The world is in a “frenzy of study,” Henry Kissinger said in a recent interview. At home and abroad, strategists and pundits are trying to piece together a blueprint of American foreign policy under US President-elect Donald Trump from a stream of tweets, some campaign slogans, a few eye-catching Cabinet picks, meetings at Trump Tower, and a pingpong match already underway with Beijing. Highbrow intellectualism can be a handicap in this exercise. Commentators among the Washington establishment have been quick to dismiss Trump’s foreign policy moves outright as erratic and self-serving over the past few weeks. In an op-ed entitled “Trump Failed His First Foreign Policy Test,” for instance, columnist David Ignatius admonished the president-elect for the “hot mess” his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen precipitated. Trump makes people uncomfortable. It’s what he does best, in fact. But how this quality applies to foreign policy is a question that merits deeper exploration than knee-jerk displays of stricken disbelief. After all, as Kissinger noted in his Dec. 18 interview, “a president has to have some core convictions.”
So what are Trump’s? From what we can discern so far from his upbringing, the trajectory of his career and the profiles of those who have infiltrated his inner circle, Trump prizes business acumen and a “killer” instinct for managing affairs. He has enough corporate firepower in his Cabinet to fill the next Forbes’ list. By nominating ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, he has demonstrated his belief that tough deal-making – identifying sources of leverage and showing a willingness to use them – is the secret to running a country and presiding over the international system. Trump does not fear nationalism; he sees it as the natural and rightful path for every state, the United States included, to pursue in protecting its interests. He also seems to have internalized the idea that the United States is losing its competitiveness and that internationalist foreign policy is to blame. Finally, Trump apparently believes that US foreign policy has become too predictable and overwrought with diplomatic formality. Better to say it like it is and call out institutions and conventions that have outlived their usefulness.
This post was published at FinancialSense on 12/20/2016.