Nicholas Harrington

The Borders of Trump’s Foreign Policy

Will Trump be able to build foreign relationships with his unique brand of tweetplomacy? Or will this approach lead to something darker? Or not?


There is enormous concern and confusion surrounding the type of foreign policy we might expect from the President-elect. Some believe Trump will start a conflict with China over Taiwan, while others see him as nothing more than a Russian babushka. Donald’s unorthodox “tweetplomacy,” impolitic temperament, and recent geopolitical signals send shivers up the spine of the most ardent international relations expert—let alone the casual observer.

Although the media deserves a good portion of blame for creating this hysterical atmosphere—journalists reactive to the point of whiplash: jerking from one tweet to the next, pushing the threat level to “severe” and keeping it there indefinitely—this article aims to put in context Trump’s posture vis-à-vis China, Russia, America’s European allies, and the northeast Asian states Donald suggested might do well getting their own nuclear weapons.

History is forever “continuity and change.” While Trump’s unique negotiating strategy is the “change” dimension of this maxim, a fascinating (though rarely mentioned) event in U.S. history demonstrates the degree of “continuity” we can expect from his foreign policy.

When Commodore Matthew Perry (no, not the guy from Friends) entered Edo Bay in the summer of 1853, Japan had been “closed” to trade and foreign contact for 200 years. The Tokugawa shogunate had no interest in commercial ties with the outside world, democracy, capitalism, Western values, Hollywood, cigarettes, stock markets, or GDP (The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise depicts the tension well). The Japanese shogun valued the centuries-old traditions and peace that were preserved by isolating his nation from the buffeting waves of Empire. Unfortunately for Japan, this simply wasn’t an option for the Americans. The Japanese had products to trade, resources to export, and a market that could consume things made in the United States. Consequently, Commodore Perry fired some warning shots from the cannons of his ships, demanded that the Japanese open their market to the Americans, and informed them he would return in twelve months to one of two scenarios: either Japan had succumbed to the international trade regime or they would be at war.

Trump’s modus operandi is, and will continue to be, negotiating through the barrel of a gun—that’s what bullies do best. They create an aura of fear and unpredictability while compromising only on things they care very little about.

Less than seven months later Perry returned to Japan with ten warships and 1,600 soldiers and left soon after with the first Japanese-American trade agreement. Foreign policy wonks call this “gunboat diplomacy”: a euphemism for negotiating through the barrel of a gun.

This form of diplomacy has been employed by the United States to varying degrees throughout its history (hence the continuity). The post-WWII European settlement—the NATO, UN, Bretton Woods, IMF architecture—follows a similar principle: the U.S. negotiates favorable terms for trade and integrated capital from a position of unassailable military and geopolitical strength.

Perhaps you’re probably wondering how this all helps in decoding Trump’s foreign policy?

First, it’s essential to understand that Donald Trump wants to reverse the foreign policy course set by Barack Obama. Trump considers Obama’s worldview quite unacceptable. Obama looked to act multilaterally (TPP, 2015 Paris Climate Summit, etc.) and through international organizations like the UN where possible. Trump disagrees completely. He sees international organizations as toothless, inefficient, bureaucratic juggernauts that talk too much and act too little. Trump’s preferences are unilateral or bilateral actions where the U.S. can use its overwhelming military and economic overmatch as negotiating leverage. Secondly, the President-elect is a salesman, first and foremost. From Trump’s perspective, he’s just inherited the controls to the most powerful contraption in the international system and there’s no reason to let anyone else touch the buttons.

Guided by this salesman’s mindset, Trump has spent the past 12 months building up leverage to benefit his future foreign policy negotiations. This is apparent in every domain where Trump seeks to reorient the “status quo”: security arrangements with NATO allies, China’s “unfair trade” and lack of action on North Korea, and the wasteful chaos of the Middle East.



Trump has no intention of altering the “One China” policy. What Donald wants is for China to stop manipulating its currency, dumping cheap materials into the U.S., stealing intellectual property, and allowing North Korea to remain a belligerent and nuclear rogue state. If Trump simply received the foreign policy baton from Obama and attempted to gain these concessions, he would fail. However, if Trump places a “nuclear Japan and South Korea,” and with renewed relations with Taiwan on the table, he would suddenly have some great cards to deal with. Trump will likely succeed in having China cooperate on North Korea, in addition to his desired trade terms, by agreeing not to allow South Korea or Japan to go nuclear, preserving the One China policy, and granting Beijing certain rights in the South China Sea that the previous administration was rhetorically opposed to. Trump concedes issues he cares little about (but has manufactured for this purpose), receives concessions that he values, all while China saves face by appearing conciliatory in negotiations with a “madman.”


The Middle East

Trump’s view is that the Middle East is (and always will be) a waste of American time, blood, and money. Donald is fortunate that he comes to power in the aftermath of the new energy revolution of the early 21st Century.

Shale oil, fracking, natural gas, and advanced deep drilling technology combine to grant the U.S. a form of energy independence that allows them to forsake the Carter Doctrine that emerged during the cold war, following the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and 1979 Afghanistan War.

The new president has the luxury of pivoting away from the Middle East since it no longer represents the kind of national interest it previously did. Trump wants out. This explains Donald’s posture towards Russia and his apparent flirtation with Vladimir Putin. Obama couldn’t fully withdraw from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen without a coalition of regional allies.

Americans were petrified that withdrawing prematurely would create a vacuum that might propel the Middle East into a cascading fireball of broken states and collapsed regimes. As fragile as the Middle East is now, the only thing preventing biblical chaos is the American military presence.

Syria, Yemen, North Korea, the South China Sea, Iraq, and the Ukraine will become deescalated simply because Trump will deal with the most powerful actor in the region and permit them to exert their will unopposed.

If America left now, the carcass will be set upon by all manner of opportunistic vultures and the Sykes-Picot settlement of 1916 will be a distant memory. Obama’s plan for the Middle East was fairly long term (an approach he took thinking Clinton was certain to continue his legacy). Barack intended for the U.S. to maintain a military footprint while Iran developed into a regional power that could balance effectively against Saudi Arabia.

Once these two powers were relatively equally matched (with the aid of U.S. hardware and capital investment of course) Obama thought Americans could sneak out the back door and head over to northeast Asia. What Barack hadn’t anticipated was Russian geopolitical opportunism. As the U.S. backed out of the Middle East, Russia incrementally filled this growing vacuum.

Donald’s Russian love affair is really about a Middle East settlement. Trump will concede to Putin a sphere of influence (up to and perhaps including Iraq), while America fortifies its alliance with Israel. Trump is not a puppet but he certainly respects Putin’s aggressiveness and geostrategic aptitude. Trump believes Putin will be an effective regional master over troubled Middle Eastern states because Vladimir isn’t hamstrung by the Geneva Convention. Russia can defeat ISIL and suppress civil wars in ways that Trump can only dream of. At its core, Donald’s amiability is deeply self-interested. In the first instance, Trump was glad for the help in getting elected. In the second, Trump doesn’t value the region in the same way that Obama did.

For Donald, the Middle East isn’t a project for democracy and human rights; it’s just a tiresome money pit.



In Trump’s view, European allies aren’t paying enough for America’s security umbrella. To incentivize them to pay up, Trump is making them feel vulnerable again. This explains both Donald’s ambivalence concerning Western Europe’s opinion of his friendship with Putin and his loose talk about nuclear weapons proliferation. We can expect to see a raft of new arms deals between the U.S. and NATO allies as well as an increase in their respective financial contributions to the alliance.

Trump is a salesman and a gunboat diplomat. It’s useful to think about his alarming tweetplomacy and inflammatory public pronouncements from the vantage of someone putting leverage on the international negotiating table, so it can be later removed during a future bargaining process. Trump’s modus operandi is, and will continue to be, negotiating through the barrel of a gun. Trump is a bully and that’s what bullies do best. They create an aura of fear and unpredictability so they can extract concessions without having to engage in conflict; all while compromising only on things they care very little about.

The positive aspect of Trump’s foreign policy strategy is a major deescalation of the world’s trouble zones: Syria, Yemen, North Korea, the South China Sea, Iraq, and the Ukraine. These conflict areas will become deescalated simply because Trump will deal with the most powerful actor in the region and permit them to exert their will unopposed.

The negative aspect of Trump’s foreign policy is that humanitarian concerns will certainly take a backseat to military and economic pragmatism. But before we wail too much, we should reflect on Obama’s inaction in Aleppo, the expansion of the U.S. drone program, and Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853.

History is continuity and change. Obama was more continuity than we like to give him credit, while Trump will be less change than we want to believe.




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