Published in The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom, April 8, 2016
Beyond the bullying rhetoric, bigoted swagger and chauvinist bravado, does Donald Trump have a prism on world affairs? A new adviser says so: Trump will work with Russia to check China and radical Islam; and he will maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge. Interesting… but I remain skeptical.
Despite his loss in Wisconsin this week, Donald Trump remains the front-runner for the Republican nomination as candidate for US President. Like it or not, his views on defense and diplomacy may soon become a matter of global import. It’s time to attempt a look at Trump’s strategic worldview.
Until now, Trump’s forays into foreign policy mainly have been limited to attacks on the “freeloading” of other nations. He says that European and Asian nations should uphold their own national security burdens, and no longer expect the US to pay for their defense. And of course, Trump famously and bombastically has demanded that Mexico pay for a border fence to halt illegal immigration.
But is there more sophisticated, substantial thinking about international affairs in the Trump camp? It’s hard to tell, because the candidate has said little himself, and he furthermore declares himself to be “non-ideological” in global affairs. He rejects any labels; he denies being isolationist, realist, conservative, liberal, internationalist or otherwise. All he will say is that he takes a “businessman’s” approach to the world, and that he will know how “make deals,” including with Russian President Putin.
Recently, however, Trump pulled together a fledgling team of foreign policy advisers. Whether Trump might actually listen to such advisers or be capable of learning from them is an open question. He brags that he is his own top expert on all matters!
Nevertheless, it’s worth considering what these advisers are saying. One of them, the young, impressive energy expert George Papadopoulos, was in Israel this week. Over lunch with research associates of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, he expounded on what he says is Trump’s prism on global affairs. It goes like this:
Unlike President Barack Obama, who weakly attempted to “reset” relations with Russia and then spent the latter part of his tenure isolating and sanctioning Russia, Donald Trump would “overtly seek” serious engagement with Russia on a range of common concerns.
Trump, says Papadopoulos, sees Russian President Vladimir Putin as a responsible actor and potential partner. After all, he says, Russia had good trade relations with European countries and even with Turkey before recent “incidents” (the Russian invasion of Crimea; the Turkish shooting down of a Russian military jet). Russia has been careful not to cross NATO lines, he adds, and has been respectful of Israeli concerns in Syria and elsewhere too.
China, says Papadopoulos, is the emerging superpower threat. The US and Russia must work to counter Chinese expansionism in Asia and the Middle East. The US does not want Russia selling advanced weapon systems to China. Therefore, a policy of isolating Russia is “not sustainable.”
In particular, the US and Russia share a strong interest in combating the export of radical and violent Islam from the Middle East; to stop its spread into the Moslem republics on the borders of Russia, into Europe, and into the Baltics. Papadopoulos believes that Trump can ally with Putin in this regard.
Papadopoulos says that Trump certainly wouldn’t view the Moslem Brotherhood regime in Turkey, or the Shiite revolutionary regime in Iran, as stabilizing forces. In contradistinction to Obama, a Trump administration would view the Sisi government in Egypt as a “linchpin” of Mideast security, with no wistful reminiscing for the Brotherhood government of Morsi. And Trump would take a more positive approach to the Kurds, in recognition of the YPG’s lead role in combating ISIS and building regional stability.
Papadopoulos rejects the notion that Trump would “leave” the Middle East, although he doesn’t deny that the US relationship with Gulf states “inevitably will undergo change” because of American’s newly-attained status as a net energy exporter, which reduces its dependence on Mideast oil.
He says that the US would remain committed to preventing any disruption of oil supply from the Middle East, because this is still important for the global economy. And he believes that the Saudis themselves understand the need to reform their economy and transform the US-Saudi business relationship beyond its no-longer-central oil basis.
Papadopoulos refers to Trump’s prepared speech on Mideast policy to the recent AIPAC policy conference as evidence that, as Trump emerges atop the Republican field, the candidate is capable and willing to shoot less from the hip, and offer a more considered articulation of views on foreign policy matters.
He was at pains to dismiss Trump’s “off-the-cuff” remark about Israel needing to “pay” for its aid from the US. “Donald Trump is absolutely committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge as a cornerstone of American policy and US-Israel relations,” Papadopoulos insists. “Israel needs and deserves this.”
“Israel needs to be strong,” says Papadopoulos, “and America needs to be strong. Call our policy ‘Peace through Strength’.”
So there you have it. Trump, according this adviser, thinks that he can work with Russia against China and radical Islam; that he can renegotiate the basis of America’s relationship with Europe, the Gulf and Asian countries without this being considered American retrenchment; that he can cut foreign assistance and perhaps spending on the US military abroad without this being viewed as American weakness or isolationism; that he can “make America great again” by applying a business fair-deal-making model to global statecraft.
I’m skeptical that squaring all these circles is possible, and especially doubtful of the notion that Putin will cooperate with the US in checking China or radical Islam.
I failed to hear how Trump would handle the Russian intervention in Syria, or a Russian move in the Baltics. I also heard no explanation of the contradictions in Trump’s pronouncements on the nuclear deal with Iran. Would he rip up the accord, or seek to enforce all its terms? He nonsensically said both in the AIPAC speech.
Nor did I hear any dialing-back of the ridiculous Trump boast that he could get an Israeli-Palestinian deal in a flash. I hope that the candidate’s advisers will be teaching Trump that an overly enthusiastic and opinionated America has only made peacemaking in the Middle East more difficult over the past two decades.
But it is interesting and refreshing to hear that beyond the bullying rhetoric, bigoted swagger and chauvinist bravado, Trump has somewhat of a prism on world affairs, and that there are some reasonably-informed people trying to advise him.