Don’t underestimate Trump’s foreign policy
‘Linkage” was a term introduced to American diplomacy by Henry Kissinger at the outset of the Nixon administration. Linkage, Kissinger wrote in his memoir, “White House Years,” could be an explicit gambit — for example, making “progress in settling the Vietnam War . . . a condition for advance in areas of interest to the Soviets, such as the Middle East, trade, or arms limitation.” But linkage was also an implicit reality in an increasingly interdependent world.
Few commentators on international relations would credit Donald Trump with such sophistication. When we think of the current president, the word “links” tends to conjure up golf courses rather than grand strategy. And yet the Trump administration’s foreign policy is too frequently underestimated. Linkage is central to it.
Consider the following linked issues. First, there is Trump’s use of tariffs to force China to change its behavior with respect to trade. Second, there is the related “tech war,” which is being waged not only against the Chinese company Huawei but more generally in the area of artificial intelligence. Third, there is Washington’s effort to alter the balance of power in the Middle East to the disadvantage of Iran — an effort that very nearly led to a retaliatory air strike on Thursday night after the Iranians shot down a US drone.
Finally, there is the president’s desire to keep the American economy growing, which explains his renewed pressure on the Federal Reserve and especially its chair, Jerome Powell. Investors probably ought to be more worried about the US-China trade war, and the danger of war with Iran, than they are. But as long as the Fed looks like it will give Trump the rate cuts he wants, markets will remain exuberant, consumers will stay confident, and the 2020 reelection campaign will stay on track.
A recent visit to Washington taught me two things about the new linkage that I had not fully understood before. First, the administration as a whole wants to ramp up the pressure on President Xi Jinping. On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence was due to deliver another major speech on China. The one he gave at the Hudson Institute last October focused on the geopolitical rationale for a tougher American stance. According to sources close to Pence, this new speech was to come at Beijing from a different angle, focusing on the Chinese government’s mistreatment of political dissidents and religious minorities, both Muslim and Christian.
This would have upped the ante at a time when Beijing is reeling from the vast show of people power in Hong Kong that forced the suspension of a law to facilitate extradition to the mainland.
As he loves to do, the president has teased both Beijing and Wall Street by promising “an extended meeting” with Xi at the G20 in Osaka. On Friday, he postponed Pence’s speech. I suppose Trump might, on a whim, agree to a trade deal over dinner. But that would run counter to all the other moves his administration has been making. With the Fed poised to cut rates next month, and the stock market at new highs, Trump has no incentive to let Xi off the hook. Better to save the trade deal for election year.
The other thing I now understand better is the administration’s Middle East strategy. As Trump revealed when he canceled Thursday night’s planned air strikes, he is not itching for war. His goal is to maintain the pressure on — and the isolation of — Tehran for diplomatic reasons.
No journalist I know takes seriously Jared Kushner’s Middle East peace initiative, the first part of which will be unveiled at a conference in Bahrain next week. “Dead before arrival” is the conventional wisdom. But I take a contrarian view.
When you reflect on the changes in the region since his father-in-law’s inauguration, two things leap out at you. The first is that Israel is no longer beleaguered, surrounded by foes. It has become part of an American-led Arab-Israeli coalition against Iran. The second is that the Palestinians, whose status as victims was once so useful to both Arab nationalists and Islamists, have been marginalized.
Previous peace initiatives put the big constitutional and territorial questions first. Big, but insoluble. Kushner’s goal is to begin with the small matter of money, which in reality is not so small. Large-scale investment in the West Bank and Gaza, funded in part by the oil-rich Gulf states, stands a chance of weaning at least some Palestinians away from Hamas. The lesson of the Arab revolutions was that there is a constituency of small-business owners who are as sick of the rackets run by terrorists as they are of the extortions of corrupt governments.
The unforeseen hitch has been the failure of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to form a new coalition, which is sending his country back to the polls in distant September. That is bound to weaken the linkage from economic opportunities to political concessions.
“Linkage . . . is not a natural concept for Americans,” Kissinger admitted in his memoir. “Our bureaucratic organizations . . . compound the tendency to compartmentalize.” But Trump’s contempt for the bureaucratic mindset means that linkage comes quite naturally to him.
Still, let’s not get carried away. Linkage can backfire if a single failure causes a chain reaction. Linkage also needs allies to play their part — and right now the Europeans would prefer to be nonaligned in the tech war, neutral in the trade war, and signed up to the old Iran nuclear deal.
No matter how ingenious, linkage may not compensate for the effect of Trump’s wrecking-ball style on American influence around the world, which can best be summed up in a single world: shrinkage.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.