Obama conditioned the prospect of counterterrorism cooperation with Russia in Syria on Moscow enforcing a nationwide cease-fire and ensuring humanitarian access for the U.N. — conditions the Kremlin was ultimately unable or unwilling to meet. Moreover, during discussions with Moscow last fall, Obama insisted that the United States would have a veto over Russian targeting, that Assad’s air force would be grounded over much of the country, and that the parties should return to the negotiating table to discuss a political transition. If Trump chooses to cooperate with Russia with no strings attached, it will make the United States complicit in Russia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign and its efforts to prop up Assad. This is a recipe for fueling the civil war and jihadism, not combating it, and it is likely to alienate precisely the Sunni states Trump hopes to join his anti-Islamic State coalition on the ground.
Then there is the issue of Iran. In practice, backing Russia and Assad means aligning — whether openly or tacitly — with Iran, its surrogate Hezbollah, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Syria. This would effectively strengthen Iranian influence in Syria and the broader region — the very opposite of what Trump and his advisors desire. Consequently, if Trump means what he says about taking a harder line against Iran — both in the context of the nuclear deal and vis-à-vis Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East — he will have to try to convince Moscow to sever its partnership with Tehran and attempt to box Iran and Hezbollah out of Syria. That is easier said than done. Iran and Hezbollah’s tentacles in Syria run deeper than Russia’s, and they have a far greater stake in the outcome of that conflict than Moscow does. The Iranians are, therefore, likely to react to any overt effort to push them out by playing an active spoiler role that undermines the campaign against the Islamic State and, potentially, puts at risk U.S. special operations forces supporting counter-Islamic State opposition forces on the ground in Syria.
A similar dilemma will face Trump in Iraq. The United States should work to balance and minimize Iranian influence in Iraq, in particular by encouraging the Baghdad government to work overtime to rein in Shiite popular mobilization forces (PMF). But an overtly hostile posture toward Iran (not to mention continued rants about taking Iraq’s oil) would put Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a jam, empowering his rivals who seek to distance Iraq from the United States. It could also incentivize Iran to unleash Shiite PMF to attack the approximately 5,000 American forces supporting the counter-Islamic State campaign in Iraq, something Iran has refrained from doing over the past two-and-a-half years. The result could be dramatically increased U.S. casualties and reduced American influence in Baghdad.
A second dilemma is that Trump’s extreme measures to protect the homeland could further complicate the fight against the Islamic State. At home, Trump’s expansive definition of radical Islam, his apparent belief that many American Muslims harbor secret sympathies for the Islamic State, and his threats to profile, register, and collectively punish entire communities, could poison ongoing efforts to forge better relations between American Muslims and law enforcement. Meanwhile, Trump’s executive orders banning refugees and immigrants casts the United States as deeply Islamophobic, making it much less likely that Muslim-majority countries will step up their support for the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State overseas. This will be doubly true if Trump follows through on other actions he has repeatedly pledged, including resuming torture, expanding Guantánamo, and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Third, Trump’s approach to Europe and Russia — at least as he has outlined it so far — is equally self-defeating and contradictory. Trump’s warm embrace of Putin; intimation that he will throw Ukraine (and potentially the Baltic states) under the Russian bus and lift Ukraine-related sanctions on Moscow; repeated trash-talking of NATO, the European Union, and committed Atlanticist leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel; and celebration of Brexit and European populist movements will all drive a deep wedge between America and its most important democratic allies. These steps will also embolden Moscow’s attempts to divide and coerce its European neighbors, and incentivize countries like Italy and Hungary, which are eager to get back to “business as usual” with Moscow and lift sanctions against Russia. Meanwhile, although Trump’s threats to abandon U.S. allies might lead to greater European defense spending in the short term, it will radically undercut the organic solidarity and cohesion that make NATO so exceptional, and lead Washington’s European partners to consider whether the United States is a dependable partner after all.
As problematic as these outcomes would be for European stability and security — the preservation of which has been a fundamental objective of U.S. policy since World War II — Trump might not find any of them particularly objectionable on their own. But what he appears not to understand is that weakening Europe will cut across his other policy objectives. Losing the support of U.S. allies will make it harder for Trump to cut “good” deals with Moscow: On issues from Ukraine to arms control to sanctions, the Kremlin will take advantage of every opportunity to play the United States and its estranged allies off one another. More broadly, the transatlantic alliance is the primary vehicle through which the United States tackles nearly every world problem, from the Islamic State to financial crises. Undercutting that alliance will therefore make for a more dangerous world, and more onerous American burdens of the sort Trump so often laments.
Fourth, Trump is likely to have difficulty taking punitive action against China while also contending with the growing threat from North Korea. Pyongyang already has a fairly robust nuclear arsenal, and according to news reports, it could field test its first nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile in the coming months. Two new U.N. Security Council resolutions passed last year imposed unprecedented sanctions on Pyongyang, including a strict limit on coal exports. These represent the best hope for a nonmilitary solution to the North Korean problem, but they will curb Pyongyang’s programs only if China faithfully implements them, something Beijing regularly holds at risk depending on the tenor of the U.S.-China relationship. At times, Trump has suggested that he intends to use economic leverage to pressure China to play ball on North Korea. Most recently, in early January, Trump tweeted: “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!”
Yet, consistent with Trump’s view that the main axis of U.S.-China conflict is the zero-sum economic contest between Washington and Beijing, he seems more likely to try to use geopolitical leverage to change China’s economic behavior. Trump has explained his threats to re-open the “One China policy,” for example, as a negotiating tactic to force Chinese concessions on currency and trade. The net result is likely to be a policy that is so antagonistic toward China — an approach that puts Beijing’s most important interests at risk, and actively seeks to harm China’s economic prospects — that it cannot generate or sustain a working relationship to help address North Korea (or any other global challenge). Trump’s tendency to diss and dismiss America’s key Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, will further complicate his efforts to address the North Korea threat.
Fifth, in a bid to supposedly help American workers by withdrawing from the TPP (a pact creating a free-trade zone among a dozen countries representing 40 percent of global GDP), Trump is in fact helping China by ceding the economic battlefield in Asia to Beijing. He is also undermining America’s geopolitical position in the world’s most dynamic region. Seven of the 12 TPP countries (Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam), as well as eight other countries (Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand) are already in negotiations with Beijing on a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. This partnership would promote trade with China, and offer new opportunities for China to expand its political influence, without any of the requirements for economic liberalization or labor and environmental protections built into the TPP.
Economists disagree about how much the TPP would or would not help the U.S. economy. But what is indisputable is that the Asia-Pacific region views the TPP as a bellwether of U.S. geopolitical commitment, and key states are likely to make decisions on non-economic issues like the South China Sea based on perceptions of retrenchment by the Trump administration. After all, if the United States is willing to abandon them on the TPP after many years of difficult negotiations, they may justifiably ask: What guarantee do they have that a Trump administration will actually show up when a major security threat emerges?
Finally, Trump’s proposal to “build a wall” and somehow force Mexico to pay for it (perhaps through a 20 percent border tax), his threat to deport millions of illegal immigrants, and his pledge to renegotiate or even withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, could create a train wreck in the U.S.-Mexico relationship — as evidenced by the abrupt cancellation of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s planned visit to Washington. A diplomatic crisis with Mexico would deeply complicate cooperation on a host of issues, including immigration, that are top priorities for Trump.
Since 2009, migration from Mexico itself has fallen dramatically. Nevertheless, Mexico has served as a “land bridge” for tens of thousands of migrants from other parts of Latin America seeking to make their way to the United States, especially those fleeing poverty, corruption, and crime in Central America. In recent years, Mexico has cooperated with the United States to address this challenge by improving security along the Mexico-Guatemala border and repatriating migrants back to their home countries before they reach the United States. The Obama administration also worked with the U.S. Congress to allocate nearly $1.5 billion since 2014 to address the economic, governance, and violence-related drivers of Central American migration — and it will be essential to partner with Mexico on these efforts if they are to succeed. Trump could put all this cooperation at risk with his shortsighted approach toward Mexico. And if actions on trade that contribute to a free fall in Mexico’s economy compound Trump’s approach, providing fresh incentives for Mexicans to once again move north, the migration crisis will worsen even further.
Every new president, of course, faces dilemmas to confront and strategic contradictions to resolve. But what is remarkable about Trump’s “America First” grand strategy is the number, pervasiveness, and centrality of such contradictions. In other words: Trump has consistently articulated a set of basic grand strategic concepts, but the policy implications of those concepts add up to a Gordian knot of conflicting initiatives.
This raises the question of why Trump’s grand strategy is so tangled and internally contradictory. And the answer has to do with the process — or rather, the lack thereof — through which these ideas are born, as well as, shall we say, the unique personality of the president himself.
It is hard to think of a presidential campaign, or a presidential transition, that has been more haphazard about translating ideas into a cohesive, practical, and implementable body of policies. Trump’s campaign had virtually no foreign-policy apparatus to speak of — many of his senior advisors had little foreign-policy experience and little contact with or influence on the candidate himself. The Trump team produced no meaningful white papers during the campaign — compared to those produced by Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s team in 2012, for instance — that undertook the task of turning ideas into policy proposals and seeing how various themes might, or might not, fit together.
The transition was similarly shambolic and disorganized. Even nominees for top posts have apparently had few substantive conversations on issues such as Russia or alliances with Trump, although Rex Tillerson, the president’s pick for secretary of state, has assured us that he has the president’s phone number should the need for such a conversation arise. Moreover, the mechanics of transferring power from one presidential team to another — and thus the mechanics of actually starting to grapple with the real world challenges and contradictions of policy — were painfully slow to start moving. Add in a candidate (now president) whose core ideas are strongly held but often poorly considered, who likes bold proposals but disdains the nitty-gritty of turning them into workable courses of action, and for whom intellectual coherence does not seem to be a top priority, and you have a recipe for the grand strategic contradictions we see in Trump’s approach.
What all this means, in practical terms, is that the implementation phase of Trump’s grand strategy — the period in which the ideas upon which one campaigns are translated into the day-to-day initiatives by which one governs — is likely to be far messier than is normally the case. The Trump administration will have to determine how to proceed on those issues — such as Russia, Iran, alliance relations, trade, and homeland security — where key advisors have staked out positions very different from those of the president. More fundamentally, the Trump administration will have to determine how to reconcile the president’s various promises and impulses — and where those things cannot be reconciled, how to prioritize among them.
This could be good news for the country and the world. As the Trump team realizes how intractable the contradictions are among the president’s various policy pronouncements, it may see the wisdom in backing off of some of the more problematic or dangerous ones. And the fact that there are so many profound disconnects between what Trump says and what is wise may create space for the president’s more sober advisors — such as James Mattis, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, and Nikki Haley — to shift policy and even influence the president’s thinking. We can hope that this is the scenario that ultimately unfolds. But in the meantime, both the content and contradictions of Trump’s grand strategy make it seem likely that U.S. foreign policy and the international order are in for a rough ride.