US President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming cabinet now includes retired generals, plutocrats, and people who would abolish the very departments they will lead. But it is still unclear how Trump will actually govern, which has become a source of growing anxiety for the rest of the world.
WINCHESTER – Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once quipped that triumphant politicians tend to “campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” Donald J. Trump’s campaign rhetoric was hardly poetic, and the transition to his presidency suggests that he will govern the United States not in prose, but in tweets.
Beyond Twitter, Trump’s cabinet nominations also enable us to discern what his presidency will look like. So far, he has selected an unprecedented mix of retired generals and superrich political arrivistes: General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense; General John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security; Steven Mnuchin, formerly of Goldman Sachs, as Secretary of the Treasury; Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor, as Secretary of Commerce; Betsy DeVos, a billionaire heiress, as Secretary of Education; and Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, as Secretary of State.
That is not a cast of characters that will glide through the Senate confirmation process unscathed. Democrats are already sharpening their knives, and the narrow Republican majority includes powerful critics of Trump, such as South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Arizona’s John McCain – a former prisoner of war whom Trump belittled during the campaign.
Meanwhile, General Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, needs no Senate confirmation, but will nonetheless continue to draw criticism, not least for his outspoken antipathy to Islam generally, and to “radical Islam” in particular. Flynn once called Islam a “cancer,” and tweeted that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” During Trump’s campaign rallies, Flynn denounced Hillary Clinton for using a private email server, and led chants of “lock her up.” And yet, while serving in Afghanistan, he was sanctioned for sharing information about CIA operations with unauthorized non-US citizens.
Trump’s campaign and transition have made informed analysis of his incipient administration all the more important, and Project Syndicate’s commentators have been assessing what a US president who has promised to be “unpredictable” will mean for Americans, and for the world. By and large, their doubts and unease have only deepened in recent weeks.
So far, the biggest controversy in the run-up to Inauguration Day concerns the Trump team’s links to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. As ExxonMobil’s CEO, Tillerson negotiated that company’s vast investments in Russia, and was awarded Russia’s “Order of Friendship” in 2013; and, last year, Flynn gave a paid speech and dined with Putin at an event hosted by RT, a Kremlin-controlled media outlet that emerged as one of the main sources of fake news during the recent US election cycle. Moreover, Trump has scorned US intelligence agencies’ conclusion – now more categorical than ever – that Russia conducted cyber operations to influence the election’s outcome in his favor. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Trump’s transition team responded.
Nina Khrushcheva – a great-granddaughter to Nikita Khrushchev, who as Soviet leader transferred Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 – does not mince words about Trump’s apparent Russophilia. She recalls the classic Cold War-era film The Manchurian Candidate, about a Soviet plot to take control of the US political system. “Given the fondness that Trump and so many of his appointees seem to have for Russian President Vladimir Putin,” she says, “life may be about to imitate – if not exceed – art.”
For Khrushcheva, Trump’s rejection of CIA intelligence about Russian hacking is particularly disconcerting: “The idea that a US president-elect would take the word of the Kremlin over that of CIA officials and even the most senior members of his own party is already bizarre and dangerous.” And “the simultaneous nomination of Tillerson,” she argues, “takes this love affair with a major adversary to a level unprecedented in US history.”
Many other Project Syndicate commentators are equally pessimistic about how Trump will reorient American policy with respect to Russia. Sławomir Sierakowski, the founder of Poland’s Krytyka Polityczna movement, and Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw, predicts that, as Trump embraces Putin, Western influence and soft power will wane, and Eastern European countries “will have no alternative” but to “deepen their economic and diplomatic ties with Russia.”
Similarly, given Trump’s criticism of America’s “senseless wars in the Middle East,” and his promise to put “America first,” Joschka Fischer, a former German foreign minister, foresees “the end of what was heretofore termed the ‘West.’” As the US turns inward, it “will remain the world’s most powerful country by a wide margin,” Fischer acknowledges. “But it will no longer guarantee Western countries’ security or defend an international order based on free trade and globalization.”
Predicting the Unpredictable
Of course, as former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt notes, the only thing we can know for sure is that, “Trump’s foreign-policy strategy is based on remaining unpredictable.” In this respect, Trump seems to have something in common with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Since his surprise victory on November 8, Trump has backpedaled or completely reversed many of his campaign positions. The Mexican border wall that featured so heavily in his campaign will now be “a fence”; Hillary Clinton will no longer be targeted for special prosecution; climate change, once a Chinese “hoax,” may have some “connectivity” with human behavior after all; torturing suspected terrorists may not be helpful; and so on.
In fact, Trump’s views on these and countless other issues remain shrouded in uncertainty. But one exception seems to be his economic policy: markets remain confident that Trump will follow through on his promise to rebuild crumbling infrastructure and cut corporate taxes. And by appointing Ross and Mnuchin to his cabinet, Trump has given America’s moguls something to cheer about – at least in the short term.
But does anyone else have reason to be hopeful? Fischer, for one, does not think so. “The only remaining questions now concern how quickly US policy will change,” he says, “and how radical those changes will be.” Based on Trump’s campaign, those changes could include imposing tariffs against China, tearing up the North American Free Trade Agreement, abandoning US commitments to collective defense under NATO, and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement. And Trump’s appointments – particularly of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who rejects climate science, to head the US Environmental Protection Agency – suggest that he could follow through on at least some of his disturbing campaign pledges.
Indeed, while it is tempting to assume that pragmatism and inertia will keep the pre-Trump global order intact, we should not succumb to wishful thinking. It does not bode well that Trump’s first post-election phone call with a foreign leader was not with a traditional ally, but with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s post-Arab Spring military dictator. Meanwhile, by speaking with almost a dozen other world leaders before getting to British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump seems to have already dispensed with the transatlantic “special relationship” that British prime ministers have long held dear.
Even more alarmingly, Trump ignored – or may have been ignorant of – America’s decades-old “One China” policy when he spoke with Taiwan’s independence-minded president, Tsai Ing-wen. Faced with widespread criticism and a furious Chinese government, Trump tweeted, “Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” As Bildt points out, the Taiwan imbroglio, and Trump’s stream of provocative tweets in response, indicates that the incoming administration “might subject even the most fundamental aspects of US foreign policy to renegotiation and new ‘deals.’”
Bark or Bite?
Bildt, like many Project Syndicate commentators, fears what will happen if Trump does scrap the Iran nuclear deal and reneges on American commitments under the Paris climate agreement. “These are two of the international community’s only significant diplomatic achievements in recent years,” he writes. “The consequences of a US retreat from them are anyone’s guess. In any case, global stability will certainly suffer.”
Christopher Hill, a former US ambassador to Iraq, agrees that abrogating the Iran accord would only worsen matters. “Iran may not offer much in the way of solutions,” he acknowledges, “but, if the US abandoned the nuclear deal, the country could easily exacerbate the region’s turmoil.” And as Bildt, writing from Saudi Arabia, observes, “now that unpredictability is the order of the day, and a collective ‘me first’ outlook has taken hold,” there is a clear “possibility that turmoil could go global.”
Hill is surely right about the Iran deal, and the Trump administration will soon learn that any efforts to torpedo it will be resisted by the other parties to the agreement – Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany. As it happens, some potential cabinet members already seem to realize this. Mattis – despite his “Mad Dog” moniker and deep animosity toward Iran – has already acknowledged that it would be a mistake to go back on the Iran accord. Tillerson seems to share this view, and is undoubtedly aware that Iran is now entering into deals that will make its petroleum reserves available to American competitors such as France’s Total, Norway’s DNO, and Shell (an Anglo-Dutch company).
Trump’s anti-trade, anti-NATO rhetoric suggests that the US is heading toward isolationism. But, as Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye argues, “technology is promoting ecological, political, and social globalization in the form of climate change, transnational terrorism, and migration – whether Trump likes it or not.” Thus, Nye concludes, “World order is more than just economics, and the United States remains central to it.”
Nye makes an important point: domestic political forces within the US – such as the powerful pro-Israel lobby – will prevent it from abandoning global engagement. Similarly, Nye points out that America’s best option for managing “China’s global rise” will not change, just because the occupant of the White House does. The new administration will have no good reason to abandon the current “integrate but insure” strategy, “under which the US invited China to join the liberal world order, while reaffirming its security treaty with Japan.”
On Russia, Nye believes Trump could end up being a pragmatist, but only if he can “resist Putin’s game-changing challenge to the post-1945 liberal order’s prohibition on the use of force by states to seize territory from their neighbors.” Nye points out that, because Russia still has “a nuclear arsenal sufficient to destroy the US,” it cannot simply be ignored; and he thinks that Trump “is correct to avoid the complete isolation of a country with which the US has overlapping interests when it comes to nuclear security, non-proliferation, anti-terrorism, the Arctic, and regional issues like Iran and Afghanistan.”
But Trump’s victory did not occur in isolation, and Danny Quah and Kishore Mahbubani, both from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, suggest that the connection between his election and the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum in June reflects the diminution of America’s ability to pursue a global strategy. Income inequality – however real – is an inadequate explanation for these political upheavals, they argue. The real issue is geopolitical change: “The power of the transatlantic axis that used to run the world is slipping away, and the sense of losing control is being felt by these countries’ political elites and ordinary citizens alike.”
Although this explanation can’t fully account for the rise of populism elsewhere, it has the ring of truth: the Brexiteers’ simple but powerful slogan was “Take Back Control,” and Trump’s was to “Make America Great Again.” For many supporters of these campaigns, Quah and Mahbubani show, the issue was “not anger at being excluded from the benefits of globalization, but rather a shared sense of unease that they no longer control their own destinies.” Of course, economic and political realities will eventually disappoint the voters who identified with these slogans, and one of the biggest questions over the next four years will be whether the popular anger that Trump fomented – or the Republican Party establishment that he humiliated during the campaign – will turn against him.
Elizabeth Drew, who has chronicled the US political scene for decades, thinks this is a real possibility, not least because Trump’s appointments so far seem to be entirely at odds with his populist campaign, which promised to improve conditions for the working class. Drew points out that DeVos’s education-policy track record is limited to “a disastrous effort to privatize Michigan’s schools,” and Trump’s choice to head the Department of Labor, Andy Puzder, “is a fast-food chain owner who opposes raising the minimum wage to livable levels or expanding overtime pay; indeed, his company has run afoul of overtime laws.”
The US electorate will only become more diverse in the years to come; and yet, Drew observes, “Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, cares little for civil-rights laws or immigration.” And, like Pruitt, who has close ties with the fossil-fuel industry and has been suing the agency he will lead, Trump’s pick to head the Department of Energy, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, vowed during the Republican primary (he crashed out early) to abolish the department.
Given the poor qualifications of Trump’s proposed cabinet, Drew believes that his nominees will receive “a tough grilling” in the Senate confirmation process, with the Democrats “potentially defeating one or two.” But, as she rightly points out, the Republicans will be the deciding factor, with many already pushing back against “Trump’s threats to start trade wars.” And trade isn’t the only issue dividing Republicans. Graham, for example, has conditioned his support for Tillerson on the nominee’s acknowledge of Russia’s interference in the election. Trump may rail against establishment Republicans, but Drew suggests that browbeating won’t work. “If he pushes them too far,” she concludes, “Trump may be a general with few troops.”
With Friends Like These…
But Trump won’t need congressional troops to upend the international order, given the wide latitude the US Constitution gives to the president to formulate and implement foreign policy. And that is a growing cause of concern for many non-Americans. As Fischer points out, the geopolitical “West was founded on an American commitment to come to its allies’ defense,” and it “cannot exist without the US playing this crucial role, which it may now abnegate under Trump.”
Fischer echoes the concern that Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, bluntly expressed shortly after the election: “American guarantees are no longer reliable.” Beyond expressing skepticism about international agreements and the NATO alliance, Trump has “encouraged Japan and South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons.” And, Leonard laments, “In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Trump has made it clear that America will no longer play the role of policeman; instead, it will be a private security company open for hire.”
But not all regions will be affected equally by Trump’s presidency, and Sierakowski worries that the “biggest loser” will be “the EU, which is internally conflicted and unable to address economic, demographic, and refugee crises.” Sierakowski thinks that the EU will now have to move toward “something resembling the Concert of Europe, which stabilized the continent between 1815 and World War I.”
A new “Concert of Europe” may seem both unlikely and unnecessary, given that there are other multilateral institutions – such as the United Nations, NATO, and the World Trade Organization – to keep the world more or less on an even keel. “Beyond being the indispensable power, the US is the interconnected power, “ Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister, rightly notes. “It is the hub of the linkages holding the world together, from the dollar to security to law to research and innovation.” Whatever damage Trump inflicts on “the rules-based international order,” she warns, “would pale in comparison to the harm wrought by a truly isolationist and withdrawn US that fails to uphold these bonds.”
One can certainly hope that, as Nye suspects, the forces of globalization will limit Trump’s capacity to act unilaterally on the world stage. But no scenario can be ruled out. Clinton would have entered the Oval Office as a known quantity whose ability to manage the institutional machinery of the status quo was never in doubt; indeed, the electorate’s familiarity with her may be the most important reason why so many rejected her. By contrast, Trump is a novelty: oddly coifed real-estate billionaire and reality-TV star who has refused to dispel concerns about potential conflicts of interest, including in his relations with foreign governments, by divesting from his business or releasing his tax records.
Bildt worries that the geopolitical risks posed by cronyism are exacerbated by Trump’s callow indifference to the norms that for decades have enabled the world to ensure that “even unexpected events” can be contained. Trump’s presidency will thus heighten “the possibility that turmoil could go global,” Bildt says. “One should not exaggerate the risk of things spiraling out of control,” he admonishes, “but it is undeniable that the next crisis could be far larger than what we are used to, if only because it would be less manageable.”
It is too soon to panic. But growing anxiety about what Trump will do is not irrational. As Bildt puts it, “while it is not time to head for the bunkers, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have one nearby.”