A couple of days ago I discussed Professor Charles Kupchan’s views on Donald Trump’s isolationism. I concluded that “For Canada, I believe that the new Trump Doctrine will not lessen threats to our vital interests in the world. In fact, I believe that President Trump will continue to pressure Canada, and other allies, to take a larger and larget share of the burden of our own defences, especially in NORAD and NATO. He will allow Iran and North Korea to continue to develop and field nuclear weapons and delivery systems because they will know that he will not go to war to stop them. He (and/or his successors) will, very likely, challenge Canada’s arctic sovereignty claims and he will not step in when Russia does so. That’s the down-side of his isolationism.“
In the same issue of Foreign Affairs in which Profesor Kupchan wrote, Professor Hal Brands, who is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), writes that “Superpowers have a lot of room for error. Unlike lesser nations, they can shrug off many of the consequences of failed policies. Their weight and influence can compensate for subpar statecraft. But bad policy eventually takes its toll on everyone. And right now, bad policy is taking its toll on the United States … [and] … As U.S. President Donald Trump nears the fourth year of his presidency, he confronts the damage wrought by his own policies almost everywhere. The Trump administration has maneuvered itself into diplomatic cul-de-sacs with Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. It has undermined its own efforts to end the war in Afghanistan. The economic damage from Trump’s trade war with China is mounting, and Beijing shows few signs of giving in. At the same time, the president’s laceration of alliances leaves the United States weaker and more isolated.“
Professor Brands focuses much of his attention on Iran, North Korean and Venezuela but I think the biggest challenges facing the US-led West remain:
- Middle Eastern turmoil ~ and Iran is certainly a major factor in that as the recent attack on Saudi Arabia demonstrates;
- Chinese strategic (diplomatic and economic)
aggressionexpansion which is, increasingly, backed up by growing military force; and
- Russian opportunistic adventurism (or adventurous opportunism, if you prefer) ~ which is Putin’s strategy of choice or, perhaps, the only strategy available to a failing state; and
- President Trump’s own preference for isolationism.
Regarding the Middle East/South-West Asia situation, Professor Brands writes that “in the Persian Gulf, Trump’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal has backfired: Iran responded to American sanctions with its own maximum pressure campaign, attacking tankers in the Gulf, downing a U.S. drone, and carrying out a dramatic assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. The resulting crisis has rattled the global oil market and revealed that Trump had little desire for the showdown his confrontational policies were bound to provoke. His administration is now torn between efforts to intensify the pressure on Iran and Trump’s own desire to launch negotiations to bring Tehran back into the compliance with the deal he scuttled … [and] … Trump’s policies have run into trouble elsewhere, as well. In Afghanistan, the president is searching, reasonably enough, for a way to negotiate an end to that conflict, but he has simultaneously undermined his diplomats by telegraphing his desire to withdraw U.S. troops before November 2020.“
On the China issue, he opines that “contrary to Trump’s boast that trade wars are easy to win, his commercial conflict with China has not played out as planned. Reciprocal tariff hikes are surely doing real damage to the Chinese economy, but they are also increasing the recessionary pressures on the U.S. economy. Having initially sought to cut a deal, the Chinese government now shows little interest in the economic grand bargain that Trump reportedly seeks. The president deserves credit for taking a harder line against a rising challenger, and the Pentagon’s China-focused defense strategy is a positive step. But in nearly three years, the Trump administration has still not developed a comprehensive approach for competing with China—in part because Washington’s attention is elsewhere, on Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran.“
“To be fair,” Professor Brands writes, “Trump deserves credit for some of his more constructive policies, such as modestly strengthening the U.S. and NATO posture in eastern Europe, expanding defense assistance to Ukraine, and presiding over a badly needed increase in the defense budget. His basic instincts—that China poses a severe threat to U.S. interests, that U.S. alliances need updating, and that unfettered economic integration is not necessarily an unalloyed good—are far from crazy … [but, he adds] … Foreign policy is ultimately about results, though, and this administration has relatively little to show on many of the issues that the president has put front and center … [this is not a surprise, he says, because] … Since Trump took office, he has combined disdain for the block-and-tackle work of policymaking—setting objectives and priorities, connecting goals to capabilities, realistically assessing U.S. competitors as well as the geopolitical environment, negotiating in a systematic and disciplined manner—with an offense-in-all-directions approach that generates multiple crises while weakening the United States’ overall diplomatic effectiveness. The price of that approach is now apparent.“
But there is another possibility, he suggests: “one that seems more benign but could actually be quite damaging. As a self-proclaimed deal-maker, Trump sees coercion as the prelude to negotiating favorable agreements. As the 2020 election approaches, he will probably feel pressure to conclude deals that allow him to claim victory and deliver on earlier promises. A peace accord with the Taliban will be high on Trump’s list (despite his public claims that he ended the peace talks). So will deals to de-escalate the crisis with Tehran and the trade war with Beijing. As Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution has written, Trump will want to pivot away from confrontation and toward diplomacy … [I wrote about his a few months ago, too] … The president recently broke with former National Security Adviser John Bolton, the last official who strongly opposed this agenda … [but] … he believes that President Trump is playing from a weak hand and he guesses that Theran, Pyongyang, Moscow and Beijing will not cooperate.
Professor Brands is not as pessimistic as I am about the perceived decline in the American people’s support for the liberal internationalist order which President Trump so clearly dislikes. But he pins his hopes on what I consider an increasingly unlikely outcome: that Donald J Trump will not be reelected in 2020. As I said a few days ago, fist link, I believe that he will survive the ongoing impeachment attempt and will likely emerge politically stronger. I expect him to win in 2020, with all that might imply for the US-led West.
I continue to believe that even after he is gone, the Trump Party will live on and will be a major force in US politics for a generation. I also believe that President Trump’s ill-considered trade war with China will grow into Cold War 2.0. For Canada, this means that we need to reassess our strategic situation. America is, no longer, willing to be the “indispensable nation,” especially not for Canada. We need to reform and strengthen our alliances with others: with Europe, such as it is, with the CANZUK countries, and, above all, with friends in Asia, including Japan and South Korea and, above all, India, with all of which (and others) Prime Minister Trudeau has soured relations by his intemperate acts. Currently, Canada’s grand strategy ~ especially its foreign and defence policies ~ are in total disarray because we have let the inmates take charge of the asylum. The key step for Canada, to prepare for a generation plus of Trump-like policies in America, is to get rid of Team Trudeau and replace them with grown-ups.
The grown-ups then need to revisit our national priorities:
- Maintaining our sovereignty in the face of challenges, especially in the Arctic from Russia, and more recently China and soon, I suspect, from the USA, again, too;
- Doing more WITH the USA to strengthen our shared continental defences ~ this includes rethinking our (adolescent) national aversion to ballistic missile defence; and
- Strengthening diplomatic and military ties with America ~ if they are willing, with Australia, New Zealand and Britain ~ whatever is left of it, with the Caribbean nations, some European states, India, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and South Africa. That little list is not exhaustive.
As a start, that means taking defence and foreign policy seriously. Promising to cut foreign aid is not, all-in-all, a good message to send out, but if cuts to foreign aid are carefully applied they need not have a seriously bad influence on our relations with many countries.