Elephants in the Room
Trump Might Be a Traditional President After All
Anxious allies are breathing a sigh of relief that American power is back as a force to be reckoned with.
Many expected the insurgent presidency of Donald Trump to be accompanied by a revolutionary foreign policy that broke with the record of American internationalism since 1945. On the campaign trail and in his inaugural address, Trump promised an “America First” doctrine that distanced Washington from its traditional allies, treated trade as a weapon of statecraft, and stepped back from a global stewardship role.
But the world looks different from the Oval Office, and governance imposes compelling imperatives on the commander-in-chief of a superpower. Early tests on China, North Korea, Russia, and Syria suggest that a president who relishes unpredictability may yet revert to some traditional tenets of American foreign policy and regain strategic initiative — after years in which his predecessor relinquished it to others.
Most presidents learn on the job and course-correct with experience. The dovish Jimmy Carter took office at the height of détente, only to intensify the contest against Soviet power after Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan. The hawkish Ronald Reagan pursued an expansive military buildup to roll back the Soviet empire, but entered into historic negotiations with the Soviet Union’s leaders. Bill Clinton condemned the “butchers of Beijing,” only to embrace a strategic partnership with China that allies worried was a tad too cozy. George W. Bush decried nation-building abroad, only to undertake the most ambitious effort to do just that in the Middle East. Barack Obama promised American labor unions he would not pursue any new trade agreements — only to become a late champion of the most far-reaching U.S. trade initiatives in a generation: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
American presidents adapt to reality because American national interests endure. They include preventing any hostile power from dominating Asia, Europe, or the energy resources of the Middle East; sustaining an open international economic and political order, not subverted by spheres of influence that exclude the United States; protecting free access to the global commons, especially the maritime sea lanes that carry 90 percent of global trade; nurturing alliances that magnify American power and influence; and promoting democracy and human rights, because the ultimate source of global security is a world in which power is bounded by law and pluralistic institutions.
Trump may seem an odd champion of some of these causes. But his national security Cabinet, which now seems to be finding its feet, is in keeping with American foreign-policy traditions. In international affairs, Trump relies on two of the leading general officers of their generation, James Mattis and H.R. McMaster; a pillar of America’s globalist-corporate establishment, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson; and the former president of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, who has led a so-far-successful effort to check the mercantilist instincts of White House advisers Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro. The internationalists have an ally in Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and key adviser, who takes a pragmatic view of U.S. policy priorities.
For all the focus on Trump’s personality, his unorthodox presidency may yield a more traditional focus on deploying American power for broader ends. Obama decried American exceptionalism, emphasized “nation-building at home,” and pursued a dedicated policy of retracting American power from pivotal theaters like the Middle East, enabling revisionist regional powers to go on the offensive.
He did not do enough as the humanitarian tragedy of Syria played out in slow motion, destabilizing not only the Middle East but also Europe, dividing and weakening Washington’s closest ally in world affairs. His rhetorical “pivot” to Asia left U.S. allies wanting more American presence and leadership than they got.
Trump remains at odds with much of Washington’s bipartisan foreign-policy establishment. He has yet to embrace the trade leadership that makes the world’s biggest economy more competitive and dynamic, and Americans more prosperous. But his willingness to employ limited military force — including ramping up military action against the Islamic State in Syria and Afghanistan — and to stand up to the regional power plays of revisionist states, creates opportunities to more effectively manage complex conflicts, from the Levant to the Korean Peninsula.
It is telling that a modest set of missile strikes against a remote Syrian airbase represents the boldest use of American military power against the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is also telling that the tangible threat of U.S. military action against North Korea is on the table after eight years of a policy the Obama administration termed “strategic patience,” which created a window of opportunity that Pyongyang used to continue to perfect its intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons programs while America looked away.
Even China and Russia look off-balance after early fears in Washington that an inexperienced president would appease the leaders of these countries. Chinese President Xi Jinping came to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate bearing concessions designed to fend off an American trade war. At their inaugural summit, Trump was clear with Xi that the quality of U.S.-China relations would be tied to Beijing’s cooperation in tightening economic pressure on North Korea.
Having secured strategic gains during the Obama presidency, and given the five-year leadership plenum approaching this fall, Xi would be wise to exercise strategic restraint during Trump’s first term, and demonstrate China’s utility by tightening the pressure on its ally North Korea to deter further nuclear tests.
Given that Trump wants to manage trade with what he sees as a mercantilist superpower that does not play by the rules, China would also be prudent to pursue the kind of voluntary export restraint agreements that Japan struck with the Ronald Reagan administration in the 1980s, when trade frictions with Tokyo peaked. Trump’s threat to use trade barriers as leverage to move China to assume a tougher posture with its client in Pyongyang clearly has gotten Beijing’s attention and may even yield dividends.
Ironically, Trump is likely to be the first American president since the end of the Cold War not to pursue a “reset” in relations with Russia. The ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russian agents of influence severely restrict the ability of this administration to pursue any kind of improvement in relations with a regime that invades democratic neighbors, threatens NATO allies with nuclear attack, attempts as a matter of state policy to subvert Western elections, and murders political opponents.
Indeed, the mounting domestic opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic rule — as manifested in popular protests in cities across Russia — creates a new pressure point that the United States could leverage through a heightened force posture in Europe and more robust campaign for Russia to conform to international law by severing dealings with the outlaw Syrian regime. As Tillerson pointed out on his way to Moscow to meet Putin, Assad has become a liability rather than an asset to Russia’s geopolitical ambitions.
The Trump administration is still in its first 100 days. It has not been subjected to the kind of international crisis that tests every administration, and which will call into question not only its statecraft but the judgment of the commander-in-chief. There remain reasons to be concerned, particularly about the administration’s trade agenda. But anxious allies are breathing a sigh of relief that American power is back as a force to be reckoned with in a dangerous world, after what many see as Obama’s abdication of the U.S. role as global guarantor and following a political campaign in which America was presented as a victim of globalization rather than as its engine.
In Asia in particular, friends of the United States seek a robust commitment to U.S. military and diplomatic leadership as well as skill in stewarding the pivotal U.S.-China relationship in ways that preclude both condominium and conflict. North Korea poses a harder test than Syria: Asian allies will want to see that the Trump administration is as adept at diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula as it is at projecting military power in the Middle East. The White House will also need to be willing to risk an increase in tensions with Beijing by imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese banks and businesses that are the lifeline of the North Korean economy.
Perhaps a harder test for the Trump administration will be whether it can reassert American economic leadership to sustain the open global trading order and prevent China from building a new Asian economy around itself, at America’s expense. Before the wars of the 20th century required it to “pivot” to Europe, much of the early American republic’s diplomacy was centered on opening Asian markets to U.S. commerce. That mission is even more important today, as economic power shifts east. Taking back the initiative on trade and investment liberalization in the vacuum left by the TPP’s collapse will be essential to this administration’s foreign policy success.
A version of this essay appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images