Only “stupid people, or fools,” would think that a good relationship with Russia is bad, the incoming president-elect tweeted in a bizarre series of pronouncements on Saturday.
The outbursts came after the chilling, but unsurprising news that the Russian security forces had indeed acted, using Wikileaks, among others, as an intermediary, to influence the US election in Trump’s favour, according to a report presented earlier in the week by the US intelligence agencies.
Trump’s pro-Russia tweets weren’t the first sign that American foreign policy is moving into uncharted territory. In December, the president-elect took a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s prime minister, Tsai Ing-wen, which overturned decades of American diplomatic policy, which since 1979 has not recognised Taiwan’s independence from mainland China.
The full story of the call will probably remain, at least for the moment, shrouded in some mystery. Insiders have claimed that the call was long-planned as an intentionally provocative move.
This isn’t an outlandish claim; Trump spent much of the campaign attacking China on trade. But he has also reportedly been refusing daily national security and foreign policy briefings, so it is also possible, as Chinese state media as well as US foreign policy experts have said, that Trump took the call simply without knowing, or even taking time to understand, the ramifications. It is possible that Taiwan saw an opening and decided to chance it.
Trump’s most powerful slogans during the campaign were against internationalism and free trade. Gallons of ink were spilt in think-pieces pointing out that while the internationalist project of the Bill Clinton era had led, largely, to economic prosperity, there was a vast swathe of the electorate that had been left behind by manufacturing jobs moving overseas.
That Trump tapped into a latent American xenophobia is beyond doubt. But now that his insurgent campaign is making the choppy transition to an administration, how will that rhetoric translate into foreign policy? The answer, chillingly, is 1) we don’t know, and moreover 2) it seems increasingly possible that Trump doesn’t know either.
The highest-profile job a president can appoint is Secretary of State, and that was the reality show in which Trump seemed most interested in the immediate aftermath of his election victory. Mitt Romney was snapped by photographers at a dinner with the president-elect, who claimed to be evaluating him for the job, but almost certainly Trump just wanted to humiliate him. Eventually, after teasing the media that four “finalists” had been picked, Trump announced that the winner was Rex Tillerson, CEO of oil behemoth Exxon Mobil.
Under Tillerson’s leadership, Exxon acted less like a company and more like an independent supra-national state, muscling aside the State Department as it moved into Iraq, striking deals with oppressive regimes in the Middle East and Africa, and forging close ties with Putin’s Russia. In the age of ascendant Russian ambition, a Secretary of State with links to Putin means that the development of a US-Russo foreign policy axis is the most likely geopolitical outcome of the Trump presidency.
That latter fact is a key one. The intelligence community has recently confirmed what many long suspected: that Russian security services “hacked” the election. Trump initally denied the claims but his incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, told Fox News on Sunday that the president-elect had now accepted the findings of the report.”He’s not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular campaign,” Priebus said, although he did not clarify whether Trump believed the report’s assertion that Putin had directly ordered the hack.
It is not known, of course, how much influence Moscow can actually assert over Trump. But, this new balance of power — assisted by troubles in the European Union and the increasing isolation of Angela Merkel — could lead to a carve-up of Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries, where the rising Russian bear fills the gap left by the faltering American eagle. The butchery we saw in Aleppo, backed by Russian bombs, may just be the beginning.
Associates and friends say that Tillerson’s views tend towards the foreign policy mainstream, and describe him as a pragmatist and deal-maker. He will have to be. The Sisyphean task facing him now is to reconcile Trump’s isolationist rhetoric with his maverick, often ridiculous, and sometimes interventionist promises, such as a quick military defeat of Islamic State.
One example is this mysterious and frankly terrifying tweet from December 23: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
Coming from Trump, a NATO-sceptic who has said he believes in the withdrawal of America’s security umbrella from countries such as Japan, this tweet’s contents are entirely opaque. But when the president speaks, the world pays attention — something it is possible Trump has not yet fully understood. China has already, partly in angry response to Trump’s Taiwan conversation, been flying nuclear-armed bombers over the South China Sea.
Quite apart from the challenges he faces in negotiating new relationships with two of America’s biggest trading partners, Mexico and China — both of whom felt the force of the president-elect’s rhetorical ire during the campaign — without causing either a trade war or a real war, Tillerson also has to deal with Trump’s stance on nuclear proliferation.
Meanwhile in Israel, the right-wing government of Bibi Netanyahu has made positive noises about Trump’s victory. That optimism may be premature. Trump’s rhetoric has indeed been very pro-Israel — including the symbolic promise (not a new one, mind) that the US embassy will be re-located from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He has also said he would “tear up” the multilateral Iran deal, a move that would be welcomed by the Israeli government but would be difficult to execute in reality.
Trump is nothing if not capricious and ill-informed. He acts impulsively — sometimes without a full understanding of the subject — and his aides must try to cobble together policy sometimes after the fact. There has never been a president like this before; and it makes detailed predictions of the total foreign policy ramifications of his presidency near-impossible.
There is no Trump doctrine, unless it is this: tweet first, and ask questions later.