There is a danger, however, in trying to systematize the administration’s foreign policy approach. Georgetown University professor Daniel Nexon labels this “analytical normalization.” This is the natural tendency, when dispassionately analyzing what this administration does, to presume that there is a clear strategy animating these actions, when in actuality it might the immature whims of a president with a very short temper and no constraints on his behavior. If something goes sideways, is it because of President Trump’s caprice? Is it because he is running foreign policy with the D-team? Or are some foreign policy problems simply hard to tackle regardless of who is in charge?
Consider this administration’s approach to the question of 5G. This is the next generation of wireless networks, which have the potential to power everything from smart grids to artificial intelligence. The Chinese firm Huawei has been a leader in developing these networks. This has freaked out the Trump administration, which has been used to having a monopoly on the tools of weaponized interdependence.
The United States has responded with a panoply of measures designed to keep Huawei out of the U.S. market for 5G, and it has pressured allies to restrict Huawei’s access, too. Administration officials have been particularly vocal about the latter part of this initiative. In December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote an op-ed in Politico on the topic, asserting that “it’s critical that European countries not give control of their critical infrastructure to Chinese tech giants like Huawei, or ZTE.” That same month, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien hectored European allies in an interview with the Financial Times.
The thing is, none of this has worked terribly well. As previously noted in this space, the United Kingdom recently announced that it would allow Huawei to participate in the development of Great Britain’s 5G infrastructure. My Washington Post colleagues William Booth, Jeanne Whalen and Ellen Nakashima explained: “The American pressure has not won Britain over, largely because of concerns that pulling Huawei out of existing 4G networks would be cumbersome and costly. Major providers such as British Telecom are heavily invested in Huawei technology, and Britain does not want to fall behind in the 5G world.”
The administration’s response to this policy setback has been … not great. Actually, it’s worse than that. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Trump administration has no idea what to do on this question.
Trump reacted in a manner perfectly consistent with his status as the toddler in chief. According to Sebastian Payne and Katrina Manson of the Financial Times, “Donald Trump vented ‘apoplectic’ fury at Boris Johnson in a tense phone call over Britain’s decision to allow Huawei a role in its 5G mobile phone networks, according to officials in London and Washington. … British officials were taken aback by the force of the president’s language towards Mr. Johnson.” This does not appear to have accomplished anything beyond setting the “Days Since Trump Screamed at an Allied Leader” counter back to zero.
Another Trump administration official suggested a more serious policy proposal. According to my Post colleagues Ellen Nakashima and Jeanne Whalen, “Attorney General William P. Barr on Thursday suggested the United States consider taking an ownership stake in Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson to counter China’s bid to dominate the burgeoning 5G wireless market.” Nokia and Ericsson are the chief rivals to Huawei.
One might want to savor the irony of a longtime Republican suggesting that a state-owned enterprise be the best way to forestall a socialist great-power rival. Nokia and Ericsson’s stockholders were certainly pleased. Other Trump officials deflated Barr’s trial balloon pretty quickly, however. The Associated Press’s Tali Arbel notes that both Vice President Pence and White House adviser Larry Kudlow rejected Barr’s idea within a few hours of his speech. Arbel also noted, correctly, that this is not the first time a Trump official has floated the idea of a government-sponsored enterprise to compete with Hauwei only to have it shot down by the White House.
Nor is this the first time in 2020 that one hand of the Trump administration has pummeled the other on 5G. A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal’s Bob Davis reported that “Commerce officials have withdrawn proposed regulations that would make it harder for U.S. companies to sell to Huawei from their overseas facilities following objections from the Defense Department as well as the Treasury Department.” The Pentagon is concerned (with some justification) that the government’s restrictions on Huawei have deprived U.S. companies of a key revenue stream, blunting their investments in research and development that have given the United States a technological advantage. Davis notes that the administration is “sharply divided” over how to deal with Huawei.
So this is where we are in February 2020. The Trump administration does not like Huawei’s prominent role in the development of 5G networks. Its dislike might even be well founded. But it is equally clear that its approach is a) confused; and b) not working. And administration officials have no idea what to do next beyond doubling down on that inchoate strategy.