As Disrupter in Chief, Trump is No Nixon
The real question for the new administration is whether disruption and unpredictability can be hitched to constructive strategic goals.
If President-elect Donald Trump’s pre- and post-election behaviors are any indication, he is likely to upset the prevailing norms of U.S. foreign policy. He promises a partnership with Russia that goes beyond the bounds of any preceding administration, as well as a more confrontational stance on China. He also shows scant regard for preserving the post World War II international order, his rhetorical flourishes have reduced longstanding Western alliances to mere transactions, and he seems to have little compunction about his naked admiration for strongmen who abuse human rights.
Disruption isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can reshape the strategic terrain to the advantage of the disrupter. Amazon and Uber have proven that upending established norms can yield enormous benefits in the business arena. Disruption can also be used to great strategic benefit in foreign policy. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, barely four years after he waged war on Israel, broke existing norms, yielding a peace treaty between the two countries that has held to the present day.
But what is seriously in doubt is whether Trump’s disruption will be strategic or beneficial to U.S. foreign policy interests. Even before getting elected, he acted like a missile without a guidance system. Among other strange actions, he gave gratuitous praise to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan and the brutal president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, in calls to these leaders.
Trump wouldn’t be the first disrupter-in-chief to upend the norms of U.S. foreign policy. Former President Richard Nixon also ripped a hole in many widely held assumptions about the U.S. role in the world. And whether or not one admired the substance of his foreign policy, or his dark persona, Nixon used unpredictability and disruption to achieve strategic goals. For example, in 1973 Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger raised U.S. military alertness to Defcon III, the highest military readiness during peacetime, to startle and dissuade Soviet leader Brezhnev from committing troops to Egypt’s and Syria’s war with Israel.
Nixon also broke with Republican, even bipartisan, orthodoxy — and with his own firebrand, anti-communist past — by engaging with China and the Soviet Union, using restored relations with the former to counterbalance and ultimately pursue détente with the latter. With the monetary regime the U.S. shepherded, he suddenly decoupled the U.S. dollar from the gold standard. The Japanese called the monetary and China policy shifts of 1971 and 1972 the two “Nixon shocks.”
But pre-inauguration antics suggest that Trump is no Nixon. Trump’s disruptions are likely to be more an extension of his shoot-from-the-hip personality than part of any broad strategic framework. He seems to show little understanding that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself is a disrupter whose actions threaten to overturn the international order from which the United States has derived security since the end of World War II. Moreover, Trump’s denigration of traditional alliances like NATO just reinforces this threat, potentially playing into Russia’s hands.
The real question for the new administration is whether disruption and unpredictability can be hitched to constructive strategic goals. Could his national security team use the specter of a loose cannon in the White House to achieve outcomes that the more deliberative “no drama” Obama couldn’t? Would his deeply troubling affinity for Putin be used to build leverage over China on issues related to North Korea, activities in the South China Sea, or even trade, taking a move out of the Nixon playbook, only in reverse? With likely no qualms about Indian President Narenda Modi’s problematic past on human rights, might he take a strategic partnership with India further than either Bush or Obama did, also as a counterbalance to China? Could his posture of “no daylight” between the United States and Israel be used to gently nudge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu towards an authentic peace process with the Palestinians, with the goal of a two-state solution?
These are questions the Trump foreign policy team will face when they take office. For sure the new administration will be forced to reconcile contradictions in the incoming president’s pronouncements. Trump’s eagerness to support Russia’s malign efforts in Syria will need to be untangled from his confrontational views on Iran, a Russian ally in the battle to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. But reconciling competing objectives is one thing. Connecting individual decisions into a coherent strategy is something completely different. While Nixon used the notion of linkage between different foreign policy decisions — oftentimes, unfortunately, at the expense of human rights — it is questionable whether Trump sees or even cares about the inevitable connections between the foreign policy decisions he seems committed to make.
For the sake of the country, let’s hope that his foreign policy team turns what seems to be the worst of Trump into the best of Trump, by using disruption and unpredictability as strategic art, like Nixon did. There is little evidence to support the view that Trump can manage himself, let alone be managed by others. But we can cling to the hope that the pressures of the office, institutional imperatives, and hopefully level-headed Cabinet secretaries will force the man who may be the most impetuous person to ever sit in the Oval Office to be a disciplined disrupter.
Photo credit: Staff/AFP/Getty Images
Mark P. Lagon is on the faculty at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and served as U.S. ambassador-at-large to combat trafficking in persons. He is the former president of Freedom House.