Might Trump’s foreign policy actually make sense?

SINCE his election, European elites have enjoyed disparaging Trump, and in particular his ineptitude at foreign policy.

They gleefully recount his faux pas when talking about international affairs.

It reminds me of the similar way in which we disparaged President Reagan during the Cold War. The British satirical puppet show Spitting Image even had a recurring sketch entitled “the president’s brain is missing”.

Yet for all the contempt of European intellectuals, it was President Reagan who initiated the end of the Cold War and the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet tyranny (a liberation over which many Western European intellectuals remain curiously ambiguous).

Is it possible that President-elect Trump, despite the contempt he provokes in Europe, and perhaps not entirely intentionally, could develop a foreign policy doctrine superior to that of President Obama?

The decline of US hegemony following the Iraq war and the global financial crisis may have been inevitable.

President Obama was, of course, not responsible for either.

But the dangers of a transition to a multipolar world may have been exacerbated by his foreign policy, or rather the lack of a consistent policy.

“Don’t do stupid sh*t” may have be reassuring following the idiocies of the neo-conservatives, but it does not amount to a foreign policy doctrine.

It is not that President Obama has been excessively moral. He has been an enthusiastic use of assassination by drone attack.

However, the lack of a clear view of America’s role in the world has generated dangerous uncertainties.

Allies are no longer certain if they can depend on America to defend them. Rivals are no longer certain if they can depend on the US to constrain their ambitions.

The upshot has been an increase in tensions and conflicts throughout Spykman’s rimland, from the Baltic republics through the Ukraine to the Middle East, Central Asia and the South China Sea, as allies and rivals recalibrate their security assumptions.

The main beneficiary has been Vladmir Putin, who has taken advantage of Obama’s hesitancy to seize the Crimea, destabilise the Ukraine and carve out a new role for Russia in the Middle East.

The doubts that Obama has created in the minds of friends and foes alike is reminiscent of the uncertainties generated by British policy at the beginning of the 20th century.

In that case, Britain’s attempts to maintain a free hand in Europe through diplomatic ambiguity played a major part in the outbreak of World War I.

Uncertainties about British intentions in 1914 drove geopolitical miscalculations in the Chancelleries of Europe.

Obama recalls British policy also in the abandonment of global free trade for a new version of Imperial Preference, in this case the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

These in effect replaced the global trading rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with free trade areas for America’s friends and allies (just as Britain in the 1930s sought confine the benefits of free trade within the Empire).

China, Russia and India were pointedly excluded.

Yet even this aspect of Obama’s foreign policy looks condemned to failure.

Trump has said he will cancel TPP, and French and German government ministers have rejected key aspects of TTIP.

Immediately after Trump’s election, sitting in the departure lounge of Madrid airport, I tried to identify likely key features of his foreign policy. It was not easy.

Although much remains obscure, other parts of his approach to international relations are becoming clearer.

Trump does not believe in international institutions or alliances, unless allies pay their way.

He believes he can reach an agreement with Putin that would lift sanctions on Russia.

He will support Israel but has little interest in Syria which he is happy to leave the Russia and Iran to sort out.

Europe will be very much to left to fend for itself.

At the same time Trump favours a tough line against China, threatening China’s leaders with economic sanctions and recognition of Taiwan.

The East Coast Foreign Policy establishment has thrown up its arms in horror. But are these policy position so nonsensical?

Someone at some point will have to reach a deal with Putin to lift sanctions against Russia.

It is not in the West’s interest to drive Russia into economic and political collapse.

Putin has made Russia, together with Iran, essential players in escaping from the Syria debacle (indeed it may be that Syria’s future is decided in the trilateral talks between Russia, Iran and Turkey in Kazakhstan without either US or European participation).

Given that no one is willing to expel the Russians by force, any deal must recognise the Russian occupation of Crimea (although with some weasel wording to avoid setting a precedent for changing borders by force).

This will probably be traded for stabilising a rump and federalised Ukraine.

Guarantees for the borders of the Baltic states would in turn be traded for limitations on EU and NATO expansion.

NATO will in any case not be the major player it was with Turkey increasingly siding with Moscow and Trump disinterested.

The tendency to deal with Moscow will be strengthened by the French presidential elections in which both the likely candidates for the second round run-off (Fillon and Le Pen) are openly pro-Russian. Trump’s self avowed background as a deal maker will naturally incline him towards these kinds of trade-offs.

With fracking ending energy dependence on Middle East oil, the US has little interest in remaining embroiled in the region.

Its interventions this millennium have invariably been disastrous.

The Obama regime has already shown willingness to sacrifice its traditional relationship with Saudi Arabia in pursuit of nuclear deal with Iran.

Whether Trump keeps his promise to rip up that deal may ultimately shape his global geopolitical strategy. Putin will pressure him not to do so.

Again it is possible to see the bones of a trade-off allowing the Iran deal to stand and the emergence of a Russia, Iran, Turkey triumvirate in the Middle East in exchange for guarantees for Israel and the US being able to disengage.

From the point of view of US interests (although not European interests) allowing Russia to get trapped in trying to sort out the mess in the Middle East may have some strategic advantages.

It is also arguable that China represents a greater threat to American geopolitical and economic interests than Russia (again not true for Europe).

The softly softly approach to China of the US Democratic establishment appears to have achieved little.

The government of Xi Jinping imposes a brutal internal purge of the Communist Party and repression of freedom of expression at home, while pursuing a proactive and far more aggressive foreign policy than its predecessors.

Its assertion of its sovereignty in the South China Sea is an open challenge to US power and influence in the region.

It amounts to a classical example of an emerging power probing the tolerance and will of a declining hegemon.

As capital outflows from China continue to increase, the Chinese government may be tempted to a significant devaluation of the renminbi (given the trillion dollars of foreign reserves it has already burnt through trying to support the Rmb, it may have no choice), damaging the regional economy and fulfilling Trump’s complaints about currency manipulation.

It may not simply be a case of Trump calling Beijing’s bluff in a way that previous administrations were reluctant to do.

If Trump can combine a deal with Putin with confrontation with Beijing he could drive a global geopolitical realignment.

Russia has its own problems with China in Central Asia (where they compete for political and economic influence).

China has been reluctant to support Russia over the Crimea or Syria.

A containment strategy towards China including the US and Russia (as well as Japan, India and Vietnam) would significantly reduce Chinese influence in the world.

Even if this proves beyond Trump’s grasp, a Kissinger-style triangulation between Washington, Moscow and Beijing could prove a more effective way of managing the transition to a multipolar world than Obama’s passive uncertainties.

In short, despite the derision of European intellectuals, Trump may prove a more effective geostrategist than Obama, just as Reagan ultimately proved more successful than Carter.

The ultimate irony for Europe’s intellectuals may be that it will be Europe, divided internally and over foreign-policy, that will prove increasingly irrelevant, and vulnerable in the new multipolar world – a multipolar world for which the intellectuals of the European Union have so long yearned.