During the 2016 campaign, then-candidate Donald J. Trump promised to only take on foreign challenges that had a direct impact on America’s national interests. And so far, he seems to be honoring that pledge, perhaps all too well.
In a series of moves that began at the start of his presidency, Trump has attempted to tackle nearly all international problems—imagined or otherwise—that seemingly undermine American power and might. From China’s rise to North Korea’s growing nuclear program to trade imbalances with friend and foe alike to pulling out of treaties and international commitments, Trump is putting pressure on anyone and everyone to gain an edge anywhere America can. In what can only be described as realism on steroids, the administration seems committed to taking on every problem, every challenge, everywhere—all at the same time.
Can such a strategy work? Can America literally take on the world and somehow enhance its power and influence, while also, by default, extending by decades or more its global hegemony and superpower status that seemed destined for relative decline during the Obama years?
The answer is simple: hell no.
The reasons are also simple. Any smart strategy (and we are not talking about just those that involve geopolitics) requires making choices and living with the consequences of those choices—good or bad. For example, choosing to take on Russia in Europe, as Obama did during the second half of his presidency, meant less raw military capabilities to deter China in the economically vibrant Indo-Pacific region, weakening his “pivot” to Asia. While Russia did not cleave off more of Ukraine as many believed it would, China did enhance its ability to dominate the South China Sea by building fake islands and military bases on them. Choices made, consequences flow—that’s international relations 101.
Trump is now running into the same problems. For example, say your goal is to deter but also deny China the ability to turn Asia into its own personal fiefdom—what Trump seems to be trying to do. Normally that would mean sacrificing some offensive firepower that might ensure Iran won’t become more of a troublemaker than it already is. Yet Trump’s solution has been to increase the military budget to try and take on them both. Combine that with tax cuts that are ballooning the national debt, and, well, more consequences flow.
Clearly smart foreign policy is the art of setting priorities and goals and following them through. Trying to do everything—or more like a little of everything—is a recipe for disaster, and most likely the sad reason that nothing is ever achieved.
Well, almost nothing, as we must be aware of what is only a natural counterreaction. If America is literally trying to take on everyone, essentially leveraging its status as the top power of a global system that it created after World War II, other nations will seek common cause to push back. The late William Martel, a former adviser to Senator Mitt Romney, feared the creation of a totalitarian axis to counter American power. It seems he might have been right, and now Trump is speeding up the process.
In fact, this week we might be seeing just such an axis form in Asia right in front of our very eyes. In a move that’s been expected for some time, China’s President Xi Jinping will travel to North Korea for his first state visit—the first by a Chinese leader since 2005. While the visit will be more about symbolism then actual substance, with both nations feeling the heat from Washington—North Korea on denuclearization and China on trade—both would, at least for now, benefit from an alignment against Washington.
That’s because maximum pressure can go both ways—and that is what President Xi and Chairman Kim are counting on. Let’s say, for example, the proposed meeting at the G-20 between America and China doesn’t go so well, and the current U.S.-China trade impasse is here to stay, Beijing will need to gather as many ace cards as it can to ensure that Washington feels the pain for its pressure strategy. For China, that will mean undoing Trump’s North Korea strategy of economic sanctions and international isolation by allowing the near free flow of goods between Pyongyang and Beijing. And with 90 percent of North Korea’s trade moving through China in one way or another, it is not a stretch to say that if Trump does indeed want to apply maximum pressure on Beijing, the price could be a de facto nuclear North Korea, as Pyongyang would be under zero pressure to give up any of its deadly weapons programs.
None of this should be a shock. This is what happens when foreign policy strategy starts looking like a bad Chinese buffet—you might taste a little of everything, but you appreciate nothing and get a bad stomach ache in the process. If Trump is truly a realist, then it is surely time to set priorities and try to stick to them. If not, America’s interests will be poorly served, and its geostrategic position will suffer.