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Donald Trump and Russia and China: The Art of the Deal

President-elect Donald Trump gives the thumbs-up as Mitt Romney leaves Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster, N.J., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Donald Trump has given an interview to the Wall Street Journal, which provides an insight to his outlook on foreign policy.

Donald Trump is first and foremost a businessman.  Strikingly the man he has picked for Secretary of State – Rex Tillerson – is also a businessman.  Moreover Trump’s business background is the wheeler dealer business environment of the US property market, in which he has thrived.  His outlook on foreign policy follows this pattern.   It is ruthlessly pragmatic, America-centric, completely non-ideological, and goal centred.  Its centre piece is the deal, about which Trump has written a book.

As Trump’s interview shows, his approach is to use whatever leverage he has over Russia and China to extract the best possible deal for the US from the.

In the case of Russia he is offering to bargain away the sanctions in return for Russia’s help on a variety of foreign policy issues, notably the fight against Jihadi terrorism, and – almost certainly – trade concessions, with Trump and Tillerson interested in opening up Russia’s huge energy industry to US investment, from which they expect the US to make a massive profit.  By contrast there is a total lack of interest in Russia’s internal politics or in the grander geopolitical projects of the neocons.   Trump’s outlook is summed up perfectly in the following sentence

If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?

In the case of China, the leverage over China is the “One China Policy” and the South China Sea, with Trump hinting that he is prepared to drop the one and to cosy up to Taiwan, and Tillerson hinting that the US is prepared to confront China in regard to the other, unless China makes concessions on trade.  Again it is all perfectly summed up in a single sentence

Everything is under negotiation, including one China.

This is an attitude totally different from the one the US has followed since the neocons gained control of US foreign policy during Bill Clinton’s second term, or indeed since the start of the Second World War 75 years ago.

Ideology and grand geopolitical projects are entirely cast aside, to be replaced by a narrow focus on US national interests.  A Trump led US is one that is uninterested in regime change projects, “democracy promotion”, “the new American century’, “American exceptionalism” etc.

To the extent that Trump thinks about these concepts they hold no sway over him.  As a businessman he would feel that they are “not a paying proposition”.

This is not the foreign policy ‘realism’ of Henry Kissinger – which remained fully wedded to the pursuit of geopolitics – or the “US should mind its own business” approach of the US Libertarians with its strongly ethical dimension, and it is certainly not the ‘isolationism’ of someone like Robert Taft.  Trump has no intention of giving up on the US’s global role, and those who expect him to wind up NATO are doomed to disappointment.

An earlier generation of US Presidents – people like  McKinley and Coolidge – would however have had no difficulty understanding Trump’s foreign policy with its ruthless focus on US interest redefined in the narrowest terms.  In the words of Calvin Coolidge

After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.

Though Trump’s profoundly unsentimental conception of foreign policy has deep roots in US culture, it is not surprising that many sections of today’s US political establishment are unsettled and alarmed by it.

To give one example, it is unclear what precise role the US intelligence services – whose role in the world since their creation during the Second World War and the Cold War has been precisely to advance US geopolitical projects – would have in it.  After all in McKinley’s and Coolidge’s time the US did not have and had no need for the vast intelligence apparatus it has today.  Given that Trump’s approach to foreign policy is basically a throwback to theirs, it is not surprising that Trump is little interested in the intelligence community’s work, as revealed by the fact that he has been skipping his intelligence briefings.

Not surprisingly a US intelligence community which has become accustomed to a starring role in decision making and to being taken extremely seriously by US Presidents is upset and alarmed by an attitude it is probably unable to understand.

Given the widespread alarm and incomprehension from within the US political establishment and foreign policy community, it is far from certain that Trump will be able – or will be allowed – to conduct foreign policy in the way he wants to.  Assuming however that he does, how will it play out?

Obviously it is impossible to speak for the whole world, but in terms of relations with Russia and China it might play out surprisingly well.

In relation to Russia, it is important to say that Trump is no Russophile.  He does not want to improve relations with Russia because he has sentimental feelings towards Russia or towards President Putin (whom he has never met), and he is certainly not a “Siberian candidate”.  He does not want good relations with Russia’s for their own sake.  What he wants is to make a deal with Russia in the US’s interests.  That by definition involves reciprocal concessions by each country towards the other.  Trump’s approach to China will be the same.

The leaders of both Russia and China are realists and pragmatists, and though their foreign policy vision is certainly wider than Trump’s, neither country has any reason to want to take on the US given that both countries would far prefer at this stage in their histories to focus on their internal development.  Deals on trade and on issues like terrorism are certainly possible, with both countries instinctively preferring to work with an unsentimental dealmaker and businessman – with whom “they can do business” – rather than with an ideological crusader like Hillary Clinton who (as they must know) deep down denies their very legitimacy.

Whilst this is already clear with Russia, in my opinion over time it will also become clear with China as well.  Though the Chinese have in public reacted fiercely to some of Trump’s and Tillerson’s statements, they have also repeatedly made it clear that they are open to negotiation provided what they consider to be their core interests are respected.  As tough minded pragmatists they almost certainly realise that ultimately it is easier for them to do a deal that will stick with someone like Trump than it ever was with Obama or would have been with someone like Hillary Clinton, who would come with far too much ideological baggage to the table.

Whether this approach would work with the US’s European allies or in coping the multiple conflicts of the Middle East is another matter.

Trump’s approach also on the face of it has little to offer to the people of Africa – in whom he is not interested – and nothing to offer to the people of Latin America, where unlike the ethical non-interventionism of US Libertarians like Ron Paul,  Donald Trump can be expected to defend relentlessly what he sees as US interests, which involves the US maintaining its dominant role in Latin American affairs.

In these very early days before Trump has even been inaugurated it is impossible to say to what extent he will be able to shape US foreign policy around his vision.  It is nonetheless fascinating  and important – and also very surprising – that someone with a vision like his is now less than a week away from being inaugurated President of the United States.

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