A Playbook for Taming Donald Trump
Four strategies that other countries can use to deal with a suddenly unpredictable superpower.
Politicians, pundits, and plenty of regular citizens love to argue about U.S. foreign policy. These discussions usually revolve around the question of what the United States should do with its extraordinary power and the influence it still enjoys around the world. Should the goal be “America First?” To be the “Indispensable Nation?” or a “Reluctant Sheriff?” How about being an “offshore balancer?” Something else entirely?
Asking what the United States should do with its power is important, but so is the flip side: What should other states do about U.S. power? If you were running Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Poland, Afghanistan, Russia, India, Iran, Australia, etc., how would you deal with the 800-pound gorilla that still looms large on the world stage?
I wrote a whole book on this topic back when George W. Bush was president. It identified the various strategies that states could employ to tame American power, and I argued that the Bush administration was encouraging more countries to oppose U.S. primacy and making it easier for their efforts to succeed. But I never anticipated that the ship of state would one day be skippered by a man with the emotional stability of Capt. Queeg. (For the record: I’m not the first person to make the latter comparison).
This makes the question of dealing with U.S. power all the more pertinent. Handling a powerful actor is always difficult, even when its leaders are not prone to boorish behavior and incoherent rants. Dealing with a powerful state and an unreliable leader may be even trickier, even if one can count on them to make a lot of blunders and suffer plenty of self-inflicted wounds.
What options do other states have?
According to most realists, states typically respond to a powerful and bullying state by trying to pass the buck to others and get them to rein it in. But if that doesn’t work, they will balance against it. States rarely bandwagon with a threatening power, because to do so invites further predation and places them at the mercy of the more powerful state. Instead, major powers (and plenty of minor ones) respond to threats by looking for allies that can help protect them or by mobilizing their own resources to resist the stronger or more dangerous state.
Given that the United States is far and away the world’s most powerful country, one might expect other states to be balancing energetically to keep Washington in check. Fortunately for Americans, several factors have combined to mitigate that tendency. The first is geography: because the United States is far from other major power centers, lots of potential balancers worry more about their immediate neighbors and are therefore eager to gain U.S. protection instead. Moreover, the United States has been tightly linked to allies in Europe and Asia for many decades, and these states have been reluctant to disrupt the security ties on which they have become dependent. Third, any attempt to organize a large anti-American coalition would face serious dilemmas of collective action, unless there was a strong alliance leader (like the old Soviet Union) that could organize, discipline, and subsidize the effort. Such a state has been lacking since the early 1990s, however, and China has yet to try to play that role. Lastly, potential balancers may be hoping that the Trump administration is just an awkward moment that will pass fairly quickly, thereby eliminating the need for a sustained response. For all of these reasons, states have “underbalanced” against U.S. power for quite some time and continue to do so today.
Even so, there are signs of both overt balancing and what some have called “soft balancing,” which occurs when other states coordinate their foreign-policy positions to produce an outcome the United States does not want. Expanded cooperation between Russia and China, and between both states and Iran, is precisely what one would expect given U.S. policy toward both countries, and Iranian support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria is consistent with this as well. In the economic sphere, states have reacted to Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and his imposition of tariffs by pursuing trade deals that exclude the United States and by coordinating their positions in meetings of the G-7 (much to Trump’s annoyance) and NATO. States such as North Korea and Iran have also balanced either by building up its nuclear weapons arsenal (as has North Korea) or thinking seriously about acquiring one (as Iran has done), to gain a measure of protection against U.S.-sponsored regime change.
But unless the United States goes completely off the deep end, I wouldn’t expect a lot of overt balancing behavior. Instead, we’ll see plenty of hedging, as traditional American allies react to diminished U.S. reliability by exploring other arrangements. When other states have little or no idea what Washington will do next, one could hardly expect them to act otherwise.
States that choose not to balance overtly can simply dig in their heels and refuse to go along with U.S. demands. Even the mighty United States is not strong enough to monitor what every other country is doing and to impose its will on all of them, which allows states to just say no when it is not in their interest to do what the United States demands. Mexico has refused to build a wall on the border or to pay for it (what a surprise!), and Turkey is refusing to turn over an American pastor who it claims was involved in anti-government activities. Canada, Mexico, China, and Germany have generally refused to cave in to Trump’s demands on trade, although compromises by both sides may eventually produce new agreements with some of them.
Balking sometimes takes rather subtle forms, and especially when states want to avoid an open clash with Washington. To do this, other countries can formally agree to take some action that the United States wants and then proceed to do this as slowly and unenthusiastically as possible. The idea is to do just enough to keep the United States happy and to ignore or obscure violations and shortfalls. NATO’s pledges to increase defense spending often take this form, as do Israeli promises to slow settlement expansion and Palestinian pledges to crack down on “incitement.” If the United States threatens European Union countries with secondary sanctions for doing business with Iran, look for these states to do as little as possible to monitor what their own companies are up to and to allow for as many loopholes and violations as possible. They may claim to be (reluctantly) complying with U.S. demands, but don’t expect them to put much energy into the effort.
North Korea is, of course, an accomplished practitioner of this strategy, and Kim Jong Un seems to have mastered the playbook in short order. Trump claims that Kim promised to denuclearize when the two leaders met in June, but Kim never actually said that he would, and he shows no signs of moving in that direction. Instead, he’s saying nice words in public but balking in private, a strategy that has reduced the economic pressure North Korea was under, created new rifts between Seoul and Washington, and gained Kim greater stature as a global statesman. And he did all this without dismantling a single warhead or reducing North Korea’s nuclear potential by one atom of fissionable material.
How can he get away with it? In this case, balking works in part because the United States doesn’t have a lot of attractive ways to pressure Pyongyang, but also because Kim knows the United States has lots of irons in the fire all over the world and that Washington will inevitably get distracted by something else. It makes sense for him to keep balking, therefore, and to promise concessions that never get made.
Instead of trying to counter U.S. power, some states prefer to exploit it for their own ends. They may be seeking U.S. support against some regional rival or trying to gain greater influence over U.S. policy deliberations and foreign-policy initiatives. “Bonding” with top officials—and especially the U.S. president—is a strategy designed to influence how these officials view global problems and seeks to shape the way those problems are addressed.
Over the past six decades, plenty of foreign leaders have worked overtime to “bond” with influential U.S. leaders. British prime ministers from Winston Churchill forward sought to cement the “special relationship” with the United States by establishing intimate ties with whomever happened to be in the White House, and foreigners such as Helmut Kohl of Germany, Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, and Yitzhak Rabin of Israel clearly benefited from the personal connections they had forged with their American counterparts.
Given Trump’s belief that when it comes to foreign policy “I’m the only one that matters,” it is hardly surprising that several world leaders have tried to establish personal bonds with Trump (or with insiders such as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner). Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman appear to have done so successfully, and the latter in particular seems to have carte blanche to wage a brutal war in Yemen, pick fights with Qatar and Canada, and jeopardize his own economic reform program without fearing a rebuke from Washington. We are all still trying to figure out why Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to elicit a similar deference from Trump, and Kim seems to have used this tactic successfully as well. All three leaders “bonded” by catering to Trump’s ego and penchant for spectacle, and they seem to have gotten a free hand to do whatever they wanted without much pushback from the White House.
“Bonding” is hardly a foolproof strategy, however, as the experiences of Japan’s Shinzo Abe, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau all demonstrate. Each of these leaders went to considerable lengths to ingratiate himself with Trump and to pander to his ego, and each one of them got less than nothing for their efforts. Abe’s solicitude and fondness for golf didn’t stop Trump from abandoning the TPP and imposing tariffs on Japan, Macron’s macho bromance with Trump couldn’t persuade the president to keep the Iran deal or to stop bad-mouthing the EU, and Trudeau wound up on Trump’s blacklist despite his own early efforts to bond with the mercurial president.
Their misfortune was disagreeing with Trump on matters he really, really cared about, and no amount of personal charm was going to overcome that. Nor could Macron’s appeals override the advice Trump was getting on Iran from the Saudis, from advisors such as John Bolton, and from wealthy donors such as Sheldon Adelson.
And given Trump’s long history of turning on former partners (not to mention the unprecedented rate of turnover in his White House staff), this strategy would seem to be a less-than-perfect way to guarantee a harmonious relationship with Washington.
As the dominant world power, the United States would like to convince others that its favorable position is broadly beneficial to them and that its actions are contributing to a just and legitimate world order. By contrast, those who oppose the United States will try to portray America’s role in much more malignant terms. A strategy of “delegitimization” does not try to undermine U.S. power directly but rather seeks to persuade others around the world to resent U.S. dominance, to see America’s values as unworthy of imitation, and in general to make it much harder for the U.S. government to win others’ compliance or support.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House and his conduct as president have been a godsend for anyone trying to undermine the U.S. image in most of the world and to cast doubt on its moral worthiness. Consider for a moment how easy this has become. Instead of trying to convince others that U.S. foreign policy was good for (most of) the world, the U.S. president has proudly and repeatedly proclaimed that his “America First” foreign policy is intended to benefit the United States and to take advantage of allies and adversaries alike.
With Trump as president, portraying the United States in unflattering terms is like shooting fish in a barrel, and recent global surveys are unambiguous about these trends. According to the Pew Research Center, a 2017 survey across 30 countries found that 38 percent of respondents regarded U.S. power and influence as a “major threat,” up 13 percentage points since 2013. An earlier survey of 37 countries found that confidence in U.S. leadership had declined from 64 percent under President Obama to a mere 22 percent under Trump.
To be sure, the United States has always been self-interested, and its claims to great virtue were frequently hypocritical. But it didn’t always act in an amoral (or immoral) fashion, and where possible, it did stand for a certain set of political values and tried to show a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” It is one thing to stand for certain moral values while acknowledging that sometimes other considerations must take precedence, and another thing to ignore such values almost completely, as Trump has done.
Moreover, when a president is so impulsive, self-absorbed, misogynistic, vindictive, and impolitic, and when so many of his associates and appointees are visibly corrupt, it becomes easy for foreigners to portray the United States in an unflattering light. Indeed, making fun of Trump and the United States has become an amusing diversion for foreign officials, as this compilation from Maclean’s magazine makes clear. But one must wonder how important world leaders talk about U.S. officials and Trump himself in private, with reporters absent and the microphones turned off. From what we do know, I’ll bet it’s scathing.
To be sure, some countries are undoubtedly pleased to see the disarray that Trump has brought to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. No wonder Chinese experts see his presidency as a golden opportunity for Beijing, because “in terms of soft power, Trump really undermined it substantially.” They may not like his tariffs, but they can only be pleased by the damage Trump has done to the U.S. position in Asia and elsewhere. Similarly, Putin may have expected more from a Trump presidency, but he’s not sorry whenever the president trashes longstanding U.S. allies. As Napoleon is said to have told his soldiers, “When the enemy is making a false movement we must take good care not to interrupt him.”
The key takeaway here is that both friends and foes have many ways of dealing with American power, either to defuse the dangers it might pose or to turn it to their own purposes. A chief task of U.S. diplomacy, therefore, is to recognize these responses and do what is possible to mitigate them. Given America’s favorable geopolitical position, this shouldn’t be all that difficult. It mostly requires a certain degree of self-restraint, a willingness to treat other countries and their leaders with respect as opposed to contempt, and, above all, an ability to act in ways that convince more people that U.S. power is, on balance, a benevolent force in the world. If we’re as virtuous as we like to think we are, how hard can this be?