Those seeking to extract meaning from Donald Trump’s foreign policy declarations usually land on the idea that he’s planning to make himself dealmaker in chief. The tough tweets aimed at China, the sweet come-ons directed toward Vladimir Putin, the threats of sky-high tariffs to be imposed, along with the sky-high wall, on Mexico — it’s all part of the setup for the quite sensible bargains Trump intends to drive. The capper will be “the ultimate deal,” as Trump put it in one interview: an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
It’s comforting to consider this theory, as it suggests that some of Trump’s far-fetched rhetoric, which has appeared to presage war with North Korea, a rupture with Beijing over Taiwan and the dissolution of NATO, need not be taken seriously. There are just two problems: The deals Trump has been hinting at are wildly unrealistic; and attempting to make them happen could be dangerous as well as futile.
Start with China. In his tweets since winning the election, Trump has lambasted the regime of Xi Jinping for devaluing its currency, “heavily tax[ing] our products going into their country,” building “a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea” and “taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade” while refusing to “help with North Korea.” He has, meanwhile, taken a phone call from the Taiwanese president and suggested he is not wedded to the one-China principle that has been the foundation of U.S. relations with Beijing since 1972.
From this it might be intuited that Trump will eventually offer Beijing a back-down on Taiwan in exchange for concessions on trade, North Korea, the South China Sea or maybe all three. What a deal! Except that Xi has no intention of conceding on any of these issues, and the United States — as well demonstrated by the Obama administration — lacks the leverage to compel him to do so.
Tariffs Trump imposes on China will be quickly answered; in fact, Beijing appears to have started imposing retaliatory duties preemptively. Xi has already shown himself unable to stop North Korea’s nuclear buildup, short of measures that would bring down the regime. And perhaps most seriously, a change in the status quo of U.S. relations with Taiwan, or an attempt to prevent China from continuing its buildup on islets in the South China Sea, could quickly lead to a military confrontation that Trump would be poorly prepared to manage.
What about Russia? Curiously (or maybe not), Trump’s approach to Moscow has been the opposite of that to Beijing. Rather than threats or accusations, he has repeatedly dangled concessions, starting with the possibility of lifting U.S. sanctions. But in exchange for what? Until recently, Trump seemed to have nothing to suggest. Then, in an interview with the Times of London last week, he suddenly offered that the quo could be a reduction in nuclear weapons since “I think nuclear weapons should be way down.”
Never mind that Trump said just a month ago that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” and that Putin flatly rejected a further cut in nukes in 2013. The real trouble is that Trump lacks the capacity to deliver what Putin really wants, which is not the lifting of sanctions but U.S. acceptance of a Russian sphere of influence in Eurasia, starting with Ukraine.
Trump may well be open to such a deal — but as Radio Free Europe’s Brian Whitmore recently pointed out, it’s a practical impossibility. Regardless of what Washington and Moscow agree, Ukrainians and Georgians, among other Russian neighbors, would strongly resist any reassertion of Russian dominion. Any Trump-Putin grand bargain, Whitmore says, would merely be “a recipe for conflict and instability on Europe’s doorstep.”
Trump’s other would-be bargains look even more far-fetched. He’s already tacitly acknowledged that Mexico won’t be paying for a wall anytime soon. As for the idea that he and son-in-law Jared Kushner can broker the Middle East peace that eluded John Kerry, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Clinton, James Baker and dozens of others . . . enough said.
If there is a positive model for Trumpian bargaining, it might be the faux deals he struck during the transition, in which several U.S. corporations reported they were adding U.S. jobs and Trump claimed dubious credit. Diplomats imagine scenarios in which European governments similarly re-announce the defense spending increases they have already planned, and Trump proclaims NATO renewed; or Mexico grandly accepts a cosmetic tweak to NAFTA.
Trump already claimed one ersatz diplomatic triumph with China. After Beijing seized and then returned a U.S. Navy drone in December, his spokesman claimed a single Trump tweet “[got] it done.” There’s something to hope for: fake rather than real crises.
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