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Trump’s Foreign Policy Chaos

America's most unpredictable president has come to power just as the liberal world order is giving way.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

In August 2014, Pope Francis warned a group of journalists that 
“we are in a world at war everywhere.” He recalled: “A man said to me, ‘Father, we are in World War III, but spread out in small pockets everywhere.’ He was right.” The pope’s conclusion was partly a reflection of the time. Because August 2014 marked one hundred years since the outbreak of World War I, many historians were contemplating the possibility of another global conflagration, with the United States and China in the roles Britain and Germany had played a century before. The pope’s judgment also spoke to the increasingly blurry divide between war and peace: It is easier to imagine a conclusion to a discrete, existential confrontation than to an ongoing, piecemeal conflict. Most security analysts are increasingly resigned to the conclusion that atrocities by the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and the like constitute a new global normal.

Penguin Press, 352 pp., $28.00

But there is more to today’s prevailing gloom than concern about routine acts of terror. There is also a sense of strategic disorientation: After nearly three quarters of a century, the foundations of the liberal world order are giving way. In Europe, tepid growth, demographic decline, Russian revanchism and resurgent populism are testing the durability of Western cohesion. Indeed, many of the parties gaining influence within the European Union—whether the National Front in France, Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, or Golden Dawn in Greece—are expressly opposed to the idea of an integrated European community. In the Middle East, the sheer momentum of disintegration limits even rudimentary efforts at comprehension. In the Asia-Pacific, China is making its neighbors’ economies progressively more reliant on its own, aiming to weaken America’s postwar system of alliances and increase its neighbors’ doubts about U.S. resilience. 

It is not difficult to imagine how these regional upheavals could interact with and reinforce one another. For instance, while today’s refugee crisis is largely borne of crises in the Middle East, it has also fueled the ascension of right-wing parties in Europe. This development, by diminishing the EU’s strategic weight, may encourage major powers to shift their focus away from Europe and the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific. That shift would give outfits such as the Islamic State greater opportunity to incubate in the Middle East. At the start of 2017, in short, we are experiencing systemic disorder. Each of the three major regional orders is undergoing a fundamental transformation, thereby chipping away at the overarching, world order, but without yielding an evident successor. No incoming president could be expected to have a playbook for dealing with such a state of affairs; the challenge looms even larger, however, for Donald Trump, whose vision of foreign policy remains difficult to discern.

Richard Haass’s A World in Disarray is an important primer on the chaotic landscape Trump will inherit. The book is grounded in a proposition that Haass, who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, first expounded in early 2008. The principal dynamic in world affairs, he suggested then, is not a changing of the guard between the United States and China, but a shift between a broadly U.S.-led world order and a “nonpolar” one. Many scholars are understandably riven on the prospect of a power transition between Washington and Beijing. Dating back to Sparta’s Pyrrhic victory in the Peloponnesian War, much of world history has consisted of confrontations between leading powers and their competitors. Today, however, while the power gap between the United States and China continues to decrease, there are reasons to question whether China wants to—or can—supplant the United States. More importantly, the number and capacity of other players mean that even the most sophisticated attempt to assess world order through the lens of U.S.-China ties alone will prove myopic. 

Haass notes that there are numerous second-tier powers; an array of influential international, regional, and functional organizations; state and city governments that project influence well beyond their countries’ borders; and a whole host of non-state actors, ranging from multinational corporations to humanitarian outfits to terrorist networks. As the constellation of relevant actors grows, so, too, does the difficulty of fulfilling the three criteria Haass stipulates for a resilient order—one that produces a broadly accepted articulation of global rules and norms, establishes a process for enforcing and revising them, and forges a durable balance of power.

The achievement of equilibrium, however, can come at great cost. While the Cold War indeed imparted a significant degree of order to world affairs, its defining element—U.S.-Soviet competition—yielded civil wars, proxy wars, and genocides that resulted in tens of millions of deaths. Moreover, mutually assured destruction was not as exemplary a guarantor of peace as some present-day accounts suggest; Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control chronicles how often the United States and the Soviet Union came to the precipice of nuclear armageddon. 

Turning to recent history, Haass is perhaps too quick to discount the strides humanity has made since the end of the Cold War: We have seen a significant degree of global economic coordination, the absence of a military conflict between great powers, and the entry of hundreds of millions of people into the middle class—all despite growing disorder. Indeed, one of the emerging features of world affairs is a paradoxical duality: growing disorder coexists with growing gains in human welfare. In its new report Global Trends 2035, the National Intelligence Council observes that the world is becoming “both more dangerous and richer with opportunity than ever before.”

The challenge for leaders is to ensure, as much as possible, that these advances are protected from the consequences of disorder. Haass accordingly suggests that the world embrace “sovereign obligation,” a notion that encompasses not only the rights that countries legally possess, but also, more importantly, the responsibilities he believes they have to one another—and to the world—in addressing challenges ranging from climate change to nuclear proliferation. Gaining traction for this concept  

could and would require a mix of incentives, assistance, capacity building, sanctions ranging from ‘naming and shaming’ to political and economic penalties, and, on occasion, armed intervention, especially in cases of terrorism and proliferation.

It is unclear, though, who would define and enforce a given country’s obligations, or why that country would submit to them. Haass concedes that it will take a long time for the notion of sovereign obligation to take hold, and “even then its embrace and impact will be uneven.” One reason is that leaders who have appeared to focus more on abstractions of global responsibility than on particulars of domestic concerns have fared poorly at the polls. Another is that the matrix of world power is evolving far more rapidly than leaders can themselves adjust. Addressing global challenges is no longer a matter of nurturing cooperation between states; it now involves the exponentially harder task of convening and facilitating collaboration between actors at, above, and below the level of the state. Still, it is self-evident that today’s order is increasingly ill-suited to the range of responsibilities with which it has been entrusted, so Haass’s proposal warrants serious discussion and debate.

A World in Disarray’s central contribution, though, is presenting a hierarchy of foreign policy priorities that appreciates the necessity for choice and the limits of power. Some policymakers contend that the more disorder there exists in the world, the more the United States should become involved abroad. While understandable, this view neglects that power, unlike chaos, is inherently limited. Haass properly rejects what Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky describe as the “impulse for America to solve every problem, anywhere in the world.” Instead, he supports the Obama administration’s decision to rebalance America’s strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific, observing that that region’s evolution will be instrumental to that of the entire world; contends that much of Europe’s present malaise can only be solved by Europeans themselves; and characterizes the Middle East as a challenge to be managed rather than solved.

Haass also offers a timely corrective to exaggerations of Russian and Chinese intentions: “Russia’s behavior in Ukraine … is not the first phase of a bid for global domination, any more than is China’s behavior in the South China Sea,” he argues. “Rather, each has political (nationalist) and security-related concerns that … can be influenced and shaped.” In other words, the United States need not attempt to contain either country; there are opportunities for both Russia and China “to be involved in building and operating global and regional orders” and, accordingly, for the three countries to reduce the possibility of great-power conflict.

How much of Haass’s advice President Trump will follow remains to be seen. The early indications suggest that he intends to harken back to a style of U.S. engagement that prevailed in the interwar period. “For the first time in 70 years,” observes Walter Russell Mead, “the American people have elected a president who disparages the policies, ideas, and institutions at the heart of postwar U.S. foreign policy.” How Trump intends to act out his oft-stated “America First” posture, though, is unclear. 

On the economic front, while expressing disdain for agreements such as NAFTA and the TPP, he has not offered much clarity on what his “better” deals would entail. The appointments he has made to his recently announced National Trade Council, moreover, suggest that he embraces a more mercantilist, zero-sum conception of trade than his predecessors—a stance that would not only weaken America’s economic relationships with key partners such as China and Mexico, but also work against the manufacturing renaissance he promises. The United States lost some 5.6 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010, but only 13 percent of those losses resulted from international trade; 85 percent resulted from technological change, largely automation.

It is similarly challenging to discern the contours of Trump’s Asia-Pacific policy. During the campaign, he did not appear moved to critique China’s internal conduct; he denounced the TPP, which had been America’s major economic initiative in the region; and he often stated that he would be prepared to weaken U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea if they do not meet his criteria for fair burden-sharing. In short, it seemed that he would weaken America’s footprint in the Asia-Pacific. This past November, though, two of his top Asia advisors explained that he would “steadfastly pursue a strategy of peace through strength” in the region and increase from 274 to 350 the number of U.S. Navy ships. Trump also suggested that the United States would only be beholden to the longstanding “One China” policy—recognizing Taiwan as a part of China—if China made concessions on a range of issues. 

The trouble, explains Daniel Drezner, is that “Taiwan is so important to China that they will not even acknowledge that this is something that can ever be negotiated. If transactional dealmakers fail to realize that all the issue linkage in the world won’t affect some policies, they will stumble into conflicts they do not want.” As it is, Trump seems prepared for a trade war—a readiness, Wall Street Journal columnist Andrew Browne contends, that could increase the risk of an armed confrontation between the United States and China. 

Trump’s approach towards Russia is somewhat clearer: He has repeatedly stressed the imperative of a new détente. Still, it is unclear how far he is prepared to go, and to what end. If he concedes Crimea as Russian territory, frames Russia as a partner in Syria, or attempts to scale back U.S. sanctions on Moscow, he will likely encounter significant pushback from Congress and further alarm European allies (he has frequently called NATO “obsolete,” and he said recently that he is agnostic on whether the EU remains intact or disintegrates). If Trump hopes to enlist Russia as a partner in counterbalancing China, he is likely to be disappointed; given the growing economic gap between the two countries, Moscow can ill afford to intimate to Beijing that it is joining forces with the United States. There are other potential tripwires. If, for example, he secures Congressional approval for intensified sanctions on Iran, Russia’s newfound energy opportunities there would be at risk. On balance, concludes the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Jeffrey Mankoff, “neither counterterrorism nor containing China can be the basis for a more durable U.S.-Russian partnership, and the two countries will confront each other in Europe whatever Trump desires.”

Consider one final issue. In a December 2015 Republican debate, Trump stated that America’s “biggest problem” is “nuclear proliferation and … having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon.” But he has been open to the prospect of Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia’s developing nuclear weapons. There is an appreciable chance, moreover, that his administration will take actions that compel Iran to withdraw from the landmark P5+1 nuclear deal, in which case Trump would have to contend anew with the prospect of Iranian nuclearization. Last month he tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Asked to clarify, he told MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” He has not indicated whether he wants to enhance the sophistication of America’s arsenal, increase the number of weapons it contains, or both. Regardless, to countenance accelerating proliferation with seeming equanimity can only have a destabilizing impact.

Compounding the aforementioned uncertainties is Trump’s own penchant for ambiguity. In an interview last January with Wolf Blitzer, he explained: “We need unpredictability in this country…. I don’t want the enemies and even our allies to know exactly what I’m thinking. We have got to be poker players. We have got to be chess players…. We’re checker players, and we don’t play well. And part of the reason is, we always tell everything.” 

That proposition makes Haass’s concluding caution particularly deserving of attention:

The United States has to be wary of sudden or sharp departures in what it does in the world. Consistency and reliability are essential attributes for a great power. Friends and allies who depend on the United States for their security need to know that this dependence is well placed. If America comes to be doubted, it will inevitably give rise to a very different and much less orderly world. One would see two reactions: either a world of increased “self-help,” in which countries take matters into their own hands in ways that could work against U.S. objectives, or a world in which countries fall under the sway of more powerful local states, in the process undermining the balance of power.

If 2016 taught us anything, it is not to be overly confident in our predictions. Perhaps the strategic ends of Trump’s persuasions will grow apparent with time. Perhaps, as Uri Friedman ventures, “Trump and his team may prove to be masterful negotiators on behalf of U.S. interests.” On the other hand, the administration’s recalibration could prove to be an end in and of itself, divorced from a longer-term conception of America’s role in the world. Its execution of uncoordinated diplomatic transactions could eventually create a web of positions whose internal contradictions are too great in number and substance to permit the administration a coherent foreign policy; that ambiguity could unnerve allies and embolden competitors to further test the resilience of the postwar order. And Trump may discover that business acumen does not readily translate into strategic foresight. The only evident certainty is that U.S. foreign policy these next four years will keep the world guessing, and hedging.