Donald Trump’s foreign policy, especially in his first months in office, probably will bear no relation to what he has ever said. Or thought.
Why? Trump is unlikely to be driving American policy. Look for Beijing and Moscow to do that. Washington’s moves in the early months probably will be in reaction to these two large authoritarian states, which appear to be coordinating their challenges to America, highlighted by, among other things, their joint naval exercises in the South China Sea and their informal coalition during the height of the Syrian civil war.
Trump during his campaign famously criticized the post-war international system, built by Washington and once accepted by almost everyone in the U.S. In July, he stunned Europe when he suggested that the NATO treaty did not commit the U.S. to defend attacked members. He shocked Asia when in March he both questioned America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea and, ditching non-proliferation policies of more than seven decades, suggested they could develop their own nuclear arsenals.
His near-total embrace of the Kremlin, evident throughout the campaign, was a repudiation of decades of American policy, both during and after the Cold War.
No wonder his win triggered angst.
In Moscow, the thinking is that Washington will no longer oppose Russian expansionism. Vladimir Putin has, from behind the Kremlin’s walls, plotted his campaign against Ukraine, annexing Crimea in 2014 and destabilizing Donbas, what he boldly calls part of “New Russia.” Some speculate that Putin’s first reaction to Trump’s victory will be a new offensive in Syria and then a renewed push against Ukraine.
Russia could also directly challenge U.S. interests because Putin is threatening the three Baltic States. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are NATO members, and pursuant to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, an attack on any of them is considered an attack on the U.S. If Trump were to hesitate in a crisis, Russian tanks would overrun them in days. A Rand study this year reported that Moscow’s forces could reach the outskirts of Tallinn and Riga, the capitals of Estonia and Latvia, in no more than 60 hours.
At least the Russian political system looks relatively stable. His new partner, next-door China, evidently is not. This week, the Chinese central government surprised just about every observer by demoting the reformist Lou Jiwei, China’s well-respected finance minister.
The move, widely interpreted to be the result of political turmoil, comes after months of infighting at the top of the Communist Party. That infighting, from all indications, has intensified as the Party’s leader, Xi Jinping, makes even bolder moves to break rules designed to limit disagreements during leadership transitions. As he “deinstitutionalizes” the political system, the tumult at the top of the ruling organization is resulting in more provocative external policies.
The new belligerence is partly the result of squabbling civilian figures looking for support from China’s arrogant flag officers. As top generals and admirals effectively become party powerbrokers, they are gaining more say in the country’s external policies.
In today’s political uncertainty, perhaps no civilian leader is in a position—or willing to take a risk—to tell the top brass what to do. In a political culture where the U.S. has been identified as China’s main adversary, only the most hostile positions are now considered politically acceptable. Hardliners are almost certainly in control.
There is much we do not know about the disunity in Beijing, but disputes come at a time when China could lash out. For more than three decades, the primary basis of legitimacy of the Communist Party has been the continual delivery of prosperity, and with the economy continuing to turn downwards, the only remaining basis of legitimacy is nationalism.
Trump threatens China’s prosperity. He has proposed a 45 percent across-the-board tariff on Chinese goods, he has promised to bring factories back home, he has talked about incentives to repatriate cash held abroad. His skepticism of trade deals means the Bilateral Investment Treaty, in the late stages of negotiation between Washington and Beijing, probably never will be ratified.
Even Trump’s general economic plans could injure China. His tax-cutting and infrastructure-building initiatives, for instance, could create a boom in America, which would lead to an increase in interest rates. The rise in rates in turn will attract even more money when China is already bleeding cash, perhaps at the rate of $1 trillion a year. Trump threatens the fragile Chinese economy in so many ways.
The Communist Party, therefore, has an incentive to tame Trump quickly. Even in calmer times, China’s leaders have taken on the last two American presidents early in their first terms, George W. Bush in April 2001 with the Hainan spy plane incident, and Barack Obama in a series of dangerous encounters in the South China and Yellow Seas beginning March 2009.
And to make matters even more dangerous, Beijing feels now is the time to pounce. “The Chinese like that Trump talks about America growing inward,” Paul Haenle of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, in Beijing, told Time. “Trump says we need to pull back. All that sounds great to the Chinese.”
The Chinese, we know, want a lot. They want the U.S. out of Asia, they want other nations to acknowledge Chinese supremacy, they want to control peripheral seas, and they want to take territory in an arc from India along their southern border to South Korea to their northeast.
Now both Beijing and Moscow see historic opportunities to redraw their boundaries outward because they think Trump, abandoning alliances and friends, might withdraw from the areas they demand for themselves.
Yet even if his intention is to reduce American commitments in such a dramatic fashion—Beijing and Moscow could easily be misreading him—it will be hard for him actually to do that.
Two great oceans did not protect America in the 1940s, and they are unlikely to do so now, in a far more globalized and interconnected age. Trump, and the American public, will soon realize the American alliance system not only obligates America but protects it as well by keeping adversaries far from its borders.
And these adversaries will not stop until they are stopped. In fact, both China and Russia, after successes this decade, have ambitions that are expanding fast.
The U.S., therefore, could find itself facing the Chinese and Russian states intending to test—and humble—the America of new President Trump. So whatever he thinks now, the new American leader is going to need friends and allies soon.