Global Affairs

Sense and sensibility in Trump's foreign policy

US foreign policy under President Donald Trump is becoming clearer: It pursues foreign policy based on its interests, not to impose its values. And, it seeks package deals with others by swopping concessions

LONDON • Even before he crossed the threshold of the White House, United States President Donald Trump was pilloried for having no foreign and security policy concept, no workable and overarching ideas on how America should engage with its allies or handle its rivals.

But this criticism is no longer sustainable. For, although some of the US administration's foreign policy moves may be controversial, they do add up to a coherent and logical set of premises which are becoming increasingly clear. The only remaining questions are whether these can be pursued for the entire duration of the presidency, and whether they can produce the intended results.

The speech which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered to his diplomats and other State Department employees in Washington last week deserves close reading, for it articulated what is likely to be the guiding principle of the current administration: a clear-cut distinction between US values and US foreign policy.

VALUES AND POLICY, DIVORCED

"Our values around freedom, human dignity, and the way people are treated - those are our values," said Mr Tillerson. But, he pointedly added, "those are not our policies".

Mr Tillerson stressed that this distinction does not mean that Americans should consign their values to the sidelines. And, he remarked that, while foreign policy priorities frequently change, America's values "never change".

Still, he pointed out that the insistence of previous administrations on other nations adopting or copying wholesale the values which America itself took a long time to develop at home creates "obstacles" to the ability of the US "to advance on our national security interests and our economic interests".

The speech generated a predictable storm of protests and scathing responses from academics, retired diplomats and the usual bevy of armchair strategists.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Mr Trump's preference for grand package deals became evident even before he was sworn in. His public questioning of the need to follow America's "One China" policy and his telephone call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen were designed to provide the incoming US administration with additional leverage in the anticipated negotiations over a new deal with Beijing, by simply reminding the Chinese that they cannot take even existing arrangements for granted.

"This is the most clueless speech given by a secretary of state in my lifetime," intoned Mr Tom Malinowski, who had served as assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration.

Professor Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, who dismissed Mr Tillerson's speech as an "intellectually shallow performance", chipped in: "Tillerson's idea that, in foreign policy, American interests and American values are two separate things, the first mandatory, the second optional, reflects a misunderstanding of our past."

But is Mr Tillerson's position really such a major departure from America's real foreign policy?

True, many previous presidents came to office proclaiming lofty ideals of democracy promotion.

In the early 1990s, for instance, Mr Bill Clinton, who is lionised by the same US liberal intellectuals now outraged by Mr Trump, ran his electoral campaign on a promise not to "coddle the butchers of Beijing", only to become the first president to completely decouple any explicit link between human rights and trade in dealing with China, and the first US president to visit Beijing since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

And Mr Barack Obama, the president served by many of today's outraged retired diplomats, cut American assistance to human rights organisations in the Middle East just as the Arab Spring got going, and considered it clever that he turned a blind eye to the bloody crushing of a nascent human-rights movement in Iran because he was more interested in striking a nuclear deal with the Iranian authorities.

There is also the tiny matter of the half a million Syrians butchered in their country's continuing civil war, while Mr Obama either looked the other way or proclaimed "red lines" which he then proceeded to ignore.

In short, the real distinction between the position of the current administration and that of its predecessors is that, while previous US presidents promised to make no distinctions between values and policies, only to do precisely that when in office, the current President plans to drop such pretences from the start.

It is an important distinction of tone, but not one of outcomes.

THE APPEAL OF PACKAGE DEALS

Conversely, however, there is another area in which the current Trump administration is being truly radical: that of trying to forge comprehensive "package deals" with key allies and competitors, by offering concessions in one area in return for reciprocal concessions from foreign partners in completely different areas.

This approach upends decades of conventional wisdom among US policymakers who usually frowned upon such linkages as too complicated to work.

Yet, Mr Trump's preference for grand package deals became evident even before he was sworn in.

His public questioning of the need to follow America's "One China" policy, and his telephone call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen were designed to provide the incoming US administration with additional leverage in the anticipated negotiations over a new deal with Beijing by simply reminding the Chinese that they cannot take even existing arrangements for granted.

But this transactional approach became fully explicit after Mr Trump recently held his first summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, when Washington officials revealed that the US leader offered China more favourable trade arrangements in return for Mr Xi's help in dealing with North Korea.

And, the President himself made such linkages official. "Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korea problem?" he asked rhetorically in a recent tweet. 

The advantages of such package deals are obvious. They increase US leverage. They may also compel behavioural change among America's chief trading partners, who are on notice that they cannot continue selling goods to the US while working against America's strategic interests at the same time. And they could result in more durable and more equitable partnerships: The ties between European nations are so deep precisely because they are so multifaceted.

DOWNSIDES IN PACKAGE DEALS

But there are also big dangers. Adopting a transactional approach puts America's rivals on the spot, but also frightens US allies. Japan, for instance, may be delighted with America's more robust policy towards China, but Tokyo won't be too amused if Japan's alliance with the US ends up being diminished as part of a grand deal between Beijing and Washington.

The brinkmanship involved in brokering such grand package bargains also encourages comparable brinkmanship from opponents: China, to use but one example, may well decide that President Trump is bluffing about his intent to unleash a trade war and may refuse to offer any security concessions in return for the trade concessions which the Americans are dangling.

So, if  Washington embarks on the pursuit of such wall-to-wall deals, it must also be serious about dealing with the failure of such efforts.

The risks of miscalculation are also high. In insisting on package deals, Washington is liable to underestimate the importance of concessions it demands from other countries. So, a deal which looks perfectly achievable to the White House may be utterly impossible for a partner in such negotiations.

But, the biggest problem may prove to be simply bureaucratic: the fact that the White House is not a lone actor, and that many of the concessions it could offer other nations as part of transactional deals depend on Congress, which may have entirely different priorities.

The case of Russia illustrates this point perfectly. The Trump White House may be prepared to strike a "grand bargain" with Moscow, but the entire subject of Russia is utterly toxic on Capitol Hill. So, whatever deal concessions the administration may offer, Congress is unlikely to approve.

It is not clear whether Mr Trump and his immediate advisers are aware that the transactional approach, which to the President appears as manifestly logical and compelling, is actually very difficult to achieve.

Nor is it obvious that the White House realises how much coordination with Congress will be required in order to accomplish such a task. Mr Trump's proposals to cut the budget of the State Department and of America's government aid providers indicate that the White House has yet to realise that, if it wishes to conclude grand bargain deals, it will require more, not fewer diplomats.

Yet, even if one brings up all these caveats, the reality remains that a new US foreign policy is being outlined. And, at least at first glance, it is neither silly nor doomed to failure.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2017, with the headline 'Sense and sensibility in Trump's foreign policy'. Print Edition | Subscribe