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What a Trump presidency will be like

By Claude Smadja
January 18, 2017 15:04 IST
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'The optimistic advice might be "fasten your seat belts" and the pessimistic one might just turn out to be "brace for impact", says Claude Smadja.

What will Donald Trump actually do after January 21, 2017?

This is the guesswork of every editorial and column in the world media, the leitmotif question I have heard in every single meeting I have had since November 8 in Mexico, Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo, Singapore, Sydney.

And, the appointments made so far by the President-elect for the top positions at the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State and Defence Department, or for the US ambassadorship to Beijing have contributed to increase the perplexity and uncertainty instead of alleviating them.

While there has been a consistent trend in the nominations made on the domestic front towards more conservative policies in the social domain, and more protectionist and expansionary fiscal policies in the economic domain, what we have seen on the foreign policy side seems to indicate that the man about to enter the White House is bereft of a coherent worldview and of a sense of the US role on the world scene.

While simplistic formulations and the pledge to 'make America great again' were very effective at capturing the popular mood and at winning the election, they are no substitute for hard thinking and a strategic vision of what would help promote the US interests while contributing to strengthen international security and stability.

In the same way, Trump has been constantly boasting about his ability to 'make deals' and he seems to see the conduct of foreign policy as a kind of succession of 'deals' made with different leaders around the world.

There is, of course, merit to be found in pragmatism and in a leader not allowing themselves to be straight-jacketed by too much of an ideological approach.

But how much could this emphasis on 'deals' achieve for a US President who seem lacking any historical perspective and who will be confronted by cold-headed, cold-blooded strategic chess players such as Russian President Vladimir Putin or his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping?

There was something of almost gratuitous 'in your face' attitude towards Beijing in the President-elect taking a call from the leader of Taiwan -- whom he mentioned as 'President' in a follow-up tweet which was bound to hit a raw nerve in Beijing -- and then saying in an interview, 'I don't know why we have to be bound by the One China policy unless we make a deal with China on other things including trade.'

Was it another of these 'impulse of the moment' episodes in which Trump has indulged quite often before, or the harbinger of a radical change of US policy towards China that was anchored 42 years ago by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, institutionalised in 1979, and has been followed since then by every single President?

Does the real-estate tycoon-turned-President have a real grasp of the underlying principles and strategic interests involved in this policy?

To imply or seem to think that the US could exact concessions from Beijing on trade issues by putting into question what is for every Chinese leader the most sensitive matter affecting the country's sovereignty reflects a dangerous ignorance.

So much so that Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, had subsequently to play down the notion that the new administration would want to revisit the One China policy 'right now.'

In the same way, there is nothing wrong in Trump's professed intention of looking for a better relationship with Russia on the basis of mutually accepted rules of conduct and an acceptable definition of what can be considered as Moscow's legitimate strategic interests.

However, any sign of naivety from the new administration will be exploited ruthlessly by Putin.

And it would severely damage the cohesion between the US and its European allies already quite suspicious about the intentions of the President-elect and very anxious about the future solidity of the Atlantic alliance.

Nothing would more encourage adventurism from the part of Moscow than the notion that it can drive a wedge between Washington and the European capitals.

In West Asia, the new US administration will be confronted with the consequences of the failure of President Barack Obama's policy on the Syrian conflict -- the victory of Russia, back as a key player in the region after 42 year of elimination from it, and of Iran which has consolidated its hold on the Bashar al-Assad regime and its control on a rump Syrian State which nevertheless controls the majority of what is left of the country's population.

While Trump will want Russia to join forces in the fight against Islamic State, how will the US administration deal with any future attempt by Putin to extend further his role and influence in West Asia?

It also remains to be seen how the new US President will be able to reconcile his acceptance of the status quo on the Syrian ground and thus of Iran's dominant role with his stated goal of putting into question the nuclear deal achieved with Tehran of which both Europe, and Russia and China, are also signatories.

The key question now is whether Trump has any interest and -- if so -- will be able to articulate a coherent world view and a clear notion of how he sees the role of the US on the world scene.

If this were not to be the case, would his entourage -- the people he has nominated at key positions -- have the capabilities and the authority to do that for him?

The issue is that many of the President-elect's nominees seem to hold some conflicting views on crucial issues relating to national security and foreign policy.

Or will the new President centralise power in the White House -- as Obama has done -- and just follow his impulses and the temptation of spur of the moment moves, alternating between unilateral actions and the next 'deal' to be had?

And, what then if the deal cannot be achieved?

The truth of the matter is that the deals approach might very well be found wanting early in the Trump presidency.

The failure of articulating a coherent vision of the world, of the role of the US in it, and of a way to reconcile the pursuit of US strategic interests with the recognition of other countries' interests to help consolidate a sustainable, global order will lead to geopolitical instability and unpredictability.

In that case, the optimistic advice might be 'fasten your seat belts' and the pessimistic one might just turn out to be 'brace for impact.'

Claude Smadja is the president of Smadja & Smadja, a strategic advisory firm.

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