Jan 4th 2017

Trump’s Unrealpolitik


NEW YORK – Some in the United States have praised President-elect Donald Trump for his supposed realism. He will do what is right for America, they argue, without getting caught up in thorny moral dilemmas, or letting himself be carried away by some grand sense of responsibility for the rest of the world. By acting with the shrewd pragmatism of a businessman, he will make America stronger and more prosperous.

This view is, to be frank, delusional.

It is certainly true that Trump will not be caught up in questions of morality. He is precisely what the Greek historian Thucydides defined as an immoral leader: one of “violent character” who “wins over the people by deceiving them” and by exploiting “their angry feelings and emotions.”

But immorality is neither desirable nor a necessary feature of realism. (Thucydides himself was an ethical realist.) And there is little to suggest that Trump has any of the other realist qualities that his supporters see. How could anyone expect the proudly unpredictable and deeply uninformed Trump to execute grand strategic designs, such as the Realpolitik recommended by Harvard’s Niall Ferguson, Henry Kissinger’s biographer, following the election?

Ferguson, like Kissinger, believes that true Realpolitik under Trump should begin with an alliance among the US, China, and Russia, based on a mutual fear of Islamic extremism and a shared desire to exploit lesser powers to boost their own economies. These countries would agree to prevent Europe from attaining great-power status (by destroying the European Union), and to ensure that populist or authoritarian governments control the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members.

To this end, Trump could work with Russian President Vladimir Putin to help Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s anti-EU nationalist right, win April’s presidential election. Moreover, in order to consolidate a post-EU Anglo-Atlantic sphere, Trump could transform the North American Free-Trade Agreement into a North Atlantic arrangement, replacing Mexico with the United Kingdom. Finally, he could put pressure on NATO members to pay more for defense – a move that would surely undermine the security of the Baltic states and Ukraine.

Achieving these goals would require more than an ability to avoid moral impediments. Like all statecraft, it would require an aptitude for careful diplomatic engineering, respect for facts and truth, historical knowledge, and a capacity for cautious examination of complex situations when formulating (or revising) policies.

Yet Trump is the most anarchic, capricious, and inconsistent individual ever to occupy the White House, and all he has to help guide him is a cabinet full of billionaire deal-makers like him, preoccupied with calculable immediate interests. For them, casting off allies might seem like an easy way to streamline decision-making (and boost share prices).

But repudiating America’s role as a global beacon – and thus the idea of American exceptionalism – is a bad bet for the future. Scrapping free-trade deals with Asia and Latin America, for example, could provide a short-term gain for the US economy; but doing so would ultimately undercut the projection of American power there, paving the way for penetration by China.

The US should be aiming to curtail China’s influence without incurring its wrath. Another lesson from Thucydides – reinforced by historical experience – is that rising, not established, powers tend to upset the international order.

Protecting that order requires the main global power to uphold the institutions that underpin it, in order to prevent revolutionary behavior by lesser powers. Yet Trump has criticized and disregarded international institutions to such an extent that it is now China that is defending global governance – including the Paris agreement on climate change and the nuclear deal with Iran – from a revolutionary US.

Worse, Trump has seemingly abandoned all caution with regard to China. On the diplomatic front, by speaking directly with the president of Taiwan after the election, he violated a protocol maintained for four decades, by Democratic and Republican presidents alike. On the economic front, he has leveled reckless (and plainly wrong) accusations that China is manipulating its currency to gain an unfair trade advantage.

Provoking China, doubting NATO, and threatening trade wars is nihilism, not strategy. At this point, Trump seems set to do on a global scale what former President George W. Bush did to the Middle East – intentionally destabilize the old order, and then fail to create a new one. The first step would be a deal with Putin on Syria – a move that, like Bush’s defeat of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, would amount to handing a victory to Iran.

This is not to say that none of the Realpolitik envisioned by Ferguson will come to fruition. But what elements of it do emerge will likely be driven more by Putin than by Trump – with dangerous outcomes. Already, Putin has begun work on dismantling the EU. After Le Pen was refused credit from French banks, Russian banks saved her campaign. And Russian state-sponsored propaganda is helping to drive former Soviet republics away from the EU.

Trump, a vocal Putin fan, is unlikely to redress the tilting balance of power as part of, let alone as a condition for, a diplomatic “reset” with Russia. What kind of a realist would not use a united Western alliance to limit a Russia that is trying to engineer a return to Cold War spheres of influence?

And, for that matter, what kind of a realist sends to Israel an ambassador whose pro-settlement rhetoric threatens to inflame the entire Muslim world against the US? What is so realistic about a war of annihilation against the Islamic State that is not backed by a plan for engagement with the broader Middle East?

Trump might have some realistic instincts. But they will not be enough to ensure measured responses to even the slightest provocation, much less to underpin a sweeping and consistent strategy.


Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "
Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, if cornered, any populist might resort to Trump’s endgame methods: trying to coerce elites into committing fraud to prevent a transfer of power, or deploying right-wing extremists on the ground to intimidate lawmakers. These desperate acts signaled Trump’s weakness. But it is important to note that most Republicans still did not disown Trump even when confronted with his blatant lawlessness on January 6. ... Other right-wing populists may well take notice of this fact. The recent events in the United States have shown that elites who are prepared to collaborate with authoritarians will tolerate quite a lot in the end. This ignominious precedent is especially likely to hold true in other countries where crony capitalism has implicated the business community in illegal behavior."