What is President-elect Donald Trump up to on foreign policy? It’s a question with no clear answer. Some will dismiss his appointments and tweets as expressing no more than the impulses of an ignorant and undisciplined temperament — no more premeditated than the lunges of a rattlesnake.
Others may recall that similar things were said (by me, as well as many others) about his campaign strategy. But examination of the entrails of the election returns suggests that Trump was following a deliberate strategy based on shrewd insight when he risked antagonizing white college-educated voters in the process of appealing to non-college-educated whites.
Antagonizing college graduates cost him scads of popular votes — but zero electoral votes — in states such as California, Arizona, Texas, and Georgia. But his appeal to non-college-educated whites in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District won him just enough popular votes to capture 100 electoral votes that had gone for President Barack Obama in 2012.
So maybe Trump knew what he was doing. It seems to me that like many rich men, he has original insights that, together with hard work and good luck, have made him successful, even while showing boundless ignorance or mindless delusion about other things.
So let’s examine Trump’s actions and comments on foreign policy so far in that light and in light of the speculations of historian and Henry Kissinger biographer Niall Ferguson, who, in an American Interest article last month, sketched out what a “Kissinger-inspired strategy” by Trump might look like.
Ferguson argued that Trump is pursuing what Kissinger’s most admired American statesman, Theodore Roosevelt, also sought: “a world run by regional great powers with strong men in command, all of whom understand that any lasting international order must be based on the balance of power.”
That seems in line with Trump’s moves vis-à-vis China. He ostentatiously took a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president, and the first foreign leader to make a post-election visit to Trump Tower was Japan’s Shinzo Abe. Both are signals that Trump will look askance at China’s moves to establish sovereignty in the first island chain.
But then he tapped as ambassador to Beijing Iowa governor Terry Branstad, whose friendship with Xi Jinping goes back to the Chinese leader’s visit to Iowa in 1985. Those moves look like a “good cop, bad cop” routine. Trump wants some changes in trade relations with China and limits on its probes in the South China Sea and will build up U.S. military forces. But there’s room for acceptance of China as a great power.
There’s room for acceptance of Russia, too, as suggested by the secretary-of-state nomination of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, self-proclaimed friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s. He may be opposed by Republican senators who, like Mitt Romney in 2012, see Russia as “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.” But perhaps Trump favors Kissinger’s proposal for a neutral and decentralized (i.e., dominated and partitioned) Ukraine, with an end to sanctions on Russia. Tillerson would be a good choice if that were your goal.
I like Trump’s picks so far.