The revelation from a New York Times investigation that Donald Trump’s chief campaign adviser, Paul Manafort, was on the take with the former pro-Russian Ukraine president should come as no surprise. Even before the Times report, we knew that Manafort was a well-paid economic adviser to President Viktor Yanukovych on election strategy and foreign investments. What we now know is that he was among a substantial number of individuals who may have received millions of dollars in illegal, under-the-table payments or gifts from a Ukraine administration that was up to its neck in corrupt practices. Whether or not Manafort actually received the $12.7 million designated for him by Yanukovych’s party, the fact is he profited from a close association with a pro-Russian government—an association that surely helps account for the pro-Russian views of Trump himself.
But the real story here is the insight it provides into how a Trump administration would conduct foreign policy. In a nutshell, it’s “the art of the deal.” Regardless of who might be on the other side of the table—Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Angela Merkel, or Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico—Trump’s guideline would be that business interests are central to the national interest. Anyone unfriendly to the U.S. dollar would be an enemy, subject to sanctions. After all, the art of the deal is to win, and for Trump “winning is everything. I can only say: my whole life has been about winning.”
Neither U.S. strategic priorities nor “idealist” concerns such as human rights and civil society would be allowed to interfere with cutting a deal. As another of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, Carter Page, said, “ironically, Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress [with Moscow] through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.” Thus, if Mexico balked at paying for the Trump Wall, Trump would have no qualms about punishing Mexico economically. If China pushed back at the U.S. navy in the South China Sea, Trump might erect barriers to Chinese imports. As for Russia, where Trump, Page, Manafort, and other advisers already have business ties, investments are perceived as the key to moderating U.S.-Russia relations and thus “solving” disputes over Crimea and Ukraine.
In Trump’s world, everyone has a price. He has often told the story of how his view of China is mainly shaped by the sale of a Trump Tower apartment to a Chinese banker. Despite that profitable venture, Trump’s larger picture of China is that the Chinese are fleecing the U.S., they are “our enemies,” and only by threatening to disrupt trade with them can the U.S. earn Beijing’s respect. If the U.S. wants to reverse China’s policy on exchange rates, the trade deficit, and even the South China Sea, all Washington has to do is hurt their economy. Trump has no doubt—he is immune to doubt—that China will cave under such pressure.
Donald Trump and his inner circle have no interest in seeing the world through the eyes of others. The world is reduced to markets and diplomacy to The Deal. The other forces that motivate nations—nationalism, insecurity, underdevelopment, historical grievances—don’t seem to be worth understanding or acknowledging. That’s a major reason Trump and Manafort are most comfortable dealing with—and admiring—dictators. Dictators run a tight ship; their word is law; no one else need be consulted or persuaded. Cutting a deal with them is so much easier than contending with democratic leaders, messy legislative processes, and outside influences such as unions and NGOs.
Fortunately, such a dangerously narrow view of world affairs is not going to win in November. But it won’t go away, if for no other reason than that as U.S. influence in the world declines, as U.S. ability to end terrorism, climate disruptions, and other large-scale threats become ever more problematic, and as social and economic inequality persists at home, politicians preaching simplistic solutions and promising to put “America first” will reemerge. Trump may go on vacation after the election, as he has promised; but Trumpism will survive.