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Trump Is Already Implementing an Autocratic Foreign Policy

His Taiwan call and other moves signal a shift from multilateral alliances to bilateral dealmaking. And it could destabilize the world.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The government of China doesn’t know what to make of Donald Trump, which is exactly what the presidentelect prefers. Last week, he broke a decades-long diplomatic understanding with the country when he spoke by phone with the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. Trump tweeted that Tsai “CALLED ME,” and Vice Presidentelect Mike Pence insisted it was just a “courtesy,” but it was later reported that former Senator Bob Dole, now a lobbyist, worked for months on Taiwan’s behalf to establish a relationship with Trump’s team. Amid the phone-call kerfuffle, Trump re-upped his longstanding complaints about China’s currency valuation, import tariffs, and military buildup in the South China Sea.

What is Trump up to? Is he testing a policy shift, with some plausible deniability built in? Is he trying to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to get tough on China, as promised? Or was he simply manipulated by Dole?

The Global Times, a state-run tabloid in China, editorialized that Trump “has zero diplomatic experience and is unaware of the repercussions of shaking up Sino-U.S. relations.” According to The Wall Street Journal, Chinese officials called the Obama administration to complain, saying the People’s Republic “needs stability and predictability in its relationship with the U.S.” The officials also sought “guidance on Mr. Trump’s policy intentions, and White House officials said they didn’t know what they are.”

If the Chinese government wants predictability and stability, they are almost certainly doomed to disappointment. Trump explicitly ran on the promise of an unpredictable foreign policy. “We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” he said in his first major foreign policy speech, in April. “We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops. We tell them. We’re sending something else. We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable. And we have to be unpredictable starting now.”

His actions as presidentelect suggest he’s going to live up to those words. Indeed, unpredictability is a necessary component of Trump’s emerging foreign policy, which eschews multilateralism in favor of bilateral deal-making. And such an approach could destabilize the world to a degree we haven’t seen since World War II.

In a pre-election report on “the crisis of U.S. foreign policy,” the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright wrote that “Trump’s foreign policy will very likely be informed by his core beliefs: opposition to America’s alliance relationships; opposition to free trade; and support for authoritarianism, particularly in Russia.” These beliefs are united by another belief: that it’s in America’s best interest not to be bound by international rules (whether treaties, trade agreements, or human rights laws), but to be a free agent that acts unilaterally.

A unilateral U.S. would avoid multilateral alliances—such as NATO, which Trump has disparaged—and instead relate to every nation on a bilateral basis, making it easier to negotiate. Such a nation will by definition be unpredictable, but unpredictability is also a strategy for gaining leverage in bilateral negotiations. This is The Art of the Deal as foreign policy. As Max Fisher noted in The New York Times, “Perhaps owing to his years in the competitive world of New York real estate development, Mr. Trump seems to approach foreign policy as a series of deals, each divided between a winner and a loser.”

In a July interview with the Times, Trump was asked, “If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?” He responded: “I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do. I have a serious chance of becoming president and I’m not like Obama, that every time they send some troops into Iraq or anyplace else, he has a news conference to announce it.” Trump was reminded that “we are treaty-obligated” to help allies, to which he replied, “We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.”

The goal of a multilateral foreign policy is, among other things, to have a stable international order where American trade could flourish. But Trump thinks that the U.S. can gain more power if it breaks with previously binding agreements and renegotiates everything bilaterally. A foreign policy of wheeling and dealing will radically change how the U.S. does diplomacy. In particular, it will alienate nations devoted to stability and appeal to autocrats who share Trump’s belief in personal deal-making.

China offers an interesting twist on the rule. The People’s Republic is a dictatorship, but is controlled by the central committee of a party, which gives it a bias towards predictability and stability, one that is shared by liberal democracies that have traditionally been American allies. Seeking stability, the Chinese government has been able to work with the U.S. on a number of fronts, notably climate change and restraining North Korea. It remains to be seen whether such cooperation will survive Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy.

China isn’t the only nation perplexed by Trump. When Trump won the election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel felt compelled to offer a pointed letter of congratulations saying that the continued alliance between the two countries would have to depend upon shared values of “democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views.” Subsequently, Trump offended British Prime Minister Theresa May by suggesting that she appoint the far-right agitator Nigel Farage as ambassador, a breach of protocol that elicited an icy response from May.

While Trump is worrying the committee-based dictatorship of China and democracies like Germany and the United Kingdom, he’s cozying up with autocratic strongmen who rule without recourse to either party or democratic consensus. Trump allegedly has given a thumbs up to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous crackdown on drugs. Trump invited Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to Washington, a break from the Obama administration’s chilliness to the regime, which has been rolling back democracy. And of course Trump has repeatedly praised Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Trump’s friendliness towards these authoritarians is baked into his unpredictable approach to foreign policy. Just as liberal democracies and committee-based dictatorships like China might value stability and long-term alliances, autocrats are all about enhancing single rule, which means giving priority to one-to-one relationships with other states. Certainly both Duterte and Putin have shown themselves to be wheeler-dealers in Trump fashion, willing to take unilateral action even if it upsets neighbors or traditional allies. This can be seen in Putin’s adventurism in Crimea and Duterte’s attempts to use Russia and China as counterweights to the Philippines’s traditional alliance with the U.S.

Under Trump, America could forge ties with these autocrats while its relationship frays with China, Germany, and England. This will make America a disruptive force on the international stage, not just unpredictable but a source of instability. Regional powers might decide that they have to assume the role, previously filled by the U.S., of providing stability; others might see it as an opportunity to fill a power vacuum. It’s easy to imagine that if NATO loses influence, Germany would organize a European military alliance. Japan and South Korea might want to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Turkey might shake itself even further from the Western alliance.

If Trump were able to reorient America’s foreign policy to be less predictable and unencumbered by alliances, we’d have a return to the world before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941—a patchwork of regional powers, each with their own sphere of influence, with the U.S. willing to launch the occasional attack on a smaller power but uninterested in helping to advance peace around the world. That system of incessant imperial rivalry led, of course, to global catastrophe.