US President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming cabinet now includes retired generals, plutocrats, and people who would abolish the very departments they will lead. But it is still unclear how Trump will actually govern, which has become a source of growing anxiety for the rest of the world.
Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once quipped that triumphant politicians tend to “campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” Donald J. Trump’s campaign rhetoric was hardly poetic, and the transition to his presidency suggests that he will govern the United States not in prose, but in tweets.
Beyond Twitter, Trump’s cabinet nominations also enable us to discern what his presidency will look like. So far, he has selected an unprecedented mix of retired generals and superrich political arrivistes: General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense; General John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security; Steven Mnuchin, formerly of Goldman Sachs, as Secretary of the Treasury; Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor, as Secretary of Commerce; Betsy DeVos, a billionaire heiress, as Secretary of Education; and Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, as Secretary of State.
That is not a cast of characters that will glide through the Senate confirmation process unscathed. Democrats are already sharpening their knives, and the narrow Republican majority includes powerful critics of Trump, such as South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Arizona’s John McCain – a former prisoner of war whom Trump belittled during the campaign.
Meanwhile, General Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, needs no Senate confirmation, but will nonetheless continue to draw criticism, not least for his outspoken antipathy to Islam generally, and to “radical Islam” in particular. Flynn once called Islam a “cancer,” and tweeted that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” During Trump’s campaign rallies, Flynn denounced Hillary Clinton for using a private email server, and led chants of “lock her up.” And yet, while serving in Afghanistan, he was sanctioned for sharing information about CIA operations with unauthorized non-US citizens.
Trump’s campaign and transition have made informed analysis of his incipient administration all the more important, our commentators have been assessing what a US president who has promised to be “unpredictable” will mean for Americans, and for the world. By and large, their doubts and unease have only deepened in recent weeks.
So far, the biggest controversy in the run-up to Inauguration Day concerns the Trump team’s links to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. As ExxonMobil’s CEO, Tillerson negotiated that company’s vast investments in Russia, and was awarded Russia’s “Order of Friendship” in 2013; and, last year, Flynn gave a paid speech and dined with Putin at an event hosted by RT, a Kremlin-controlled media outlet that emerged as one of the main sources of fake news during the recent US election cycle. Moreover, Trump has scorned US intelligence agencies’ conclusion – now more categorical than ever – that Russia conducted cyber operations to influence the election’s outcome in his favor. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Trump’s transition team responded.
Nina Khrushcheva –
For Khrushcheva, Trump’s rejection of CIA intelligence about Russian hacking is particularly disconcerting: “The idea that a US president-elect would take the word of the Kremlin over that of CIA officials and even the most senior members of his own party is already bizarre and dangerous.” And “the simultaneous nomination of Tillerson,” she argues, “takes this love affair with a major adversary to a level unprecedented in US history.”
Many other commentators are equally pessimistic about how Trump will reorient American policy with respect to Russia. Sławomir Sierakowski, the founder of Poland’s Krytyka Polityczna movement, and Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw, predicts that, as Trump embraces Putin, Western influence and soft power will wane, and Eastern European countries “will have no alternative” but to “deepen their economic and diplomatic ties with Russia.”
Similarly, given Trump’s criticism of America’s “senseless wars in the Middle East,” and his promise to put “America first,” Joschka Fischer, a former German foreign minister, foresees “the end of what was heretofore termed the ‘West.’” As the US turns inward, it “will remain the world’s most powerful country by a wide margin,” Fischer acknowledges. “But it will no longer guarantee Western countries’ security or defend an international order based on free trade and globalization.”
Predicting the Unpredictable
Of course, as former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt notes, the only thing we can know for sure is that, “Trump’s foreign-policy strategy is based on remaining unpredictable.” In this respect, Trump seems to have something in common with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Since his surprise victory on November 8, Trump has backpedaled or completely reversed many of his campaign positions. The Mexican border wall that featured so heavily in his campaign will now be “a fence”; Hillary Clinton will no longer be targeted for special prosecution; climate change, once a Chinese “hoax,” may have some “connectivity” with human behavior after all; torturing suspected terrorists may not be helpful; and so on.
In fact, Trump’s views on these and countless other issues remain shrouded in uncertainty. But one exception seems to be his economic policy: markets remain confident that Trump will follow through on his promise to rebuild crumbling infrastructure and cut corporate taxes. And by appointing Ross and Mnuchin to his cabinet, Trump has given America’s moguls something to cheer about – at least in the short term.
But does anyone else have reason to be hopeful? Fischer, for one, does not think so. “The only remaining questions now concern how quickly US policy will change,” he says, “and how radical those changes will be.” Based on Trump’s campaign, those changes could include imposing tariffs against China, tearing up the North American Free Trade Agreement, abandoning US commitments to collective defense under NATO, and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement. And Trump’s appointments – particularly of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who rejects climate science, to head the US Environmental Protection Agency – suggest that he could follow through on at least some of his disturbing campaign pledges.
Indeed, while it is tempting to assume that pragmatism and inertia will keep the pre-Trump global order intact, we should not succumb to wishful thinking. It does not bode well that Trump’s first post-election phone call with a foreign leader was not with a traditional ally, but with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s post-Arab Spring military dictator. Meanwhile, by speaking with almost a dozen other world leaders before getting to British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump seems to have already dispensed with the transatlantic “special relationship” that British prime ministers have long held dear.
Even more alarmingly, Trump ignored – or may have been ignorant of – America’s decades-old “One China” policy when he spoke with Taiwan’s independence-minded president, Tsai Ing-wen. Faced with widespread criticism and a furious Chinese government, Trump tweeted, “Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” As Bildt points out, the Taiwan imbroglio, and Trump’s stream of provocative tweets in response, indicates that the incoming administration “might subject even the most fundamental aspects of US foreign policy to renegotiation and new ‘deals.’”
With Friends Like These…
But Trump won’t need congressional troops to upend the international order, given the wide latitude the US Constitution gives to the president to formulate and implement foreign policy. And that is a growing cause of concern for many non-Americans. As Fischer points out, the geopolitical “West was founded on an American commitment to come to its allies’ defense,” and it “cannot exist without the US playing this crucial role, which it may now abnegate under Trump.”
Fischer echoes the concern that Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, bluntly expressed shortly after the election: “American guarantees are no longer reliable.” Beyond expressing skepticism about international agreements and the NATO alliance, Trump has “encouraged Japan and South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons.” And, Leonard laments, “In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Trump has made it clear that America will no longer play the role of policeman; instead, it will be a private security company open for hire.”
But not all regions will be affected equally by Trump’s presidency, and Sierakowski worries that the “biggest loser” will be “the EU, which is internally conflicted and unable to address economic, demographic, and refugee crises.” Sierakowski thinks that the EU will now have to move toward “something resembling the Concert of Europe, which stabilized the continent between 1815 and World War I.”
A new “Concert of Europe” may seem both unlikely and unnecessary, given that there are other multilateral institutions – such as the United Nations, NATO, and the World Trade Organization – to keep the world more or less on an even keel. “Beyond being the indispensable power, the US is the interconnected power, “ Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister, rightly notes. “It is the hub of the linkages holding the world together, from the dollar to security to law to research and innovation.” Whatever damage Trump inflicts on “the rules-based international order,” she warns, “would pale in comparison to the harm wrought by a truly isolationist and withdrawn US that fails to uphold these bonds.”
One can certainly hope that, as Nye suspects, the forces of globalization will limit Trump’s capacity to act unilaterally on the world stage. But no scenario can be ruled out. Clinton would have entered the Oval Office as a known quantity whose ability to manage the institutional machinery of the status quo was never in doubt; indeed, the electorate’s familiarity with her may be the most important reason why so many rejected her. By contrast, Trump is a novelty: oddly coifed real-estate billionaire and reality-TV star who has refused to dispel concerns about potential conflicts of interest, including in his relations with foreign governments, by divesting from his business or releasing his tax records.
Bildt worries that the geopolitical risks posed by cronyism are exacerbated by Trump’s callow indifference to the norms that for decades have enabled the world to ensure that “even unexpected events” can be contained. Trump’s presidency will thus heighten “the possibility that turmoil could go global,” Bildt says. “One should not exaggerate the risk of things spiraling out of control,” he admonishes, “but it is undeniable that the next crisis could be far larger than what we are used to, if only because it would be less manageable.”
It is too soon to panic. But growing anxiety about what Trump will do is not irrational. As Bildt puts it, “while it is not time to head for the bunkers, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have one nearby.”
John Andrews, a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Economist, is the author of The World in Conflict: Understanding the World’s Troublespots.