Trump’s team of rivals, riven by distrust

Thomas Wright -The Brookings Institution –  Thursday, December 15, 2016

Editor’s Note:
President-elect Donald Trump’s top cabinet picks—including Mike Flynn, Jim Mattis, and Rex Tillerson—represent different foreign policy and national security factions, writes Thomas Wright. Together, they could fundamentally alter U.S. foreign policy. This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Understanding Donald Trump’s foreign policy is truly an exercise in separating the signal from the noise. Trump says and does so much, often on a whim, that it can overwhelm the senses. There is so much that he knows so little about—Taiwan, for instance—that it is hard to say if small actions are part of a coherent strategy or if he’s simply winging it.

But now that the president-elect has announced his picks for key foreign-policy positions, his foreign policy is starting to become clear or at least clearer. Though Trump’s own foreign-policy views are captured by his “America First” slogan, his administration will be split between three national security factions—the America Firsters, the religious warriors, and the traditionalists—each of which distrusts the others but also needs them to check the third. The question is what effect this power struggle will have on U.S. foreign policy, particularly amid a crisis—and whether Trump, over time, will insist on asserting his personal will against the other factions with which he has surrounded himself.


Few people think of Trump as a foreign-policy thinker. He has been on every side of numerous issues, including climate change, Syria, North Korea, Iraq, and nuclear weapons. However, it is indisputable that Trump has a small number of core beliefs dating back three decades about America’s role in the world. His overarching worldview is that America is in economic decline because other nations are taking advantage of it.

Three beliefs stand out. Trump has been a staunch critic of America’s security alliances since 1987 and has demanded that U.S. allies transfer vast sums of money to the United States in exchange for protection. He has opposed every trade deal the United States has signed since World War II and advocated for the widespread use of tariffs. And he has a soft spot for authoritarian strongmen, particularly of the Russian variety. This appears to date back to 1990 when he visited Russia and came back deeply disillusioned in Mikhail Gorbachev and convinced that Moscow should have emulated China’s repression in Tiananmen Square. Trump has been consistent on each of these issues for 30 years. For a detailed analysis of his statements and writings on these topics, see here and here. Trump repeatedly raised these views in the campaign, even when it was politically risky to do so (as in his praise of Vladimir Putin).

The big question has been whether and how Trump may act on these beliefs and convert them into policy. Trump is unlikely to unilaterally withdraw from America’s treaty alliances and commitments, but he is also unlikely to support and uphold them as much as his predecessors have. If one looks closely at his statements over the past three decades, Trump’s frustration is that the United States gets little for protecting other countries or securing the global order, which he sees as a tradable asset that America can use as a bargaining chip with friend and foe alike.

For instance in an interview with Fox News Sunday about his call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, he said, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” The implication was that if China were to make major concessions on the economic front, Taiwan may be on the table. Indeed, the Taiwan call fits into the negotiating framework described in his book The Art of The Deal, which describes how Trump would open up previously closed issues to get leverage that could later be traded in a negotiation. So, what is it that Trump wants? Anecdotal evidence from the past month suggests that his top concern in discussion with foreign leaders and diplomats is: “What’s in it for America economically?” He wants major concessions on the terms of America’s economic relationship with other countries, including greater direct investment in the United States.

This would be a revolutionary diplomatic strategy. For 70 years, the United States has protected its alliances and refused to abandon them under pressure from rivals. The United States does not do deals with Russia and China over the heads of its friends—the mantra has been “nothing about you without you.” Trump is signaling something different. Allies that are seeking bilateral trade deals with the United States should be cautious. The United Kingdom, for instance, may find that a President Trump will ask London what it is willing to pay for continued military and intelligence cooperation.

The mystery in all of this is why Trump is so keen to work with Russia. The United States has little economic interest in the Russian economy. Trade and investment are miniscule compared with China. And Russia has very little that the United States wants. Instead, the demand for change comes almost entirely from Russia—on NATO, sanctions, and in the Middle East. But Trump’s fondness for Russia, however idiosyncratic, is long-standing and unwavering.

But although Trump may have strong foreign-policy views, he does not have a large cadre of followers willing and capable of turning his worldview into reality. Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and an avowed nationalist, is an exception, though he is not a foreign-policy professional. The Republican Party’s foreign-policy establishment overwhelmingly rejected Trump because they took him at his word and saw him as a threat to the U.S. postwar strategy. Some—the #NeverTrumpers—signed a letter opposing him. Others left the door open to serving but primarily because they wanted to prevent him from realizing his decades-old ambition. Trump lacked allies for his cause, but he found them in another place.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) and Vice President-elect Mike Pence (R) greet retired Marine General James Mattis for a meeting at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTSSFDG
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) and Vice President-elect Mike Pence (R) greet retired Marine General James Mattis for a meeting at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar –










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thomas wright

Thomas Wright

Director – Project on International Order and Strategy
Fellow – Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe,
Project on International Order and Strategy

To book Thomas Wright  to speaker at your next conference:
Email [email protected] or call: +35310861070222

His forthcoming book will be published on the 23rd of May 2017 

All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the Twenty-First Century and the Future of American Power



A groundbreaking look at the future of great power competition in an age of globalization and what the United States can do in response

The two decades after the Cold War saw unprecedented cooperation between the major powers as the world converged on a model of liberal international order. Now, great power competition is back and the liberal order is in jeopardy. Russia and China are increasingly revisionist in their regions. The Middle East appears to be unraveling. And many Americans question why the United States ought to lead. What will great power competition look like in the decades ahead? Will the liberal world order survive? What impact will geopolitics have on globalization? And, what strategy should the United States pursue to succeed in an increasingly competitive world? In this book Thomas Wright explains how major powers will compete fiercely even as they try to avoid war with each other. Wright outlines a new American strategy—Responsible Competition—to navigate these challenges and strengthen the liberal order.