The General vs. The President by H.W. Brands : One book Mr. Trump ought to Read

One can almost hear President Trump’s first speech on foreign policy, “The principle purpose of the foreign policy of the United States is to maintain the liberty of our people. Its purpose is not to reform the entire world or spread sweetness and light and economic prosperity to peoples who have lived and worked out their own salvation for centuries.” In other words, America FIRST!

Almost, except that the quoted lines are not the words of Donald Trump. Rather, they come from a speech given  in January 1951 by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, an isolationist of a prior period.

History is important and never more so than in the formulation of foreign policy. Robert Samuelson, a Washington Post financial columnist writes, “Ever since World War II, with some lapses, American leaders have embraced the notion that trade could foster prosperity and promote democratic societies.” Critically important is his observation that, “Trade was not just about economics; it was also about geopolitics.”

While Mr. Trump certainly understands business and corporate contracting he does not have, as Senator Jack Reed recently pointed out, “a wealth of experience in this (foreign policy) arena.” Samuelson writes that, “the danger of economic nationalism is that it deludes us into thinking that our problems mainly originate abroad and can be fixed by tougher trade policies.” But, those tougher trade policies depending upon the extent to which they go will have foreign policy implications as well.

Mr. Trump clearly telegraphed his Presidential trade policy several days ago in Cincinnati when he said, “Buy American and hire American.” In a  water bill before Congress language has been inserted requiring the iron and steel to be American made. Paul Ryan, “and others have begun raising objections,” according to the Wall Street Journal, “saying the requirement would pick winners and losers among U.S. companies.”

While that is true I believe it is far more important to understand the international implications that are equally far reaching. Mr. Trump has not even been sworn in yet but his positions with regard to Mexico, China and Russia are already having far reaching effects.

Even as Mr. Trump seeks to throw out the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) the Chinese are moving ahead. According to the Financial Times, “Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed … to open the door even wider to foreign business and play an even greater role in the process of globalization as Beijing moved to take advantage of Donald Trump’s election and fears that he may herald a new era of US disengagement from Asia.”

Henry Kissinger in the current issue of The Atlantic says, “that for the first time since the end of the second World War, the future relationship of America to the world is not fully settled.”

I think he is being kind. Mr. Trump the candidate was a trade guy, not a foreign policy guy. We don’t even have a Secretary of State, nor has the President elect been sworn in and we are already serving notice to the Chinese that things are going to be  more belligerent between our two nations. After all, America FIRST. But absent a well thought out strategy that understands the inherent connection between trade, foreign policy and peace, President Trump risks taking us down a road that may not end as he might hope.

Mr. Kissinger writes, “The United States and China will be the world’s most consequential countries….we ought to try to develop an understanding of how joint …action could stabilize the world. At a minimum, we should agree to limit our disagreements; more sophisticatedly, we should identify projects we can undertake together.

Clearly President elect Trump does not agree with this. Indeed he seeks to antagonize Mainland China with his early contacts with Taiwan. As he seeks to throw away the TPP, “because it “was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door,” instead they are coming through the front door. “China will not shut the door to the outside world but will open it even wider, Mr Xi told business leaders.”(Financial Times)

The Chinese believe that by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Communist state, they will be, according to Mr. Kissinger, “the equal of any other country in the …world and …able to insist on absolute material and strategic equality, including with America.” Their plan, despite their saber rattling building of islands in the South China Sea isn’t to accomplish this through war. Mr. Kissinger again, “President Xi (understands) that confrontation is too dangerous. A conflict with modern weapons leaves no winners.” They plan to achieve this econometrically.

The Chinese have a foreign relations plan that carefully integrates trade policy. The first part sounds much like Mr. Trump, “Asia for the Asians, but the second is the exact opposite of Mr. Trump’s approach to the world, “turning adversaries into partners.” This from Mr. Kissinger as well who notes that, “when you talk to Chinese strategists they talk about process rather than ad hoc issues.

They have focused on education for nearly three decades and graduate more individuals with advanced degrees than the rest of the Western world combined. They are our largest trade partner holding the greatest amount of U.S. dollars of any nation. You can see in these simple examples how their strategy fits into their focus and execution.

So, as Mr. Trump throws away the TPP, China is according to the Financial Times, “moving quickly to take a leadership role that many see being abdicated by the US as the advocate of free trade and open economies in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific.”

This cannot have a long-term benefit for the United States. Indeed,  the Prime Minister of New Zealand, a long time ally of America, “said he would work to try and convince Mr Trump of the value of the TPP and the importance of US engagement in Asia. But he also warned that his country and others would not wait forever. There needs to be a realization [in Washington],” that, “we like the US being in the region. But if the US is not there that void needs to be filled, and it will be filled by China.” Nor is it simply New Zealand saying that. The Prime Minister of Japan is also quoted in Politico as saying, “the China-dominated deal will likely become the preferred pact if Trump abandons the TPP as he’s promised.”

These are our allies and we are handing them over to the Chinese not because they don’t support us but because President elect Trump is acting in an ad hoc manner rather than with a long term vision that incorporates both trade and foreign policy.

The exact same thing is happening in Europe. Mr. Trump talks about abandoning NATO if other nations don’t foot their fair share of the bill and at the same time complements Mr. Putin as a better leader than President Obama and suggesting that, “if the United States got along with Russia, it wouldn’t so bad.”

In 1951, Mr. Taft said, “I do not see any conclusive evidence that they (Russia) expect to start a war with the United States and certainly I see no reason for a general panic on the assumption that they will do so.”

Clearly Mr. Trump believes that by making friends with Mr. Putin, America will be first. But, I suggest that, at best, this is the height of naiveté. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank writes that, “Putin is seeking to recreate Russian national strength after years of what he believes to have been stagnation and decay.” Russia seeks to expand its, “sphere of influence in the “near abroad” and create a common market in the countries of the former Soviet Union.”

A new policy, since 2000, involves combining economics and security by having Russian companies purchasing the vital economic infrastructure (power grids; power generators; oil and gas pipelines) of countries in the “near abroad.” In other words, just like China, Russia, despite their actions in the Ukraine, would like to win economically if they can.

The Heritage Foundation goes on to say, “the economic incentive is critically important. Leaders of the Russian business community who are already involved in energy exports and have floated ADRs in the US believe that Russia’s future lies in exports to the West (particularly Europe) and in raising Western capital …. This means that this politically influential community will encourage Putin’s outreach to the European Union. Given the strong political, economic and business interests of Europeans-particularly in Germany-to cooperate with Russia, we can expect closer ties in the future.”

“Putin’s foreign policy is (designed) to maximize his ability to maneuver and keep opponents from coalescing against him. This means that Putin is neither pro-American nor anti-American. He will act on his perception of national interest….” In other words, Russia First!

“His global strategy appears to be to develop a multipolar set of relations with China, Middle Eastern states and the European Union to maximize Russia’s international influence, prestige and leverage-not to mention its finances (which explains Russia’s role in proliferation and its relations with some rogue states). Very often this will put Russia at odds with the United States. Moreover, there is a strong psychological desire to preserve the perception of Russia as a great power. Hence the need to appear independent from and equal to the United States, particularly in strategic matters.”

So, if the Russians think very much like the Chinese when it comes to power and prestige why wouldn’t our trade and foreign policy positions be relatively the same with regard to both countries? The answer to that is that Mr. Trump believes that the Chinese and Mexicans have taken all of our manufacturing jobs. Hence, we should treat them differently.

But Mr. Samuelson suggests something very different. “The often overlooked truth is that the U.S. economy, despite much rhetoric to the contrary, is less globalized than virtually all other advanced countries. True, we imported nearly $2.8 trillion last year but we also exported almost $2.3 trillion.

Mr. Trump argues that we’re going to get those manufacturing jobs back but that’s highly unlikely. First of all we’re very close to full employment now as seen in the chart below courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.


Second, as Mr. Samuelson points out. along with numerous others, automation has already played a huge role in the loss of jobs and will be more influential going forward. Third, it has been widely reported that many manufacturing jobs have already left China for other Asian nations where the cost of labor is even lower. Are we really going to bring those jobs back?

A long long time ago my mentor explained to me that I was the epitome of, “ready, fire, aim!” He suggested that to be successful I needed to learn to get the order right. It took me a while but I came to learn that strategy comes first because only then can you have focus and execution.

I fear that when it comes to foreign affairs Mr. Trump is still of the ready, fire, aim approach. Unfortunately, the rest of the world won’t wait for him to learn and because things move so fast in our world innumerable mistakes and unintended consequences are likely to occur and they will not be in America’s best interests.

I leave you with this story:

After having defied everyone in the US command structure to include the President, General Douglas MacArthur had nearly taken all of Korea. Suddenly on October 26, 1950 his forces were ambushed by, “fresh, well organized and well trained units, some of which were Chinese communist forces.” On November 4, after studying the issue, the General wrote the Joint Chiefs that, “while it is a distinct possibility (of Chinese involvement with the full potential of its military forces) and many foreign experts predict such action … there should be no rush to judgment. I believe that a final appraisement should await a more complete accumulation of military facts.”

Just two days later he wrote, “men and material in large forces are pouring across all bridges….This movement … threatens the ultimate destruction of the forces under my command.”

In the real world it all happens in the blink of an eye. Thanks to General Ridgeway who saved the day for MacArthur we lucked out. But for President Trump to succeed he needs a coherent plan that has been vetted by others who don’t necessarily agree with him before he fires his next tweet or phone call.

That’s putting America FIRST.












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