Barack Obama isn’t handing Donald Trump any portfolio of foreign-policy successes as he passes the baton the next president. Trump is about to step into a world that his peace-prize-winning predecessor has made measurably more unstable and dangerous than it was eight years ago.
He’ll inherit the Obama administration’s full-dress messes (Syria, Ukraine, critically dysfunctional relations with Russia) and some unresolved problems on the way to becoming messes (North Korea, the South China Sea).
What should Trump do? In what order should he and Rex Tillerson, who will shortly be confirmed as secretary of state, unpack the trunkful of crises and near-crises the departing president hands them?
You don’t get a lot of think-tank-worthy grand strategy from Trump and his foreign policy people. The new president remains a seat-of-the-pants man, as his Wednesday press conference at Trump Tower made plain. Tillerson, if his confirmation hearings are any guide, is more of a pragmatist than critics on the Democratic side seem to think.
But if Trump and Tillerson are smart enough to spot a couple of quick, astute moves open to them, they can establish a new policy framework that will make it a great deal easier to cope with the tangled web Obama and his State Department leave behind.
Not coincidentally, the key strategies involve Russia and China. Like it or not, these two prominent non–Western powers will have a lot to say about what the 21st century is going to look like. They already do, indeed.
Let’s look across one ocean at a time:
U.S.–Russian relations. It’s obvious now that Trump faces a brutish battle with some elements of the national security apparatus and the Pentagon that oppose his preference for a neo-détente with Moscow. Trump should stick to his guns; better relations with Russia are the key to too many problems to count.
Remember, Trump’s opponents are the same people who scuttled Secretary of State Kerry’s ceasefire efforts in Syria last year by refusing to work jointly with the Russian military. Now look: Russia, Turkey, and Iran have pushed through a new ceasefire while effectively pushing the U.S. out of the picture.
Kerry was startlingly blunt on this point when Charlie Rose interviewed him earlier this week. “Talking to Russia,” as the outgoing secretary put it, is essential to any solution in Syria. That goes for getting beyond the long stalemate in Ukraine, too. And let’s not miss what’s going on in Europe in this connection.
Brexit, weak economies, the migrant crisis, right-wing populism, and a full calendar of elections this year—France, the Netherlands, Germany, probably Italy—are turning the Continent’s gaze inward. It’s losing interest in Ukraine, Crimea, sanctions, NATO, and American-style geopolitics altogether. Obama’s legacy on this score, reflecting a consistently overplayed hand, is a wider Atlantic.
The takeaway: There’s plenty of work to do across the Atlantic and in the Middle East. A better relationship with Moscow is not the Rosetta Stone, but it can open doors to resolving several problems in need of quick attention.
U.S.–China relations. Team Trump is not wrong to complain there are problems in the trans–Pacific economic relationship. They’re just wrong to put it first on the list. Doing so will exacerbate the two real crises-in-the-making.
First, a consensus prioritizing on North Korea was forming in Washington even before the November elections, and it will be waiting for Trump when he occupies the Oval Office. Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day announcement that the North will shortly test its first intercontinental ballistic missile more or less forces Trump to choose among the three alternatives now on the table:
- Trump can tell the Chinese, “Either you bring Pyongyang into line, or we go to war.” But this alternative is flawed. Washington consistently over-estimates Beijing’s leverage over the North and pushing an ultimatum of this kind risks serious damage to Sino–U.S. ties. More grimly, Pyongyang is capable of destroying significant parts of Seoul in response to direct military intervention. Probability: Low to zero.
- Trump can do nothing. In view of Kim’s claim to be testing an ICBM, this takes on a brand-new level of risk. Probability: Again, low to zero.
- Trump can swallow hard and revive efforts to negotiate a treaty with Pyongyang. The record of failure is long and awful, but this is now the least bad option. Nobody has yet found anything better than the six-party format structured in the past: It brings the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, and (please note) Russia to the table with the North.
Second, Trump appears to care more about trade and investment relations than sharpening tensions on security and sovereignty questions. And he is right to suggest it’s time to abandon the Clinton-era principle of good relations at any cost.
But Defense Secretary Ash Carter dumped a big mess in Trump’s lap by needlessly worsening tensions over policing the South China Sea. This has made time a lot shorter on the security side. Sending an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait this week is merely the latest of Beijing’s signals to this effect.
Let’s hope Trump understands the imperative: It’s time to stop telling the bristly Xi Jinping that the seas off China’s coast are America’s alone to secure. It’s a bankrupt proposition, long, long past its sell-by date.
Trump’s takeaway: Try altering our economic ties with China while focusing attention elsewhere on more urgent areas.