Trump’s surprisingly positive foreign policy–and some unanswered questions

Despite a surprisingly upbeat and coherent first address to Congress on February 28th, given these polarised times it is highly unlikely Donald Trump changed anyone’s mind. Those who rather fanatically support him will have found nothing particularly objectionable with what he said. Those who rather fanatically oppose him will have heard nothing to alter their opinion, either. This is both the political strength and the weakness of the man who first sensed—and then supremely capitalised on—the canyon-like divisions lying submerged just beneath the surface of American life.

The speech isn’t the problem

The power of persuasion–already dying when the supposedly great orator Barack Obama failed to bring a single congressional Republican with him over his signature Health Care initiative—is dangerously just not a part of American politics anymore. Battle lines are drawn and compromise in any form is out, a dolorous development which would have horrified the country’s founders, wise men who crafted a wondrously enduring system based precisely on the notion of political give and take.

This is perhaps America’s great secret to success, constitutional stability (having one republic to France’s five) allowing for the great economic prosperity that has followed. Watching the Democrats studiously not clap for a trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative that the left of their party has been calling for over many years is a striking example of the death of policy discourse in American life, and the dangerous rise of tribalism. It simply does not matter what Trump says; the Democrats will fanatically oppose it (and vice-versa). This is the whirlwind Trump’s revolution is reaping.

People are foreign policy

However, contrary to all our fears, there has been a lot to commend the first moves of the Trump White House over foreign policy. As I know well from my many days in Washington, actual people make policy and to some extent are policy. In selecting the highly-capable General James Mattis to run the Defence Department and in picking the innovative General H.R. McMaster to run the National Security Council (after the brief, but disastrous General Michael Flynn detour), President Trump has put in place a creative, realist national security team that George H.W. Bush would be comfortable with. The huge question remains whether the highly mercurial and intellectually unformed president will actually heed their advice.

Worse, he might actually grow weary of the real-world restraints they make clear to him in conducting American foreign policy and fire them. There is no better analytical canary in the coal mine for the future of American foreign policy than this; what is the bureaucratic fate of the undeniably able national security team Trump has assembled? Following their personal fates will go a long way in tracing the new trajectory of American foreign policy itself.

So far, so good

Yet on his own over this past month, President Trump has managed to succeed in doing two seemingly contradictorily but useful big things; he has questioned the tired, old shibboleths of American foreign policy, even as he re-affirmed of number of their basic precepts. This has finally moved the intellectual clock, as it has been stuck for two decades, a desperately needed innovation, as the Cold War has long been over and it is well past time for intellectual thinking over foreign policy to catch up.

For whatever the policy conclusions, it is well past time both foreign policy opinion-formers and decision-makers treat their craft as more than a dreary recitation of a policy catechism that made great sense in the far-away Cold War, but—following the elite being discredited over both Iraq and the Lehman global recession—makes far less natural sense now.

Does the One-China policy actually serve American interests today? Is NATO obsolete, and what can possibly explain the European allies’ shameful strategic free riding to the detriment of the hard-pressed American public? Does the two-state solution, after all these many years of failure, actually stand any hope at all of success? I must admit (and I am no friend of the president) that before Donald Trump came on the scene, when I raised these very points I was rather arrogantly waived away by a sclerotic, discredited (though amazingly they don’t seem to know it) foreign policy elite in favour of the received wisdom of a bygone age. To put it mildly, that is no longer the case.

Yet the new foreign policy team also seems to have so far constrained the mercurial president from throwing the policy baby out with the bathwater. During his speech to Congress (and in earlier addresses to European leaders by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defence Mattis) Trump made it clear he still is committed to NATO, but it is past time the allies meet the long-agreed two percent of GDP spending target for the common defence.

Trump and Mattis are merely repeating the truism I have long argued for, that continued failure to do so is a European choice, which will ultimately signal the end of the most successful military alliance in history. Trump is not wrong to bring this up; it is the European allies who are wrong to continue to free-ride on the backs of the American people.

Likewise, in his call to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, President Trump reaffirmed the American commitment to the One China policy, which he had previously flirted with doing away with. But while the American horse is back in the stable, in questioning this long-held shibboleth, Trump has made it crystal clear to a surging Beijing that a tougher, less predictable America awaits it.

Given the advances in Chinese adventurism during the time of Barack Obama, in constructing and militarising islands in the South China Sea, such an approach has a lot to commend it, perhaps leading to Beijing’s resumption of its earlier, less reckless foreign policy, inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping.

And finally, if ever there was a policy that needed a creative update it must be efforts to successfully conclude the endless Palestinian-Israeli standoff. By calling the never-achieved two-state solution into question, the Trump White House makes is clear that in terms of geo-strategy this stalemate has eaten up vast amounts of American time and effort over the past decades, while frankly more important issues (such as the rise of China and India and the advent of the multipolar world itself) have been fecklessly neglected.

And yet….

And yet for all this good news, there remains deep unease for many of us who have been pleasantly surprised in terms of foreign policy by the first month of the new, startling era of Donald Trump. First, there is the grave damage he may still do domestically and to the American constitutional system more broadly. Second, as a man who seems to decide things more by untutored instinct than deep thought, even when President Trump is right, there should be deep concern about how set in stone his new foreign policy actually is.

It is this fear of the erratic behaviour of the United States, that the world’s ordering power will lapse into incoherence, that rightly worries all those of us who wish America well. In both his opening speech to Congress and in his first month in office over foreign policy, President Trump has surprised for the better. But there remains an awfully long way to go.

Published in Aspenia online, March 1, 2017.