President-elect Trump’s bold diplomacy

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Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan is now aware how erroneous multiple news reports were of Donald John Trump, who is on January 20,2017 to be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. The anti-Trump tone of leading US news channels made them fodder for the Hillary Clinton campaign, who clearly had a dim view of their own candidate. From John Podesta onwards, Clinton campaign staffers were honest to each other about the shortcomings of their boss, which explains why the focus was on denigrating Donald Trump. The message to the US voter from the Clinton campaign was : Hillary may be awful but Trump is worse, so choose the lesser evil. However, the media storm against the Republican Party nominee for the Presidency resulted in a swelling of the sympathy vote for Trump that was big enough to ensure a comfortable victory on November 8. Among the other epithets hurled at Trump was calling him unmannerly, indeed rude.
However, his conversation with Nawaz Sharif shows that President-elect Trump is both polite as well as determined in his refusal to stick to diplomatic niceties in conversation. Of course, the friendly tone cannot hide the determination hidden underneath to ensure a better deal for Washington in any transaction with the rest of the world. Donald Trump has not been elected by the “international community” but by US voters, and he will not forget this for an instant as he seamlessly moves ahead to the 2020 Presidential campaign for a second term in office. Those who write off Trump as being “inexperienced in government” forget that business is the most unforgiving crucible of all, where not merely goodwill but personal wealth is the forfeit for wrong decisions. The permanent bureaucracy prefers those who have served long stints in government, for they would have learnt how to ensure that their “political masters” in effect become the servants of the bureaucracy, doing what the services seek of them. They dislike Trump because he does not have this experience, and therefore they are unfamiliar as to how they can “manage” him.
That in a democracy it is the politician who should manage the bureaucrat and not the other way about never enters their heads. For the civil service, elections are a mere distraction, to be given lip service but not to be taken seriously Donald Trump believes in the power of his personality and therefore in personal diplomacy. He is also a very confident person, for otherwise he would not have spent nearly $ 100 million of his own money ( or more personal cash than all previous US Presidents have spent on their campaigns). An example of this confidence was his accepting a request by Taiwan’s elected leader Tsai Ing-wen to have a phone conversation, the first between a US President and the head of a Taiwan government for four decades. From that time, all IS Presidents and President-elects have accepted the guidance of their bureaucracies to avoid any direct contact with Taipei. Donald Trump is outside that mould, and it would not be a surprise if he becomes the first US President to visit Taiwan since Dwight David Eisenhower.
By throwing away Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy book, Donald Trump has done diplomacy a favour and indeed, once again making the art relevant to the lives of the people rather than merely serve as a source for newspaper headlines. The US Department of State is known for its maestros in the science of planting misleading news and commentary items in the media, and officials within have gone into overdrive seeking to condemn President-eect Trump for his effrontery in not going by their advice in all matters but following his own conscience as well as the US Constitution, which enshrines liberty and equality as fundamental rights.
State Department officials usually morph into apologists for the countries they deal with, often exchanging their bureaucratic career for representational and lobbying posts for these very countries. An example is Robert Blackwill, who made about a million dollars from the poverty-stricken Republic of India after having served as the US envoy to Delhi and done all that he could to darken the investment climate by portraying India during the Vajpayee years as a step away from nuclear war. Of course, several US policymakers and “South Asia experts” later claimed credit as well as secured funding for averting a nuclear war that existed only in their imaginations.
Hence it is no surprise that officials dealing with East Asia are horrified at the actions of Donald Trump, venting their fears in the “planted news” publications of choice for the US State Department, the New York Times and the Washington Post, besides CNN. They underestimate the maturity and calm of the Chinese leadership led by Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. As the US and China are so integral to each other’s economies, it is unlikely that Beijing will respond in an angry fashion to the President-elect’s telephone conversation to the President of Taiwan. The Chinese play a long game and are willing to accept a few reverses along the way, provided the overall direction is where they want to go. Most importantly, Trump has an ally in an individual greatly respected in Beijing, Vladimir Putin.
The President of Russia can be expected to ensure that China’s reaction be such as will not further roil the already turbulent waters of US-China relations. Because President Obama has relied so completely on Clinton administration retreads in his team, much of US foreign policy has in effect worked against US long term interests. As Obama demits office, relations with China and Russia are bad, and that with few countries barring Myanmar and Cuba better than when he took charge of the administration nearly eight years ago. The situation in the Middle East is dire after Hillary Clinton’s experiments in regime change literally blew up in the faces of policymakers, while that in most other parts of the globe is little better.
Obama has succeeded in a few fields, those where he was courageous enough to adopt a view at sharp variance with that of the Clinton cohort, such as with Cuba and Iran. Although several in Team Trump seek to upend both agreements, the intensely practical 46th President of the US is likely to ensure that both relationships remain in a healthy condition, of course with some tweaks. As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, this is likely to be replaced by a new agreement that ensures the centrality of the US in the trade flows of Asia. This advantage is the “baby” that will not be thrown out of the bath water by President Trump
Donald Trump the candidate refused to run to a beat other than his own, and this trait is likely to continue into the White House. While such an unorthodox stance may result in some increase in the blood pressure of senior officials in the US State Department (especially if the Trump-phobic Mitt Romney becomes Secretary of State), overall US interests will be advanced by a confident Head of State refusing to bow before 19th century concepts masquerading as pragmatism. The telephone calls made to and from Donald Trump indicate a mind fixed on outcomes and willing to adopt unusual ways of reaching them.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.