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The Diplomacy of Donald J. Trump

Photo by Ninian Reid | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Ninian Reid | CC BY 2.0


Oblivious to Tradition and Good Sense

Those of us who appreciate the unconventional have to have second thoughts after watching Donald J. Trump in action. All the more so when it comes to the conduct of foreign affairs, in which Mr. Trump is a novice. Defying convention, which calls for the president or president-elect to call on the State Department for advice and talking points, and on the intelligence community for daily briefings, Trump at any time might decide to pick up the phone and chat with a foreign leader, might Tweet an opinion, or might make an off-the-cuff remark about a controversial issue. Trouble is, any of these acts might run directly counter to ongoing US foreign policy. You can’t flatter a dictator, interject comments about another country’s domestic affairs, praise one country at the expense of another, or bring family into high-level meetings without consequences. Trump has done all these, and more, and as president seems determined to continue the practice.

Such practices only make sense when understood in terms of Trump’s “art of the deal” approach to diplomacy. And “the deal” must be taken literally, since Trump clearly sees doing the nation’s business as being equivalent to doing his personal business. Protecting the environment, promoting human rights and social justice, and strengthening international law have no place in the deal.

Trump Organization hotels and golf courses outside the US, and Trump’s financial portfolio (Goldman Sachs, Apple, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, and other international firms ), spell conflicts of interest in capital(ist) letters. Given Trump’s lack of transparency on his taxes and business dealings, his refusal to establish a blind trust or divest his financial holdings, and his absolutist belief that “the president cannot have a conflict of interest,” we may never know whether or not he is using his position to further “the brand” and his personal fortune.

Here’s What Trump Has Said and Done

China: Trump broke with longstanding precedent again when he held a telephone conversation with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, the first conversation between two leaders since the 1979 US recognition of the PRC and breaking of ties with Taiwan. Contrary to Trump’s insistence that “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME” to offer congratulations, official Taiwan sources said the call had been arranged in advance. Supporting that view, a Washington Post report said the call “was planned weeks ahead by staffers and Taiwan specialists on both sides, according to people familiar with the plans.” In fact, Trump’s pro-Taiwan advisers said they deliberately wanted to send China a message that the old Taiwan policy might change if China’s policies on currency, US investments in China, the trade deficit, North Korea, and the South China Sea did not change. Trump underscored that message by publicly questioning the one-China policy that has guided US-China relations for 40 years. (“I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China,” he said.) Leverage, or blackmail?

During his campaign, Trump had harsh words for China—and in doing so revealed very limited understanding of Chinese motivations, not to mention reliance only on himself for his views of China. He said then what he has said now, that if China doesn’t behave as he sees fit, he will authorize trade and currency sanctions. After all, who needs China?

But if Trump now intends to put China on notice, China is also putting Trump on notice. The Chinese press has carried stories indicating that although positive US-China relations are most important to Chinese leaders, further steps that are contrary to the “One China” principle will be resisted. The press has also reported various negative views of US society and politics today, with the suggestion that the US has become weak and divided in the course of this electoral cycle. If the idea of Taiwan independence, which most concerns Chinese leaders, actually takes shape under Trump, we can expect that China’s pushback will be very strong. The recent incident in South China Sea waters in which a Chinese vessel picked up a US Navy unmanned research drone (later returned) may be just a preview.

Trump’s Taiwan gambit is reminiscent of George W. Bush early in his presidency, when he expressed strong support for Taiwan and authorized a major arms sale. But before long Bush accepted the One China policy of his predecessors and backed off from a shift on Taiwan. It’s not clear that Trump will do the same. (The House recently passed a defense authorization bill that called for the secretary of defense to approve annual “senior military exchanges” with Taiwan.) Trump may just be testing the waters, but more likely is that he believes he can pressure China into making concessions. He’ll find that Beijing does not respond well to pressure tactics or blackmail. And that will leave Taiwan out to dry, vulnerable to Chinese threats.

Philippines: Then there’s Trump’s talk with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, which ended with an invitation to visit the US and Duterte’s later statement that Trump endorsed the anti-drug crackdown. According to Duterte, Trump was “quite sensitive” to the Philippines’ drug problem and was handling it “the right way.” That was not Obama’s view, of course. Duterte’s crackdown on drugs has caused more than 2000 deaths and several hundred surrenders by users and traffickers. Obama’s criticism of Duterte for trampling on civil liberties and engaging in vigilante justice while suppressing drug trafficking is what got Philippines-US relations off track.

Left unsaid is Trump’s considerable real estate interest in the Philippines, an interest that clearly will conflict with his presidency. As reported in the Washington Post, a newly built Trump Tower condominium outside Manila, which Trump’s sons visited for ceremonies to mark its completion, is operated by a top official in the Duterte government:

“The man writing millions of dollars’ worth of checks to the Trump family is the Duterte government’s special representative to the United States. To argue that these payments will be constitutional if they are paid to the Trump children, and not to Trump personally, is absurd. This conflict demands congressional hearings, and could be an impeachable offense.”
Turkey: Similarly, the Post also reported, Trump has business interests in Turkey, and conveyed compliments from a “close friend” of his to Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That association, supplemented by Michael Flynn’s involvements with Turkey, could lead Trump to reverse US policy and expel the cleric, now residing in Pennsylvania, whom Erdogan believes is responsible for the recent coup attempt.

Britain: Trump told the British prime minister, Theresa May, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know,” an offhand invitation that came only after he spoke to nine other leaders. He later compounded it by saying on Twitter that Britain should name the anti-immigrant leader Nigel Farage its ambassador to Washington, a startling break with diplomatic protocol.
Israel: Trump just can’t wait to show Benjamin Netanyahu just how pro-Israel (i.e., pro-settlements, anti-UN) he can be. He and “Bibi” are of one mind about the irrelevance of a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. So when the US for the first time failed to reject a UN Security Council resolution critical of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine–the US abstained–Netanyahu went ballistic and Trump followed. Mind you, Obama had only recently pledged $38 billion in military aid to Israel over the next 10 years–a huge increase, considering that from the 1967 June War to 2015, total US military exports to Israel came to $34 billion–in hopes Netanyahu would halt further illegal settlements. Trump will no doubt resume the practice of giving aid without conditions. His nominee as ambassador to Israel, a strong supporter of the settlements, will see that Israel gets whatever it wants.

Japan: When Trump met Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in New York shortly after his election, only one other American was in the room: his daughter Ivanka. Trump apparently did not consult with the State Department for talking points. For all we know, Trump may have reiterated his view during the campaign that Japan should shoulder more of its defense burden, leaving open the possibility of Japan’s producing nuclear weapons.

Pakistan: Trump’s phone call with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif showed total disregard for the sensitive issues that mark US relations with his government, including relations with India, involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence services in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. According to the Pakistani government, Trump told Sharif that he was “a terrific guy” who made him feel as though “I’m talking to a person I have known for long.” He described Pakistanis as “one of the most intelligent people.” When Sharif invited Trump to visit Pakistan, the president-elect replied that he would “love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people.” Trump’s team would not confirm or deny Pakistan’s account.

Kazakhstan: Trump’s penchant for cozying up to dictators (except China’s) shows that he will follow an unfortunate US foreign policy tradition. His call with President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev is indicative: As usual, Trump failed to mention that country’s repressive politics. Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, initially as head of the Communist Party before independence. He won his fifth election in April 2015 with about 97 percent of the vote. The Kazakh government claimed that Trump lavishly praised Nazarbayev’s leadership, citing “fantastic success that can be called a ‘miracle.’” More intelligently, Trump apparently also praised the Kazakh government’s surrender of the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviets.

Russia: Trump’s love affair with Vladimir Putin remains one of the most bizarre stories in international affairs, though I can’t quarrel with the goal of a reset in relations. But the terms of a reset are critical. Since the start of Trump’s campaign, he has endorsed Putin’s strong leadership (stronger than Obama’s, Trump said), avoided criticism of Russian interventions in Ukraine and the Crimea, agreed with Putin on focusing on ISIS in Syria, and—most extraordinarily—rejected the consensus view of the intelligence community on Russian hacking of the US elections. Furthermore, Trump and his future secretary of state, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, have large business interests in Russia. Now Trump has embraced the idea of a nuclear arms race; Putin has said “nyet,” but Trump’s bravado gives him license to push for more nukes and other weapons in the context of a much larger military budget.

In Conclusion

Let’s remember one thing about all these forays into foreign policy: Trump has still not been inaugurated. Thus, he is trying to make policy while still a private citizen and, in all the cases above, without a secretary of state or defense. His recent pronouncements on nuclear weapons, Russia, Israel, China, and the United Nations—all via Twitter or telephone, and thus without benefit of expert advice or questions from the press corps—not only reveal a preparedness to make significant, high-risk departures from longstanding US policy. They also subvert the country’s leadership, making it appear that Trump is already in charge. President Obama is fighting back by executive action. But shouldn’t he also pick up the phone to firmly remind Trump who’s in charge?

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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