President Trump, Geopolitical Mastermind

trump_daywithout_ap_img_drubzjA classic 1986 Saturday Night Live skit, titled “President Reagan, Mastermind,” portrayed him as a cunning and focused operator within the confines of the Oval Office.  The bit was meant as a comedic rebuke to Reagan’s professions of ignorance about the unfolding Iran-Contra scandal, and it quickly became seen as a brilliant piece of political humor since it offered a reinterpretation jarringly at odds with the genial but clueless figure the Gipper’s critics often sketched out.

A similar redefinition of President Trump appeared last week on the op-ed pages of the Financial Times.  Mark Leonard, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations, reports that Chinese elites hold a very different perspective on Trump’s foreign policy than what is offered by the conventional wisdom in the West, which regards the president as a geopolitical naif and a reckless, impulsive leader.  In stark contrast, Leonard writes that the officials and experts he recently visited in Beijing are “awed by [Trump’s] skill as a strategist and tactician.”

According to Leonard, his Chinese interlocutors describe Trump:

as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can.  They speak of the skilful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. ‘Look at how he handled North Korea,’ one says. ‘He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.’ But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.

And while many of Trump’s detractors in the West regard his policy toward Moscow as craven and sycophantic, Leonard’s sources perceive a wily geopolitical strategy: “They see it as Henry Kissinger in reverse. In 1972, the US nudged China off the Soviet axis in order to put pressure on its real rival, the Soviet Union. Today Mr Trump is reaching out to Russia in order to isolate China.”

The Chinese assessment of Trump, at least as presented by Leonard, offers a strong counterpoint to the prevailing narrative about the cogency of the president’s foreign policy as well as to the partisan accusations alleging that the president, as one Democratic senator charges, has somehow become “a Russian asset.”

Indeed, the Daily Beast reports that Henry Kissinger himself, who has met at least three times with Trump since the 2016 presidential campaign, has advanced the idea that Washington should attempt a rapprochement with Moscow in order to counter Beijing’s growing global power, and that the pitch has found receptive ears inside the administration.  And one former administration official describes Trump’s approach toward Russia as “the reverse of the Nixon-China play.”

Last week’s meeting in Washington between President Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, offers additional evidence for the narrative Leonard advances.  For months Beijing has been wooing EU leaders with offers of an anti-U.S. alliance (see here and here), and Juncker showed up at the White House fresh from his own summit in Beijing where Chinese officials renewed their pitch.  Yet for all of the hand-wringing about Trump pushing key U.S. allies into Beijing’s embrace, Trump and Juncker emerged from their meeting to announce a high-level push for a new U.S/EU trade accord.

Indeed, according to Trump’s chief economic adviser, Juncker also signaled that the EU “will be allied” with the United States in countering China on global trade issues.  Commenting on the EU deal, one Washington observer notes, “The president created so many battles on trade that now he has gotten everyone to say we are all on your side on China.”  And one journalist observes that Beijing ended up the loser because “Trump has cut himself far more leeway to indulge in China-bashing.”

If Trump is indeed attempting to pull off a Kissingerian power play with Russia and China, the prospects for major success are in doubt.  The Nixon administration was able to capitalize on years of bitter ideological disputes between Moscow and Beijing, not to mention the outbreak of actual military conflict in 1969 that threatened to escalate to the nuclear level.  Fissures do exist in the current Russian-Chinese relationship, and it must grate Vladimir Putin’s nationalist sensibilities that Moscow is widely seen as Beijing’s junior partner in global affairs.  Nonetheless, there does not appear to be much in the way of strategic opportunity for the Trump administration to exploit.

Still, Trump’s machinations may be having some geopolitical effect.  Leonard reveals that because of Trump’s multiple pressure points on Beijing, “many Chinese experts are quietly calling for a rethink of the longer-term strategy. They want to prepare the ground for a new grand bargain with the US based on Chinese retrenchment. Many feel that Mr Xi has over-reached and worry that it was a mistake simultaneously to antagonise the US economically and militarily in the South China Sea.”

The scope and depth of this sentiment are unclear, though one China expert reports hearing similar things in Beijing.  Nonetheless, it is a striking development at a time when the general narrative within the U.S. foreign policy commentariat is about China’s global ascendancy amid Trump’s fecklessness.  And it does underscore the possibility that the current U.S. president may be a more multifaceted leader than his most vocal critics allow.

UPDATE (August 5, 2018): Jerome A. Cohen, a leading U.S. expert on China, likewise reports serious foreign policy debates underway in Beijing:

Many Chinese critics, for example, believe that Xi has moved too unwisely in rapidly unfolding the enormously expensive Belt and Road Initiative, in militarizing the South China Sea and ostentatiously spurning the Philippine arbitration against China in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and in uncertainly responding to Trump’s bewildering trade-war challenge.

The Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times newspaper sees the same thing, reporting that in private “more Chinese officials and intellectuals are expressing doubts about [Xi Jinping’s] handling of relations with the US.”  He quotes one Chinese business executive as saying that among the Chinese bureaucracy’s rank and file, “more people are now questioning whether it was right for Xi to go against the US so openly”.  He adds that a “senior US business executive who meets frequently with senior Chinese officials said that since the trade war began in earnest in May, they have displayed ‘a mix of confidence, frustration, anger and insecurity — and at any moment one of those is more dominant than the rest'”.

UPDATE (August 7, 2018)Bloomberg Businessweek today quotes a Chinese observer as saying that the US-China “trade war has made China more humble,” and reports that:

grumbling has begun to echo around the halls of government. One Finance Ministry official says China made a “major misjudgment” of Trump’s determination to confront the country. Others wonder if China underestimated the durability of American power. “The U.S. will use its hegemonic system, established since World War II from trade, finance, currency, military, and so on, to stop the rise of China,” Ren Zeping, chief economist at China Evergrande Group, wrote in one widely read commentary published on June 5.

UPDATE (August 9, 2018): Reuters similarly reports:

“Many economists and intellectuals are upset about China’s trade war policies,” an academic at a Chinese policy think tank told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “The overarching view is that China’s current stance has been too hard-line and the leadership has clearly misjudged the situation.”

An early version of this essay appears at Asia Sentinel.

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Obama’s Disinterest in Europe: An Update

bored-obama-3Two earlier posts (here and here) argued that President Barack Obama has largely been disinterested in America’s European allies.  Although this view attracted criticism from those insisting I exaggerated the case, evidence has continued to roll in buttressing my position.

The newest piece of proof comes courtesy of DC Leaks, a website that has posted materials purloined from, among others, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.  Included in its collection are emails hacked from the personal Gmail account of General Philip Breedlove, who until recently served as NATO’s supreme military commander.

Two of Breedlove’s notes are particularly striking.  In the first, he writes to Colin Powell in September 2014, six months after Russia’s seizure of the Crimea peninsula, seeking the former U.S. Secretary of State’s assistance in re-energizing the Obama administration’s focus on European affairs.  Breedlove confides that “I do not see this [White House] as really ‘engaged’ on Europe/NATO.”

A second note in March 2015 concerns the extraordinary snub Mr. Obama had just delivered to Jens Stoltenberg, who months earlier had been appointed as NATO’s secretary general.  Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, all passed up a chance to confer with Stoltenberg during his visit to Washington even as Russian depredations against Ukraine continued.  According to a media report, Stoltenberg requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit but never heard back from the White House.

Commenting on the incident, Breedlove laments to a friend that “This is a mess.  I do not understand our [White House].”

At a NATO summit two months ago, Obama declared that “in good times and in bad, Europe can count on the United States – always.”  But many of his actions have registered the opposite message, so much so that the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee even blames the president for begetting Donald Trump’s skepticism of the NATO alliance.  (For a similar view by a U.S. foreign policy pundit, see here.)

Eight years ago, Mr. Obama won over European hearts by promising not to conduct himself like George W. Bush and the continent gratefully responded by awarding him a Nobel peace prize in the mere anticipation he would live up to his promise.  He has indeed been true to his word, though very much not in a way European leaders had hoped.  Reflecting on Obama’s legacy for U.S.-European relations, Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain, recently concluded that “the lasting impression that Barack Obama will leave us [Europeans] with is one of disenchantment.”

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Obama’s NATO Snub is a Familiar Story

This month’s headlines chronicling the breakdown in U.S.-Israeli affairs and the personal disdain between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have overshadowed the continuing dysfunctions in Washington’s relations with its traditional allies in Europe.

Josh Rogin at Bloomberg View reports that Mr. Obama has delivered what can only be regarded as an extraordinary snub to Jens Stoltenberg, who became the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization six months ago.  Obama is one of the few Western leaders not yet to have met with Stoltenberg and has deliberately passed up a chance to see him this week when Stoltenberg is in Washington.  Rogin notes that the NATO chief was able to arrange a last-minute meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, though he requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit but never heard back from the White House.

The upshot is that Obama is missing a good opportunity to firm up NATO solidarity in the face of Moscow’s on-going predations against Ukraine.  As Rogin concludes, “the message Russian President Vladimir Putin will take away is that the White House-NATO relationship is rocky, and he will be right.”  Moreover, given that Stoltenberg is a two-time prime minister of Norway, a meeting would have sent a powerful message to Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark that are facing increased Russian provocations (here, here and here).

As I noted in an earlier post, Mr. Obama’s disinterest in America’s European allies is a long-standing story.  Beyond the foreign policy consequences of how the president has mismanaged relations with the continent, a surfeit of irony is also at work.  His promise to repair the damaged ties caused by the acrimony over the Iraq war guaranteed him euphoric welcomes in Berlin in July 2008 and in Prague the following spring.  Speaking before a massive crowd assembled in Berlin’s “Tiergarten” (speech text here; video here), he grandly vowed to “remake the world once again,” this time in a way that allies would “listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.”  That pledge is now so yesterday that some European leaders are reportedly longing for the days of George W. Bush.

[UPDATE, April 1: A more detailed version of this post is now up on The National Interest‘s website.]

[UPDATE, February 15, 2016: According to a new Bloomberg View report, the consensus among European officials and experts attending this year’s Munich Security Conference is that the Obama administration is prepared to continue sitting on the sidelines as the continent grapples with a series of critical issues.

Also worth noting is last week’s column in the New York Times by Roger Cohen, the newspaper’s former foreign editor.  He quotes a senior European diplomat as saying that Mr. Obama “is not interested in Europe.”  Cohen adds “That is a fair assessment of the first postwar American leader for whom the core trans-Atlantic alliance was something to be dutifully upheld rather than emotionally embraced.”]

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U.S. Smart Power is Taking a Beating

In his journey to the White House, Barack Obama made much hay railing against his predecessor’s supposedly go-it-alone mindset and penchant for foreign policy unilateralism.  With memories still fresh of the spectacular rupture between Washington and its traditional European allies over the Iraq war, Obama’s claim to be the “anti-Bush” garnered him a euphoric welcome in Berlin in July 2008.  Speaking before a massive crowd assembled in the “Tiergarten” (speech text here; video here), he grandly vowed to “remake the world once again,” this time in a way that allies would “listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.”  A year later, this sort of rhetoric earned him the Nobel peace prize for single-handedly creating “a new climate in international politics” and restoring multilateral diplomacy to “a central position.”

Five years on, it’s an understatement that things have not worked out as advertised, as a series of developments over the past few weeks starkly illustrate.  Each of these episodes concerns a different region of the world but they offer some common lessons: 1.) The Obama administration is not very good at consulting with and listening to U.S. allies; and 2.) The president’s determination to pursue a less assertive and more cautious foreign policy is increasing seen by allies as outright fecklessness. Continue reading