Category Archives: Trump and US Foreign Policy

Founding Fathers 1, populists 0: The US Constitution is taming Trump

“Through all the gloom I can see rays of ravishing light and glory.”
–John Adams to his wife Abigail, July 3, 1776, after Congress voted for Independence

“Good people don’t go into government.”
–Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s first month in office ended with a bizarre, rambling press conference that made incompetence into a type of performance art. Preternaturally gormless, blithely convinced that things have been going well—all evidence to the contrary–the largely oblivious president nevertheless allowed a few cracks to show. He reserved particular scorn for the media and the intelligence agencies, who have been leaking his peccadilloes like a sieve, especially regarding the administration’s all-too-warm ties to Vladimir Putin.

Here Trump–living up to the adage that if you throw enough darts at a wall you are bound to hit something–is onto something big. For his trials and tribulations of the past month, a car crash that has scared and riveted people around the world in equal measure, ironically prove the strength of the American Constitutional system, not its weakness.

It is important to remember that the United States has had one Republic (while the French have had five). The American Founders—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison—were, unlike their French revolutionary cousins (Robespierre, Marat, and Danton) brilliant administrators above all else.

They fashioned a system of shared powers and checks and balances not by accident but as a conscious way to halt potentially dictatorial and ignorant leaders from undoing the country. Serious students of history, the Founders knew that the few examples of representative government up to their time had all been destroyed from within, with chaos leading to tyranny. By dividing power, they consciously made getting things done at the federal level harder, precisely as a way to see off rule by the few.

And this brilliant system has withstood a Civil War, Red Scares, Japanese-American internment, McCarthyism, Vietnam, and Watergate. The lesson of the past month is that the Republic will endure the boisterous know-knothingism of Donald Trump as well.

For over January, the constitutional and bureaucratic obstacles that have left the new president a spluttering caricature have been evident to all. This is precisely what the Founders had in mind. I have found myself involuntarily blessing them over the past fraught days, as their genius has been more than a match for the latest threat to the American Constitutional order.

First, the Federal judiciary (a co-equal branch of government to the presidency) has so far declared the White House’s noxious travel ban to be illegal.

Second, the FBI alerted members of the press—for all its faults the key institution in Jefferson’s mind for preserving representative government—about the odd, clandestine acts of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in cosying up to the Russian government before the transfer of power. Flynn unceremoniously left his post after a mere 24 days. Congress, in its constitutionally-mandated oversight role, may soon begin hearings to clarify the murky relationship between the Trump campaign team and the Kremlin.

Third, the press caught the President misleading them about the size (and the man does have an obsession with the concept) of his electoral triumph. Saying his victory over the hapless Hillary Clinton was the largest since the days of Ronald Reagan, Trump was corrected by the press, who noted that Presidents Obama, Clinton, and George H.W. Bush all triumphed by much larger margins.

Slightly embarrassed (but not nearly enough), Trump made it clear he did not have time to check these facts, which honestly all of my interns would have known cold. And that, in many ways, is precisely the point. For like it or not, facts matter. This should be especially true for the man who heads the most powerful country in the world. The press, the courts, and the intelligence agencies are doing their jobs—and more, fulfilling the Founders’ hopes for restraints on dangerously uneducated powerful men–in reminding the White House that reality is not optional.

The constraints of the real world have also played their part in moderating Trump’s excesses. Over the past month, he has rowed back from appearing to ditch the One China policy, left the sane and humane Defence Secretary James Mattis to decide about the efficacy of torture (Mattis is opposed), accepted the Iran deal (though promising to be tougher in oversight of it), reaffirmed America’s key links to its Japanese and NATO allies (though rightly demanding they pay their fair share for a change), and left sanctions in place over Russian adventurism in Ukraine and Crimea.

Frankly, while chaotically formulated, this is a clearly distinguishable realist foreign policy that I and much of the American populace can generally get behind. I do not kid myself (as some in the media do) that President Trump arrived at this end state out of some pre-planned, Machiavellian strategy. Rather the real world intruded on his fantasies, and able men like Mattis have steered him in the right direction.

In other words, thank God the American Founders win again.

Published in City AM London February 20, 2017

War with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions is now a very real possibility

Such is the concern about the mad, cruel, despotic regime of Kim Jong-Un of North Korea that recently an internet falsehood spread that sounded just crazy enough to be true.

According to the apocryphal tale, the untested Kim—chafing under the patronising tutelage of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek—decided he had had enough. Jang was dramatically arrested by the young dictator, stripped naked and fed to a pack of starving dogs.

While this Bond villain ending proved to be untrue (Jang was more prosaically merely executed by firing squad), the simple fact that the hoax was so believable highlights the problem of the West in dealing with North Korea over its nuclear programme. Deterrence only works if the other side is rational. In the case of Kim’s leadership, this is a highly dubious proposition.

As America’s most underrated modern President Dwight D. Eisenhower put it, nuclear deterrence is only effective if the other side doesn’t want to die. Ike gauged that Stalin, for all the rivers of blood he caused to flow, was rational to this extent. As such, a peaceful nuclear stalemate was possible. For all the modern world’s many twists and turns, until the advent of the North Korean nuclear programme, Eisenhower’s test has precariously held: no state with nuclear weapons has been open to committing suicide.

However, given the fundamental irrationality of the hereditary communist despotism there, relying on this in the future amounts to more of a hope than a certainty. Indeed, both the outgoing Obama foreign policy team as well as Israeli intelligence have alerted the Trump White House to the rising danger from Pyongyang, stressing that it is the most immediate peril facing the world.

For North Korea’s nuclear programme has not been standing still. In 2016, it conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile tests, in an effort to expand its nuclear missile reach. In his past New Year’s speech, Kim boldly announced North Korea is in the final stages of developing an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of carrying nuclear warheads, which could theoretically reach the American mainland for the first time. Further, many regional experts expect North Korea is preparing yet another nuclear test for the near future, perfecting its ballistic missile programme.

Were this to prove so (Kim’s regime notoriously tends to overstate its capabilities), it would do nothing less than change the basic global strategic equation, constituting a primary threat to the United States. North Korea, equal parts malevolent and incompetent, is playing with fire in thinking that this further exercise in brinksmanship will not elicit the strongest response from the US, as this jarring strategic shift may be something Washington is simply not prepared to live with.

In the end, America and the West have only two basic policy alternatives to halt these very alarming developments: negotiate or take military action to stop the programme, very likely risking a renewal of the Korean War and catastrophically destabilising the volatile Asia-Pacific region, even risking armed confrontation with China.

The obvious, logical, least bad policy alternative would seem to be to talk to the North Koreans. And that is what all recent American administrations have done, achieving absolutely nothing, as the outgoing Obama administration has glumly admitted.

The only real outside driver who can leverage North Korea to halt its grandiose nuclear ambitions is China, whose vibrant economy just about keeps its economic basket case ally going. However, so far Beijing has preferred to tacitly support its difficult friend, rather than joining the rest of the world in standing up to Pyongyang and risking its implosion on the Chinese border. And if negotiations did not work during the time of the Obama administration, they are far less likely to do so now, as the new Trump White House is far more antagonistic towards China than its predecessor.

All this makes for the most dangerous of potential crises, and is a wholly underrated political risk roiling the world. North Korea is dangerously aiming to alter the global strategic nuclear balance. Negotiations to curb its ambitions have failed over many years, and are even less likely to work now that the US and China are at daggers drawn. But if negotiations show no chance of success, don’t expect the US to meekly accept the alarming development of an effective, accurate North Korean ICBM which can hit the mainland US.

War, and all the peril it could bring, is very much a possibility. It is past time the world woke up to the growing political risk over North Korea.

Published in City AM London, February 6, 2016

Forget Russia: Trump’s China trade war risks breaking Asia’s fragile peace

 

“I see myself as an instrument of the Almighty and go on my way, regardless of transient opinions and views.”

–Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1910

While he was diabolically poor at follow-through, former President Barack Obama has the makings of a first-rate political risk analyst. Early on in his term, Obama keenly saw that Asia was where most of the future global growth in the world would come from, but was also the region where most of the global geopolitical risk lay. This basic insight was the motivation for Obama’s ill-starred Pivot to Asia, where the region was to rightly receive more strategic involvement from America.

Risk has been dangerously bubbling up in Asia for two basic reasons. First, and unlike in Europe where Russia is kept at bay and Germany caged, there is no multinational military organisation like NATO that both deters revisionist powers (in this case China) and keeps possibly frightening allies (in this case Japan) on the reservation.

This is largely because of the hugely counter-productive insistence of Japan’s elite to regularly pray at what my staff have come to call ‘The War Crimes Shrine’ at Yasukuni. Japan’s grudging failure to come to terms with its barbarism in World War II has alienated would-be allies such as South Korea, making the formation of a NATO-like organisation to keep the peace—and to keep America’s allies on the same page–impossible.

Second, the rise of China has created a state of being problem in East Asia; the United States is the dominant power there, and the Chinese wishes to re-claim its traditional historical dominance in the region. This basic fact—and the obvious tensions that flow from it—can simply not be wished away.

In typical business-like fashion, the Chinese leadership commissioned a study to look at historical examples over the past 500 years of what happened to the world when an emerging power (such as the China) collided with a status quo power (such as the US).

The doleful conclusion of the Thucydides study—so named for the geopolitical rivalry between Athens and Sparta that ignited the Peloponnesian War—was that, in 12 of the 16 past cases, the result has been bloodshed. Given that historical reality, the structural peril to the present world is so great only a statesman of great ability and subtlety is likely to buck the odds.

Instead of this, we have newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump, who so far has passed his audition to be the neurotic Kaiser Wilhelm of this era with flying colours. Whereas under Obama the US and China increasingly engaged in a strategic competition in East Asia in the South China and East China Seas, Trump seems intent on increasing the danger by adding an obviously harmful trade war to the menu.

Given that—unlike the Cold War where the Soviet and Western economies were strikingly separate—China and the US are inextricably linked economically, this is bound to hurt both countries, and nobble the world’s hopes for decent rates of growth. Beyond even this, it is pouring gasoline on the open fire of the inevitable Chinese-American competition in East Asia, making avoidance of the Thucydides trap infinitely harder.

Far worse still, Trump is heading into his showdown with China having just greatly alienated his many prospective allies in the region, in his breathtakingly counter-productive abrogation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious trade pact that would have welded America economically closer to key allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Instead, by unilaterally walking away from the meticulously negotiated pact, Trump’s White House has allowed Beijing to whisper the poisonous words to America’s Asian allies, ‘The US is not to be trusted.’

So in his Wilhelm II audition—a vainglorious bumbler who bluffed the world into an avoidable conflict—Donald Trump seems a cinch for the part. He is taking China on over the wrong issues (macro-economics not geo-strategy), with the wrong balance of power (having just spurned America’s regional allies), at the wrong time (when the world desperately needs all the global growth that it can muster).

Under Obama, the US was firm but business-like with China, defending freedom of navigation in the seas there but working with the Chinese where it could, and furthering joint economic links that make it ever harder for Beijing to turn its back (due to its vast economic interests) on an American-dominated order. The results were impressive strategically, with much of East Asia openly and increasingly siding with the US over the neighbourhood bully.

Trump’s Kaiser Wilhelm impersonation throws all this out the window, imperilling America’s favourable strategic position. As as true when Obama came to power, Asia is once again the region in the world to watch, but for far more terrifying reasons.

Published in City AM London, January 23, 2017