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Global Affairs

How to win friends and influence the Trump govt

Don't be preachy and condescending. Engage the incoming Donald Trump administration with friendly overtures, and ensure that it can claim some 'quick wins'.

LONDON • Trying to predict the policies of the incoming Donald Trump administration in the United States remains a thankless task, often no different from looking at tea leaves at the bottom of a cup for signs of what will happen in the future: There are no rules to go by, and no scientific backup for the guesswork.

Be that as it may, governments and diplomats worldwide have done little else since the Republican candidate sprung the surprise of defeating the favoured Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to win the US presidential election. And understandably so, since Mr Trump is coming to office with no experience in any elected position; working out what his future leadership of the world's most powerful nation would do is, therefore, not just a matter of curiosity, but of necessity.

Still, this guesswork exercise remains far too passive, for it only assesses how the new administration is shaping up, rather than trying to work out how outsiders - and particularly the governments of America's traditional allies - can actually influence Mr Trump's policies even before he takes office. And there's plenty that can be done on that score.

The style of communicating with the incoming administration may be more important at this stage than the substance of these communications. That's not only because Mr Trump is notoriously prickly about any criticism, but also because most of his advisers lack government experience, and may appreciate the occasional friendly steer, as they find their way around Washington.

That does not mean fawning on the new administration; it just means not adopting an air of superiority, and not patronising the people who will soon come to power.

Seen from this perspective, some European leaders may live to regret their initial reaction to Mr Trump's election. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, congratulated Mr Trump on his victory by providing a long list of "democratic principles" on which she'd be prepared to work with the President-elect, a fairly cack-handed way of telling Mr Trump that if he wants Germany's friendship, he'd better forget many of his earlier electoral promises.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

This message earned Dr Merkel huge international praise and instant adulation from America's own mainstream media; shell-shocked by Mr Trump's election, journalists at The New York Times hailed the German as the world's new leader, the only person capable of protecting humanitarian values from the clutches of the new American president. The message also did Dr Merkel some good at home, where the general election is approaching.

But was it wise politics? Did it influence Mr Trump's ideas about how to deal with his allies in Europe? Is the new president likely to arrive in the Oval Office next January with a determination to tick off every item on Dr Merkel's "list of principles"? In reality, this was grandstanding diplomacy at its very worst.

And it contrasted sharply with the reaction of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who instead of penning his own list of principles, got on a plane and rushed to see the President-elect at his New York Trump Tower residence. The arrangements for this meeting were chaotic. The presence of Mr Trump's daughter and her husband during the discussions with Mr Abe was bizarre. The decor, dripping with gold and baubles, was far removed from what either Japanese or Americans would regard as good taste. And there is no indication that Mr Abe got anything from his trip.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Mr Abe's gesture was more effective in impressing on Mr Trump the importance of maintaining America's alliances than the written homilies from Europeans.

And the same can be said of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who ignored the advice of his own officials and received Mr Trump during the electoral campaign; at the time, critics accused Mexico's leader of giving too much importance to a fringe US candidate, but it's Mr Nieto's judgment which has proven to be right.

ENDURING STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE OF ALLIANCES

Early and friendly contacts are an essential prelude to another urgent task: that of persuading the incoming administration of the enduring strategic importance of its existing global alliances. America's allies have long taken for granted that the occupants of the White House's Oval Office needed no such reminders, but Mr Trump and his associates do need a bit of background briefing on this topic.

And again, this job can be accomplished without being either preachy or condescending.

America's allies in both Europe and Asia should acknowledge that much of the criticism articulated by Mr Trump is not different from that of other US presidents, who also bemoaned the imbalance in defence contributions between the US and its global partners, or the trade imbalances which often followed the military ones. The only difference now is that Mr Trump is more abrupt in his demands, and seems to regard America's alliances as a purely transactional affair, as something similar to a savings account in a bank, from which one gets out only as much as one puts in.

Persuading him that this is not so, and that the US derives huge benefits from its alliances, will take time.

But such efforts will not work unless America's allies also make a move towards Mr Trump. For instance, if the Europeans want to save Nato, they should increase their defence contributions, rather than just repackaging existing contributions in a way which makes them look bigger, a trick they have pursued for decades.

For the real threat is not that a President Trump will tear up the US security commitments and treaties or withdraw the US from international security guarantees; there will be a huge row in Congress, the military and the intelligence community if he seriously contemplated any of this. Instead, the danger is that Mr Trump will simply ignore America's alliances by failing to act in ensuing crises, refusing to take on the responsibility of leadership and slowly emptying these alliances of their content and meaning.

Guarding against this danger entails engaging with Mr Trump and his associates very early on, and giving them a reassurance that allies are prepared to step up to the plate.

Because it is so inexperienced, Mr Trump's is an administration in search of instant gratification; the President-elect won power by promising quick results. The new government will discover that realities are more complicated, that consensus will need to be built in Washington on any decision it makes. Still, it's up to America's international friends to ensure that the administration can claim some "quick wins".

But, ultimately, the biggest help that America's allies can offer is by not joining the chorus of commentators who predict that Mr Trump will preside over the US' abdication of its role as the world's top superpower, and its eventual replacement by China.

For even if an inward-looking Washington imperils its role as leader and guarantor of global trade once the US pulls out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the reality is that America remains, by far, the world's most powerful nation.

This is a position which China, condemned to rely on its trade surpluses to finance its rising debts and rising unemployment, simply cannot fulfil, regardless of how many visits President Xi Jinping conducts to countries around the world, or new trade deals he offers to China's neighbours. Sticking to alliances with Washington is, therefore, still a good and prudent strategy.

Nobody pretends that the next four years will be easy; a new and inexperienced administration will make mistakes, and some may well be grievous. But the sheer unpredictability of Mr Trump could also be a source of strength, a sort of deterrence to America's adversaries.

And however negative Mr Trump's views of free trade may be, they represent broader swings in global opinion, rather than being just the personal fluke of one individual, so they need to be dealt with patiently.

In short, America's allies have some scope to temper the risks which lie ahead. And they can accomplish this without giving up on their own principles and interests.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'How to win friends and influence the Trump govt'. Print Edition | Subscribe