Most presidents wait until inauguration before sparking their first foreign policy crises. Donald Trump has a month to go, and he has already wandered into two — one with China and one with Russia.
How will these foreign challenges shape Trump’s early months in office? His freewheeling style seems to have discombobulated China, which has some unexpected benefits. But on Russia, Trump is on his back foot. He proposes befriending a nation that, according to an Oct. 7 statement by U.S. intelligence agencies, carried out a covert cyber-assault “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
Trump can control his destiny with Beijing. With the Kremlin, not so much. Watch this space.
In his early foray with China, Trump created some useful ambiguity and negotiating room by daring to raise the unmentionable topic of Taiwan in taking a congratulatory call from its president. He doubled down somewhat impulsively after that, with a Twitter storm of messages and a Dec. 11 interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace that challenged the framework of U.S.-China relations:
“I don’t know why we have to be bound by a one-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” Trump said. The president-elect’s message seemed to be that China would have to make concessions if it wanted to maintain the status quo.
Does Trump really mean to blow up the U.S.-China relationship? Because his strident comments came before his inauguration, they aren’t quite official; he has room to maneuver once he’s in office. The Chinese aren’t used to such ambiguity from the United States. Usually Americans are the straightforward ones, while Beijing emulates Sun Tzu’s counsel to subdue the enemy without fighting.
Trump’s Taiwan tirade flummoxed Beijing. “Trump hits out with a hammer to the east and a club to the west, and his real thinking is very difficult to fathom,” said an editorial this week in People’s Daily. Facing this disorienting president-elect, the paper argued, China should “stay steady on its feet, keep a good grasp of developments, calmly respond, and that’s it.”
Henry Kissinger, the American master of diplomatic ambiguity, sees some benefit in Trump’s unpredictability. “Donald Trump is a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen,” he told CBS’s John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” on Sunday. He said that Trump has an opportunity to be a “very considerable president” because he is filling a “partial vacuum” left by President Obama in foreign policy and “asking a lot of unfamiliar questions.”
Kissinger’s praise is interesting, given that he was an architect of the one-China policy that Trump has destabilized. Perhaps Kissinger is simply trying to flatter the president-elect. But perhaps he sees benefit in the way Trump has introduced new dynamics in the triangular relationship among the United States, Russia and China — by taking a harder line with Beijing and a softer one with Moscow. Kissinger did the same, in reverse, in the 1970s.
Senior U.S. officials have been pondering how to take advantage of Trump’s disregard for precedent, as in his comments about Taiwan, and the confusion he has engendered on major international issues. Officials are exploring whether this approach, reckless as it may appear, may open up possibilities for U.S. diplomacy.
Several prominent foreign policy analysts have argued that there’s some benefit in creating ambiguity and uncertainty about what the United States might do abroad, especially after years of prudent and predictable Obama administration policy. But they caution that this is a high-risk strategy, which may create consternation among allies even as it enhances deterrence of adversaries.
“Mutual deterrence could be relatively stable” between the United States and China as Trump seeks a more advantageous bargain, Philip Zelikow argues in “The Art of the Global Deal,” published recently in the American Interest. But, Zelikow cautions, whatever bold deals Trump seeks, “it is a time to avoid unnecessary fights.”
Iran is another example where Trump’s rhetoric has introduced uncertainty for a country bidding to challenge U.S. regional power. In two recent visits to Abu Dhabi, I’ve heard many Arab officials enthuse over Trump’s defiant stance toward Tehran. This support for Trump, however unlikely it sounds given his anti-Muslim comments during the campaign, has been reinforced by his decision to name retired Gen. James Mattis, an Iran hawk, as defense secretary.
Russia is the wild card. A stable alliance between Trump and Vladimir Putin is hard to imagine. And as U.S. intelligence agencies, backed by Congress, continue to explore the evidence of Russiagate, this is a bundle that will arrive at the Trump White House marked: “Handle with Care.”
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