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A Theory about Trump’s Grand Political Strategy

A Theory about Trump’s Grand Political Strategy

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By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security

President Trump is visiting Europe for a NATO summit and a one-on-one chat with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many Trump detractors are concerned that the U.S. President is overly lenient with Russia, given Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

His detractors are also concerned that Trump is far too harsh on our NATO partners and what he views as their paltry spending on defense. While his detractors certainly have a point, it’s worth considering what drives the Trump agenda regarding NATO and Russia.

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Though Trump has expressed his desire to be “friends” with Putin, his administration has pushed through additional sanctions and moved U.S. forces closer to the Russian border. Something else must be at play.

East Asia and Middle East Provide Useful Insights into Trump’s Mindset

In attempting to discern what the Trump administration is pushing for, it is useful to look beyond the President’s verbal love affair with Russia and his frequent admonishing of Washington’s closest allies. Indeed, it is perhaps East Asia or even Iran that can provide the best insight into the Trump mindset.

Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump focused on trade generally and on China in particular. He also expressed his desire to end U.S. military involvement abroad where possible and, in his words, “bring our troops home.”

Transitioning from using military power for interventions abroad has had both positive and negative effects. But war itself is generally unpredictable and a poor guide for shaping higher or grand strategy. This leaves Trump with two other levers available to shape global events – diplomacy and economics.

Thus far, Trump has used diplomacy with China and North Korea. But the most visible and potent approach appears to be based upon economics.

Defining a Contemporary Grand Strategy

Strategy is an omnipresent word, yet its use and definition are rather new. Famed historian and author B.H. Liddell Hart said, “The role of grand strategy — higher strategy — is to co‐ordinate and direct all the resources of a nation, or band of nations, towards the attainment of the political object of the war — the goal defined by fundamental policy.”

It may be best to discuss grand strategy by focusing on general security rather than on war. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has pursued security by using all elements of national power.

During the Cold War, Washington varied its political strategy, depending on what elements were readily available at any given time. For instance, if the U.S. was involved in a heavy military operation such as the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War, other elements would have been be employed if another crisis arose.

Indeed, the U.S. even threatened sanctions against its allies, the UK and France, if they refused to withdraw from the Suez Canal in 1957. Using military force against an ally in that case would certainly have been extreme, but the economic threat provided Washington with the necessary result.

Every president has been forced to make decisions on the application of national power in pursuit of an objective. In each case, those choices are often forced upon the president rather than selected by him because a situation might simply limit what he could do.

After the Cold War, the U.S. embarked on military missions in the Persian Gulf and the former Yugoslavia in addition to pursuing free trade agreements whenever possible. Washington felt unencumbered, giving the presidents more latitude to operate.

However, 9/11 pushed the U.S. in another direction, one that consumed much of the nation’s resources. But 17 years after those coordinated attacks, Trump — and President Obama before him — decided to move the nation away from constant conflict.

Trump Must Deal with Multiple Political Situations

President Trump faces several situations that demand U.S. attention and prioritization:

  • Europe faces a crisis brought on by economics and immigration.
  • Russia was resurgent until it too felt an economic pinch.
  • North Korea is inching closer to a deliverable nuclear weapon.
  • China is throwing its weight around.
  • Iran has spread its influence across the Middle East.

Trump approached the North Korea problem by simply declaring it over. It sounds strange, reckless even, but the president has a point.

North Korea is developing nuclear weapons to preserve its regime, but if Kim Jong-un chooses to use that capability, the U.S. has the ability to destroy his nation outright and put an end to the Kim regime. That may not sit well with our regional allies, but the U.S. cannot be distracted from bigger issues.

Trump’s Efforts Regarding Iran, China and Russia

In Iran, Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal. That dealt a blow to the Iranian economy to such a degree that the U.S. withdrawal is causing domestic political problems for Tehran.

Furthermore, Trump is pushing hard to prevent U.S. allies from purchasing Iranian oil, which would further damage the Iranian economy to a significant degree. Even without a U.S. military response, all the effort Iran has exerted on cultivating political loyalists across the region might well come crashing down.

Again, Iran is but one problem with which the President must contend. Trump has used his office to deal with Tehran in the most hands-off way possible. This gives his administration further bandwidth to deal with the real problem that concerns the president most, China.

Before Trump can do anything with China, he must first recruit an unwilling participant to help handle Beijing. For the past few years, Russia has felt an economic malaise brought on by low oil prices.

Recently, Russia tried to increase the pension age as a means of shoring up its budget shortfalls. Moscow’s adventures during this economic downturn resulted in Western sanctions that further damaged the nation’s already stagnant economy.

Putin needs to find a way out of his economic troubles and Trump needs help in thwarting China’s expansionist ideas by isolating — or at the very least containing — Beijing. While this situation might seem as if it would lead to an easy deal, the reality is far more complicated. There are deep-seated fears in Europe, founded in recent history, of any agreement with Russia.

Besides, the President has some rather significant Russia issues of his own dominating domestic politics. Russia and China have cooperated where they can in defense matters as a counterweight to U.S.-led collective security organizations, so changing Moscow’s calculations will be no easy task.

Trump would like to have Russia on board for a couple of reasons, but how this relationship would work is not exactly clear. Russia does have interests in and deep connections to central Asia. Those interests will play a role in derailing China’s Belt and Road initiative, underwriting billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in countries along the old Silk Road linking it with Europe.

US Encouraging Indian and Japanese Investments in Asia

As a hedge against Russian cooperation, the U.S. has encouraged India and Japan to invest in the region. Both nations need energy and the blossoming relationship between Delhi and Tokyo is mutually beneficial.

The problem is that this investment is still new and pales in comparison to the historic ties Moscow has to the area. Trump is going to pursue a containment/isolation strategy against China unless Beijing changes its expansionist and global trade behavior.

This is something China simply cannot do. China is much weaker than it appears and Trump intends to push that advantage.

In December 2016, President-elect Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, which angered China. Trump fired right back — as he is wont to do — but it was at that point that he set the tone for negotiations with China.

The president went so far as to make a trip to China and host Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida in an attempt to use personal diplomacy to induce China to change course. China was ultimately unwilling to bend to U.S. demands because, as previously stated, it could not.

In pursuing his strategy, Trump decided to eliminate any pressing foreign policy issue so he could focus his energy on China. This is still just a theory, but it’s the best fit for the evidence at hand. With the trade war between the U.S. and China escalating to the point where China will not be able to retaliate by issuing tariffs on U.S. goods, Beijing will have to explore alternatives.

China could make it incredibly difficult on U.S. businesses operating on the mainland to function, but that would undercut employment if these businesses chose to leave. Losing economic levers, China would then have to capitulate to U.S. demands on trade and territorial matters or take a more aggressive (read military) path.

How Trump intends to react to any increase in aggressive Chinese military moves is unknown. But whatever path Beijing takes, it will not be a pleasant one.

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