Donald Trump’s boastful ramblings and glaring deficiencies as a human being should not blind us to the possibility that he has a coherent, if ruthless, foreign policy doctrine, knows what he wants and may succeed in getting it. What he’s doing is not normal, of course, but that’s the point. Normal, he’s convinced, has been getting the US nowhere.
He sees America as Gulliver tied down by ideologically hidebound Liliputians wedded to an outdated global order whose creation Washington drove after World War II and which has long needed serious reimagining.
In Trump’s view, leaders both Democratic and Republican have sold out ordinary Americans by ceding sovereignty to international organisations like the WTO, alliances like NATO and multilateral agreements like NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord.
But Trump is no isolationist. Rather, as the Hudson Institute’s Walter Mead wrote in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, he is “a revisionist who wants to alter the terms of the world system in America’s favour.”
What, Trump wonders, is the point of the G7 and its annual summit? He didn’t want to attend the latest gathering in Quebec because he sees the institution as defending a global order that puts to US at a disadvantage in spite of its economic and military might. Meeting North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was a far higher priority given the existential threat posed by Kim’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.
So he left early for Singapore where he showered outrageous compliments on the tubby commandant of the world’s largest prison camp. Why not? It was not as though treating Kim as a monster had achieved much in the way of reducing his bellicosity. Maybe if the US and its South Korean ally stopped poking Rocket Man’s cage with meaningless military exercises, he might become more amenable to diplomacy.
The establishment is now in a tizzy about how Trump will behave at the NATO summit in Brussels this week and in his subsequent one-on-one with Vladimir Putin. Roger Cohen, the New York Times foreign affair columnist, says he’s going to “Finlandise” America. There’s a broad consensus in the commentariat that Putin will get the better of him to NATO’s detriment.
Trump obviously sees things differently. He thinks that if anyone is getting played it is the US which is having to shoulder a disproportionate share of the costs of an obsolescent military alliance whose post-Cold War existence chiefly serves to keep alive the threat it was established to deter. In Trump’s view, NATO’s expansion eastwards after the end of the Cold War, plus US support for the overthrow of a Moscow-friendly government in Ukraine, are what triggered Putin’s not-unjustified anschluss into Russian-speaking Crimea.
Show Putin respect, Trump figures, help him look good to his own people, don’t get into tit-for-tats over the cyber games both sides play, stop encouraging his opponents, congratulate him on winning re-election, and maybe he will be less of a thorn in the side, perhaps even helpful. You don’t have to believe Putin has the goods on Trump to see why Trump does not waste breath calling out the ex-KGB man for wanting to punish Hillary Clinton in 2016. Didn’t she interfere in Russia’s elections when she had the chance as Secretary of State?
Trump’s disruptive realpolitik is now being tested in the Middle East where, having pulled out of the Iranian nuclear arms deal his predecessor secured with European partners and Russia, he is stepping up pressure on Tehran for a much broader set of concessions. Russia, hitherto close to Iran, has reportedly signed onto the new effort in return for US dropping support for rebels fighting Russia’s client, Syrian president Assad. Also on board are Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab states, united in hostility towards the mullahs and their proxies.
Trump is loathsome as a person. Be prepared for cognitive dissonance if he shakes things up for the better.