January 19, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Transitioning to Trump

Donald Trump confounds political analysts. Along the campaign trail, he defied nearly every political rule and norm there is – breaking freely with Republican and Democrat orthodoxy alike. And yet, against significant odds, Mr. Trump on Friday will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

There is now little question that Mr. Trump’s unconventional style served him well in the campaign. What is far less clear, however, is whether such an approach will translate effectively to the White House – particularly in dealing with international affairs.

Consider Mr. Trump's willingness to depart from America’s traditional global economic leadership role. As Philip Stephens writes in the Financial Times, Mr. Trump clearly intends to make his own rules, having already threatened to leave the World Trade Organization and promised to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA. Mr. Trump hopes to create more jobs in the United States through these actions – but history suggests they may backfire.

Mr. Trump further breaks with convention on US policy toward China. Last week, Trump said he was not committed to the “One China” policy – which has been the cornerstone of US-China relations for nearly 40 years. The policy, which affirms America’s formal diplomatic relationship with China rather than Taiwan, is a non-negotiable matter for Beijing and could potentially serve as a flashpoint early on in the Trump administration.

Mr. Trump’s conciliatory approach to Russia, and more disdainful approach to longstanding allies, is perhaps the most striking difference between him and the outgoing administration. Although Trump acknowledged Russia’s role in hacking the US elections, he used an interview with European papers to again say that “NATO is obsolete,” that the European Union was a German scheme to get the better of the United States, and that he trusted Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel equally as much.

What are we to make of all this? We know that presidents often campaign in starkly different terms than they govern. For instance, in 2008, President Obama promised a foreign policy based on enlightened cosmopolitanism, but, as Adam Shatz observes in The New York Times, that promise never came to pass. Moreover, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with being unconventional. As I wrote last November, President Obama defied much of the conventional wisdom that guided the previous administration’s approach to foreign policy. The key question, however, is whether Mr. Trump’s proposed policy changes reflect and advance America’s values and interests. This Week’s Reads offer some answers and provide some perspective on how President-elect Trump will differ from President Obama.

Trump May Herald a New Political Order

John Steele Gordon/The Wall Street Journal

For all their rhetoric, US presidents don’t tend to usher in vast changes in the American political order, writes John Steele Gordon, who recounts major shifts only under Presidents Jackson, Lincoln, McKinley, and FDR. Could Trump be another transformational leader as he peels working-class whites off the Democratic Party? Steele argues that the Democrats are exhausted and out of ideas, and given that Trump owes so little allegiance to the Republican establishment, his may not be “your father’s Republican Party.”

Trump Presidency: America First or America Alone?

Philip Stephens/Financial Times

As Trump turns decades of US foreign policy on its head – embracing Putin, turning his back on trade deals – his path is looking increasingly lonely, writes Philip Stephens. But while Trump may think he can wheel and deal without the constraints of allies and institutions, there is no turning back to an era of American hegemony. America’s “unipolar moment” is gone. Says Stephens: “The long-term threat is that Mr. Trump’s presidency sees a Pax Americana that has sustained relative peace and stability for the past 70 years dissolve into a return to the Hobbesian world of great power conflict.”

Trump Could Be the Best Thing That’s Happened to China in a Long Time

Fareed Zakaria/The Washington Post

How are the Chinese reacting to Trump’s hardline rhetoric? With a shrug, says Fareed Zakaria. They see his statements as bluster prefacing a hard negotiation and have confidence in their ability to weather any trade storm. “The country has become its own, internally focused universe,” says Zakaria. Moreover, China sees an opportunity to step into any leadership vacuum from a US pullback. “Looking beyond Trump’s tweets, Beijing seems to have concluded that his presidency might well prove to be the best thing that’s happened to China in a long time.”

Russian Hacking Report Complicates Donald Trump’s View of World Order

Gerald F. Seib/The Wall Street Journal

President-elect Trump appears to believe that closer relations with Putin can help the United States counter a rising China; hence Trump’s downplaying of Russian election hacking, writes Gerald Seib. Yet the recent intelligence community report on Russian hacking contains a chilling warning that the Kremlin sees the incoming administration as its next potential target – casting doubt on Trump’s ability to play the Russians and Chinese off each other. If China is the real concern, writes Seib, “the best counter to Beijing may simply be to embrace [our] allies” in Asia.

Putin and the Populists

Ronald Brownstein/The Atlantic

The intra-GOP fight about Putin hinges on groups with two different worldviews, says Ronald Brownstein. One is concerned about the geopolitical effects of Russia’s expanding influence and aggression in Europe (the McCain faction), while the other sees Russia as an ally in the fight against Islamic extremism, economic integration, and secularization (Flynn and Bannon). The latter has a great deal in common with far-right parties in Europe, says Brownstein, and “the clashing perspectives … reflect not only differences on how to relate specifically to Russia, but on what goals should guide American foreign policy in the 21st century, and what allies are necessary to advance those aims.” Trump’s personal views are unknown, Brownstein adds.

Why Did Obama Dawdle on Russia’s Hacking?

David Ignatius/The Washington Post

Columnist David Ignatius has four questions about the “Shakespearean” tragedy of Russia’s election hacking. One: Did Trump’s campaign encourage Russia’s alleged hacking against Clinton, and does Russia have any leverage over him? Two: Why did the Obama administration wait so long to deal with Russia? Three: What discussions has the Trump team had with Russian officials about future relations? And four: What’s the chance that Russian intelligence has gamed its covert action more subtly than we realize? “These questions need to be answered – not to undermine Trump, but to provide a factual base to help the country recover from an attack on its political system,” writes Ignatius.

Obama Hoped to Transform the World. It Transformed Him.

Adam Shatz/The New York Times

With his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, vision about a nuclear-free world, and famous address to the Arab world, President Obama was greeted with rapturous global attention. But as he sought to wind down the Bush era of “limitless American power,” Obama stepped into the tough position of promising transformation while also ushering America into an era of relative decline. For every success – the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal – there were disappointments – Afghanistan, ISIS, Syria, Libya, Russia. “…For all his fine words, Mr. Obama became one of the midwives of [a] dangerous and angry new world, where his enlightened cosmopolitanism increasingly looks like an anachronism,” says Adam Shatz.

For Israel, Energy Boom Could Make Friends Out of Enemies

Peter Baker/The New York Times

After years of delay, Israel is pushing forward with its strategy to tap offshore energy resources in the Mediterranean. As Peter Baker notes, “If all goes according to plan, Israel will not only become largely energy-independent, it will also supply neighbors that will have new reason to be friends.” Already Jordan has signed an energy deal, and the Israelis hope Turkey and Egypt are next. While market forces – and potential violence in the region – may make Israel’s leap to becoming an energy player a bit tougher, the country is positioning itself, and the region, for an energy transformation.


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