Elephants in the Room
Trump Is Playing the International Strategy Game Like a Novice Among Experts
An “America first” policy risks leaving America alone.
There is a paradox that turns any normal idea about strategy on its head. In a business context, I call it the paradox of profit. Simply put, the surest path to losing money is for a company to be preoccupied with profits. The surest path to profit is to be preoccupied with benefiting society. By appealing to society’s environmental concerns, Tesla now has the highest market value of any American automaker. By attempting to sidestep those concerns, Volkswagen lost $26 billion in market value in two days. A similar paradox applies to national interests. As President Donald Trump continues his international tour, he would be wise to focus on shared interests with other nations in order to truly put “America first.”
Engaging those with no natural interest in your success but with great ability to shape your opportunities or risks (those who I define as shapeholders) begins with authentically aligning a purpose that benefits both you and them. Otherwise, there is little reason for others to give your concerns a second thought. Since the end of World War II, America’s purpose has been underwriting global security, promoting open markets, and investing in development. As conflicts subsided, as trade expanded, and as newly prosperous nations became customers, both America and other nations benefited.
Abandoning America’s purpose and reverting to narrowly defined national interests might appeal to many. Yet a nationalistic dalliance, even if only an interlude, could harm America’s ability to advance its interests by undermining the trust and deference of other nations.
In geopolitics, Russia is playing chess. China is playing Go, a game that focuses not on a decisive clash of forces like in chess does, but on strategic encirclement through subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage. The United States must strengthen its alliances to avoid a Russian checkmate and keep China from encircling a dominant sphere of influence.
In the context of a global chess match, America’s queen has always been NATO. Our rook or castle in the West has long been the United Kingdom, and in the East, Japan. Canada and Mexico are America’s bishops, nestling us in a safe neighborhood. Australia, India, South Korea, and Turkey have historically, like knights in chess, extended America’s reach.
Putin’s chess moves seek to retain popular support by convincing his own people that the West is out to get them, as he and his friends line their pockets with Russia’s wealth. Putin’s queen is Iran. For both Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria has been a pawn.
Russia has skillfully maneuvered its engagement in Syria to keep upward pressure on oil prices and destabilize Europe with refugees. By supporting nationalist candidates, Putin seeks to undermine unity within Europe. Russia’s occupation of Crimea and meddling in Ukraine has raised doubts about whether NATO will honor its security guarantees.
China is more complicated. While the West tends to wait for a Clausewitz-style battle to the finish, China follows Sun Tzu’s precept that “the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting.”
China has a 5,000-year history of worrying about China. In the world of modern commerce, that includes China’s supply chains. China seeks to reestablish its dominance along the historic Silk Road and assert itself in the Western Pacific. Its desired sphere includes the largest and fastest growing half of the globe.
Given the global contests for the affections of other nations, even the perception that the United States is preoccupied with only its own interests undermines its ability to attract nations to align with its priorities.
As for Britain, America’s Western rook, the allure of significant commercial opportunities has drawn the U.K.’s interest in China’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure effort. Trump’s recent disclosure to Russia of intelligence obtained from allied sources has called the continuance of the “special relationship” into question.
As for Japan, America’s Eastern rook, the United States canceling the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exhibited great political courage to join has strained the relationship. Not only does pulling out of the TPP undercut America’s Pacific alliances, but it paves the way for China to assemble an Asian trade alliance with America on the outside looking in, instead of a Pacific trade alliance with America at its center.
America’s global power rests on it remaining unchallenged in North America, giving it the freedom to pursue foreign challenges without worrying about its position at home. There are few things that would more undermine American foreign policy than genuine friction with either of its bishops: Canada or Mexico. Trump’s criticisms of the North American Free Trade Agreement and derogatory comments about Mexico seem oblivious to this reality.
As for those, who like knights in chess, could extend America’s reach, China’s economic gravitational pull, accentuated by its commercial might and massive infrastructure investments, is capturing the attention of South Korea, Turkey, and even Australia, although India remains skeptical.
An “America first” policy risks leaving America alone, as important allies question America’s commitment and carefully weigh the attractiveness of switching or splitting their allegiances. The United States would be far better off if it followed the path of Tesla by focusing on enhancing mutual interests with others as the best path to truly keep America first.
Photo credit: DANNY GYS/AFP/Getty Images