Trump’s Unrealpolitik


January 7, 2017

Trump’s Unrealpolitik

by 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.–http://www.project-syndicate.org

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.

Image result for Greek historian Thucydides

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?

Image result for Harvard’s Niall Ferguson on Realpolitik Quote

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.

Image result for trump le pen putin

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.

Image result for China the Power in Asia

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.

11 thoughts on “Trump’s Unrealpolitik

  1. “The US should be aiming to curtail China’s influence without incurring its wrath”.
    My God, is that the author’s goal in life? Or for that matter, it that the USA and the Western bloke’s goal in life?
    Containing China’s influence is the main aim.
    What is the obsession about? It has been there since the start of the Opium War from 1839.
    Manufacturing events to start an “opium war” is the name of the game ever since!

  2. In admitting the intelligence agencies were right on the facts about hacking, Trump shows he will be be stopped by reality although it shows nothing stops his self marketing and promotion. What it really means is that Trump is really much of an entrepreneur and actually not much of a deal maker. He is strength is the bully pulpit, promotion and opportunism. It means most of his original ideas such as the wall, trade war, even infrastructure likely will mostly not get done. He will cut taxes, if he remove Obamacare, the replacement will be worst, he will privatise and deregulate – meaning a very cookie cutter Reagan Republican. All the big fears and optimism are unfounded.

  3. The author questions “what kind of a realist” Trump is. The answer is nobody knows. I don’t believe Trump has a clue what realism is.

    Those who believe in Trump’s ability to understand the gains of realpolitik are injudicious. He is the most anarchic, capricious, and inconsistent individual who simply doesn’t have what it takes to be a good president. Not only is he unfit for the job, he surrounds himself with dubious figures.

    Trump has no realism in him at all. A realist would know, as Trump never can, his own limitations. He will keep pushing until somebody pushes back, very hard. And then it will all fall to pieces as happened with Hitler. I’m still on the fence as to whether Trump is consciously studying and emulating Hitler’s governing style, or if it just comes naturally to him, as someone with the same base personality who will bring huge cost to everyone else.

  4. I would reckon Trump with the Sopranos, probably due to his long exposure to the NJ mafias he must have known quite well, considering his business dealings in casinos.

  5. “The US should be aiming to curtail China’s influence without incurring its wrath”.

    MrKok, what else would you expect from a secular political philosophy? Even deep in my theologically inspired political philosophy, the curtailment of each other’s influence is the most loving thing we could offer each other. That is the basis of our democratic, and liberal ideal.

    In my religion, recognizing we are flawed is the basis. For Malaysia’s case, I would even be willing to make the case that we have forgotten about the same idea, as we recite our Ruling Nagara. As such, we have given too much power to the Prime Minister’s office.

    I am a Chinese and an American, grew up in KL, who has no interest in seeing either countries do not do as well as they can. Yet, I see the statement as something that is beneficial to both Trump’s alt-right and Xi-core’s growing dictatorship.

  6. Let us take issue by issue. Security briefing. President elect is reported to have been not interested in daily briefings by the 17 intelligence organization on the grounds that they were repetitive. But did request his Vice President elect to handle it with the instructions that he will be available on a minute’s notice to listen if there was something urgent. There was an uproar and I do not have to go into the details of the tone of the MSM and other talking heads.

    Now Former Secretary Of State James Baker had a take that fovoured the President Elect,s position. That talking head who asked the question had no response to Baker’s remarks.

  7. Yeah, Dr. Phua, on Trump’s targeting of corporations to make them change their practices,
    billionaire bond manager Bill Gross told Bloomberg Radio: “Some of these preterm policies, where he’s cajoling companies to move production back into the United States — that’s fine — but it reminds me to some extent of policies in Italy long ago associated with Mussolini and government control of corporate interests,”

    Trump is going around to shame and humiliate corporations to bring jobs back to the US, threatening to slap heavy border tax on them. The most recent is with General Motors producing cars in Mexico for the Latin America’s market. What good is a border tax threat when the cars are to be sold outside of the US? Stupid asshole.

    I wonder how some people calling him a good business deal maker. All I see is that he is running frenziedly around blackmailing and making enemies. You call this a good deal maker? How many good businessman has six bankruptcies? How many good businessman has more than 4,000 lawsuits, either as a plaintiff or defendant, in everything from branding and contract disputes to defamation cases?

    Obviously he is going to pick a fight with China when he got into office. I dare bet with anyone now he is no match for Xi Jinping. Trump is a crazy barking dog. Xi is a strong-willed calculated quiet killer, much like Putin. Just wait to see how Xi and Putin shake and bake Trump.

  8. This is a condescending piece of junk article from former Israeli former foreign minister. The tone of condescension is not in the American tradition of respecting the office of president, if not the president.

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