Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Trump Foreign Policy: Change or Not?



For last few weeks, there has considerable discussion in the US about whether there’s change afoot in President Donald Trump’s nascent foreign policy—specifically, whether he’s bending and shifting his so-called “America First” foreign policy more in line with traditional Republican foreign policy values and interests. Those who believe this is the case point to a slew of recent events and statements emanating from the Trump White House: the US air strikes and bombings in Syria and Afghanistan, Trump's public support for NATO, his administration's criticism of Russia, and a palpable de-escalation of tensions with China. In total, these moves may signal a foreign policy direction for Team Trump. But is it? And what’s really going on here?

Below CWCP President Dr. Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman offer their takes on these topics.

Yohanes Sulaiman

Trying to describe and explain Trump's foreign policy is basically, in my view, trying to answer whether structure or agency is more important. With regards to structural analysis, one could make a strong argument that Trump's recent moves toward "mainstream" GOP foreign policy is basically a result of structural push-back. For instance, in trying to unilaterally punish China economically, he found out that China supposedly holds the cards that might allow him to solve North Korea problem. Similarly, he is moving against Russia because that's the only way for him to deal with Syria problem. As a result, he ends up moving to conventional/mainstream GOP position.

That said, the agency part here is also important: whichever part of the globe Trump is focused on is based on Trump’s whims. And we can actually also make a strong argument that Trump's cajoling China or throwing missiles at Syria is a part of bargaining, in the sense that Trump remains unpredictable, outside the mainstream GOP policy, but he capitalizes on it, thus making moves that catch his domestic and foreign opponents off guard. Assad most likely didn't expect Trump to attack him due to Trump's perceived closeness with Russia. Similarly with North Korea, by dangling the carrot of economic cooperation and the stick of retaliation, Trump might be able to pressure China to actually do something about North Korea. This negotiating stance, which to borrow Nixon's term, the Madman theory, would be outside the GOP's mainstream position.

Brad Nelson

That's an interesting take. But it assumes that Trump's foreign policy really has changed in concrete, significant ways. I look at it this way: I separate Trump's foreign policy goals from his and his staff's statements and the actions taken/implemented by Team Trump. Regarding the latter, sure, there has been considerable shifts and turns since January. Indeed, we seen changes on this front from Trump himself, on NATO, Russia, intervention in Syria, his willingness to use force more generally, and so on. And there's been public pivots and mixed signals within Team Trump. Most notably, it seems as if almost every comment by Nikki Haley is contradicted Trump and his spokesman Sean Spicer.

But all the statements and actions by the White House are done in the service of some foreign policy goal or goals. That's the point of them; they're put out there or implemented to achieve certain outcomes. And so, in my mind, the bigger issue is whether Trump's foreign policy goals have changed in the last three months. On this matter, I'm not so sure. And this is what some hardcore Trumpites are currently arguing, in response to the prevailing view that Trump is forming foreign policy in a random, ad hoc manner. They believe his goals haven't changed at all, and that Trump is flexible in pursuing these goals. In other words, the words and tools used by the US vis-a-vis various global problems and issues might vary over time, but the overarching foreign policy goals will remain mostly the same. Sure, there is a self-serving, partisan aspect to this argument, but it also has some merit.

I think of the 59 missiles recently launched on Syria as one example. American pundits, commentators and analysts were breathlessly quick to proclaim this act a decisive shift in US foreign policy. After all, he campaigned on keeping the US out of needless foreign wars, especially the one in Syria, even going so far as to signal that he'd be willing to delegate the issue to Russia to solve. But additionally, US intervention in Syria up to that point had been solely directed against AQ and ISIS members and activities. So, in their view, the attack on Assad was something new and different--and also something good. This crowd loudly cheered the attack, seeing it as a just and proper punishment for Assad's use of chemical weapons, and something that was long overdue, since Obama walked back his infamous red line years ago.

Meantime, Trump did suffer a temporary blowback from a part of his base as a result of the attack on Syria. These folks started to worry that he'd betrayed them. Was he becoming a normalized GOPer? Were establishment GOPers getting the upper hand over Trump in their battle with outsiders like Steve Bannon? And where was the restrained foreign policy they voted for? Bombing Syria isn't American First, is it?

But in the end, much of this is massive hyperbole. A one-off, limited attack on Syria does not portend deeper US involvement in the war. And since the attack, US defense officials have declared that there aren't further plans to attack/oust Assad. Moreover, there's reason to wonder whether the attack was done solely with Assad in mind. At the time of the bombing, he was meeting with Xi Jinping at Trump's "Southern White House" in Florida, and so it's possible the timing of the attack purposeful: yes, to punish Assad, but also to send a signal to Xi that he's not a pushover, that he's a strong, decisive leader. Of course, there are other possible audiences as well. The North Korea problem has seemingly loomed larger over the last three months, with the Kim cabal and Trump and his staff publicly sparring. It's very possible that Trump hoped the Syria bombing got Kim's attention, serving notice that Kim ought not to test Trump. And lastly, because of a host of scandals and investigations, Trump has been battling low approval polls since the inauguration. It would not be a surprise if the hyper-sensitive Trump thought that bombing Assad would add a distraction into the news cycle and offer a brief rally around the flag effect for his benefit.

But let's get back to the discussion of Trump's foreign policy goals. It seems evident that Trump's main foreign policy goals center around a handful of projects: (1) improving relations with Russia and China, (2) combating terrorism, (3) reducing the threat of North Korea, and (4) bringing more, better jobs back to the US. Does anything that Team Trump has said or done over the last month or so undermine these goals? Not really, right? I mean, I'm not seeing much change on those fronts. The #MOAB was just dropped on ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan; more anti-terrorism troops have been sent to Syria; Trump's already vetoed the TPP, may open up NAFTA, and extracted some Chinese investments while Xi was in town. And Trump hasn’t backed off the notion that better US-Russia ties are a desirable goal.

Oh sure, some will point to the White House's more stringent comments on Russia's actions in Syria, in addition to Trump's statement that US-Russian relations are at a low point, as evidence that big policy changes are in the works. Perhaps, though I'm skeptical. With the hubbub surrounding Team Trump's possible collusion with Russia to win the election, Trump has an incentive to publicly distance himself from Russia. It's one of the paradoxical outcomes we may find going forward: while Trump campaigned on having good ties to Russia, and he may still want the US to have better ties with Russia, the election shenanigans and the subsequent investigations may well force him to pump the brakes on improving ties to Moscow and giving Russia the concessions it desires (lifting of sanctions, reduced support for NATO, etc.). But before we declare Trump's proposed outreach to Russia completely dead, we need more information. In particular, I'd like to know what what's being said behind the scenes: just because public rhetoric on Russia may be heating up a tad from Team Trump, that doesn't necessarily mean that's what's being communicated to Russia privately, away from the public's eyes and ears.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Trump and Russia


Picture credit: CNN

Reports on the connections between Trump/the people in his orbit and Russia continue to dog the White House. This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s made little attempt to publicly, exhaustively clarify his relationship with Russia; instead, he’s opted to dismiss reports as a “witch hunt.” But is it?

President Trump has traveled extensively to Russia, at a minimum, for his beauty pageants. In the past, he’s bragged about meeting and having a good relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin, something he now denies. Trump’s sons have stated that the Russian market is vital to the growth of the Trump organization, even going so far as to say that “money is pouring in from Russia.” And, as we know, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is his unprovoked and consistently flattering, obsequious remarks about Russia and Putin; Trump’s been more than willing to defend Russia, even if that means he has to criticize and demonize past US presidents, the US media, America’s intelligence community and military, including its generals, in the process. Moreover, some of Trump's stated foreign policy positions--such as his willingness to hand the Middle East to Russia, his tepid support for NATO, his disinterest in Russia's annexation of Crimea, and his inclination to water down if not weaken US sanctions on Moscow--buck longstanding US strategy and are right in line with Russian interests. Indeed, if there’s one consistency in Trump’s chaotic presidency, it’s his blatant Russophilia.

But the smoke surrounding Trump isn’t simply limited to him; it also hovers over a number of Trump consiglieres. Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, JD Gordon, Jeff Sessions, Roger Stone, and Michael Cohen, among others, have been identified as communicating with a host of Russian figures--including the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kiselyak, close associates of Putin, Russian intelligence officers, and even Russian hackers--prior to Trump taking office this January. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, so far, hasn’t been pinpointed in any nefarious activities with Russia, has deep, friendly ties to Russia as former CEO of ExxonMobil. Indeed, in 2013, Tillerson was awarded the Order of Freedom—Russia’s highest honor for a foreign citizen--personally by Putin.

The links between folks on each side of the Washington-Moscow axis are said to possibly involve such things as business affairs, banking ties, diplomatic discussions, and, of course, the 2016 presidential election. At bottom, then, the manifold linkages and communications binding both sides together seem quite diverse and extensive.

Certainly, all of this begs a host of questions. Most notably, why do so many of Trump advisers, cabinet members, and surrogates have connections to Russia? Why have they repeatedly lied about or hid their ties to Russia? Why is Trump ostensibly a sycophant for Russia and its president? In short, what the heck is going on here?

Benign Events

Maybe the contacts and meetings with Russian figures were mostly innocent. For instance, it’s plausible that they were part of the normal prep for a future Trump administration. After all, that is what incoming administrations do with foreign nations and their diplomats: develop contacts, hold discussions, and get a feel of all of the involved parties. It’s also plausible that the Trump administration’s coziness with Russia is part of a larger strategic plan to woo Moscow for America’s interests. By developing good relations with Russia, so goes the logic, the US might be able to delegate the Syria problem to Moscow, gain a powerful anti-terrorism partner, and seduce a vital state to balance against a continued rising/aggressive China. If either or both are true, I can see how Team Trump could believe it has a political incentive to downplay, perhaps even mislead or lie, about its interactions and engagements with Russia, given the US domestic climate surrounding the Russian hacks and attempts to hijack the election. But if so, it’s gamble the team has made, and probably not a good one. For they’ve now manufactured a bad situation—a cover-up and resultant investigations and a dubious American public—to paper over eye-raising but mostly legal actions and maneuvers. Trump would have been far, far better off simply releasing his taxes and comprehensively detailing and explaining his and his team's relationship to Russia.

Nefarious Schemes 

But maybe Trump and his staff aren’t so innocent. Perhaps all the smoke surrounding the Trump administration is evidence of a truly 5-five alarm fire brewing inside the White House. The big fear among many Americans is that Trump and his staff are deliberately concealing and prevaricating about their interactions with Russia because they have something to hide—that they or Trump himself have done something illegal or something that would provoke widespread outrage in the US.

Yes, the major worry is that they’ve colluded with Russia to damage Hillary Clinton and boost Trump’s chances at winning the presidential election. In other words, Trump is a real life Manchurian Candidate, a foreign stooge swept into power by Moscow, ready and willing to do its bidding. This a conspiratorial view of Trump, to be sure, yet not particularly far-fetched, alas. Given what I’ve already written above about Trump and his staff, plus his public calls during the campaign season exhorting Russia and Wikileaks to damage the Clinton machine, all added on top of his narcissistic personality quirks, a treasonous act is something that just shouldn’t be dismissed.

But even if Trump’s not quite a foreign stooge, not entirely willing to embrace and implement Russian-favored policies and worldviews, there’s still the grave concern about his role in subverting America’s democracy. We already know that the election wasn’t exactly free and fair, given the Russia-Wikileaks collaboration, and that Clinton was likely, though not definitively, cheated out of winning the presidency. That in itself has tarnished the veneer of American democracy: we have to face the fact that foreign powers can manipulate and distort US elections. But if Trump directly or indirectly played a role in stealing the win, that’s something completely different. It’s an internal subversion of the main prized American democratic institution. And if this is the case, how can Americans trust that future candidates won’t act and behave similarly to Trump, willing to ignore and flout US norms and rules and laws? And if they can’t, the very fabric of democracy would be in jeopardy.

Another concern is that Trump has been compromised by Russian intelligence—whether because Trump has business interests and ties to shady Russian kleptocrats and mobsters, his purported lascivious activities, or something altogether different. Here, the logic, as you’d expect, is that Trump has placed himself in a position in which he has to cater to Putin’s policy interests and goals or risk being publicly exposed by a vengeful, savvy Putin. There’s long been unsubstantiated whispers about Trump’s willingness to do business with anyone or anything, no matter if laws are flouted or corruption is the coin of the game—and the recent reports of his business dealings with Azerbaijan, which may also involve Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, only adds credibility to the perception that Trump is more than willing to traffic in murky, dirty waters. Moreover, the 35 page “dossier,” compiled by a former British intelligence officer, outlining Trump’s nighttime activities with Russian prostitutes, has breathed even more life into the idea that Russian officials have substantial Kompromat on him.

If any of this is true, it would be a scandal of epic, unprecedented proportions in US political history. It would make former disgraced US President Richard Nixon seem merely paranoid and inept, hardly a big-time criminal. After all, Nixon’s misdeeds were a bungled attempt to glean information about the Democrats heading into the 1972 presidential election, an election that Nixon won overwhelmingly: he won the popular vote by roughly 18 million and won the electoral vote of 49 of 50 states. In the case of Trump, however, if he and his crew really collaborated with the Russians to win the election—a narrow win, mind you—he aided and abetted a foreign enemy power to breach and subvert the sovereignty of the US. He would be a traitor, subject to all the laws and punishments specified by the American Constitution.

What's Next? 

Right now, the easy thing to say is that we need a blue ribbon independent commission to investigate the election, Trump and his cabal, and the Russian hack. Yes, this type of investigation would be wonderful, as it would be a marked improvement over the current Congressional investigations dominated by the Trump-led GOP. But don’t hold your breath on that happening anytime soon.

Why? Well, keep the following things in mind. First, about 30-35 percent of voting Americans are solidly with Trump, with a smaller base of hardcore supporters willing to ride with Trump until the end. Congressional Republicans, especially those in red states, know this, which makes them hesitant to move strongly against Trump. Second, power dynamics are on Trump’s side. Look, the GOP dominates the House and Senate, which insulates Trump from the type of scrutiny he’d face if he was a Democratic president. Third, Barack Obama has been called the first social media president, but that’s not really true. Donald trump is, and he wields his Twitter and Facebook accounts to his advantage: he has already successfully created his own powerful political narrative, free of filters, which he propagates to millions of people (26+ million on Twitter, 21+ million on Facebook). He paints himself as the champion of the “little guy/gal,” an unfair victim of the “liberal media” and the "deep state," a can-do president with a mandate for real, substantial change, unlike the usual “all-talk” politician. But beyond this, social media have enabled Trump to form a personal connection to his followers, tightening his bond with them, which is an extremely useful political tool for Trump. Fourth, Trump employs an army of public relations folks, like Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who hold press conferences and make television appearances to spin Trump’s tweets and public statements for popular consumption. Fifth, Trump is aided by conservative and alt-right echo chambers that includes Fox News, Breitbart, and Infowars, among others. These outlets shout and scream Trump’s narrative (as put forth by Trump himself and spun by his PR professionals), entrenching it, allowing Trump’s base to wallow in their love for all things Trump and to share in their dislike for Trump’s domestic opponents.

So what we have, then, is a neat, tight feedback loop connecting Trump, his staff, Congressional GOPers, the various Trump media arms, and Trump’s base. All parts of this loop are highly motivated, ready to defend Trump and push back against any and all criminal and salacious allegations, obstructing the search for truth. So should we despair that illegal acts by Team Trump might go overlooked? Not exactly. 

Overall, it's a good thing that liberal activists are mobilized, organizing themselves, taking to the streets, and calling their Representatives and Senators--all in the name of truth and justice. It might not seem like much, but Trump, an incessant cable tv-watcher, is aware of these happenings. In fact, they've likely added to the panic that rogue White House staffers report on social media. Liberals need to continue to demand the truth, preparing themselves for a protracted struggle, but do so using only civil, non-violent means. It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said that violence only delegitimizes liberals and their causes and shifts the national discussion from the serious questions about the Trump administration to the extremism of anti-Trump activists. I also recommend that liberal activists begin the process of building formal bridges to independents and moderate/centrist Republicans, so as to ensure that getting to the bottom of #Russiagate isn't strictly a partisan endeavor. 

Additionally, we need journalists to continue to do the deep-digging research and reporting on the Trump and Russia affair. Perhaps these efforts, if more unsavory details are uncovered, will put enough pressure on Trump’s base, especially those who sit outside the hardcore supporters, to recognize that maybe Trump isn’t who they thought he was, which would give some GOPers the green light to move on Trump, if necessary. Or perhaps new information would give Republicans the requisite ammunition to convince a sizable chunk of Trump’s base that more stringent moves against Trump are the right thing to do.