Like Noah Millman, I agreed with much of what Stephen Walt had to say about Trump’s early days as president. Like Walt, I have never bought into the idea that Trump’s presidency could be a “vehicle” for realism and restraint, and I have said so many times. Back in February, I wrote:
Leaving aside some of Trump’s wackier and ill-informed statements about the nuclear deal, Yemen, etc., what would give realists any confidence that Trump would be a good bet with respect to managing great power relations? That touches on Walt’s point about competence, but it goes beyond that. While it’s good that Trump isn’t interested in fighting Russia over Syria (and it is a damning indictment of the other candidates that he is virtually alone in this), I don’t get the impression that he would be all that interested in reducing or managing tensions with great powers as a general rule. One of the running themes in Trump’s speeches is the desire to “beat” other countries, specifically China, so my guess is that a Trump presidency would see a dramatic worsening of U.S.-Chinese relations and the raising of tensions in East Asia.
Bear in mind that I said this about Trump and China before he had his hard-line advisers on China policy, and it was obviously many months before he started sounding off about the “one China” policy and before his Secretary of State nominee began putting the U.S. on a collision course over islands in the South China Sea. So what made me think that relations with China would deteriorate under a Trump administration? For one thing, he perceives all international relationships purely in terms of winning and losing, and apparently cannot conceive of a mutually beneficial arrangement between two countries. Second, he is temperamentally inclined toward confrontation and provocation, and he is preoccupied with maintaining an appearance of “strength.” Even though we knew very little about Trump’s views on China policy in detail before the election, we could reasonably guess that relations with China would worsen because hurting those relations is how Trump thinks he would demonstrate “strength” and relegate China to “loser” status. Even so, I have to admit that I didn’t anticipate how needlessly provocative and obnoxious Trump intended to be on issues related to China this early on.
As we know, the transition and the early days of Trump’s presidency have already shown how poorly Trump intends to handle relations with Beijing. Dan de Luce reports:
The Trump administration’s muddled and provocative statements about U.S. policy toward China, especially in the contested waters of the South China Sea, have confused allies and aggravated tensions with Beijing, heightening the prospects of a great power conflict.
It should go without saying that conflict with another major power isn’t in the American interest, and foolishly courting such a conflict reflects the degree to which the new administration is blundering on foreign policy thanks to inexperience and the bad advice of hard-liners. If the president and his advisers had been listening to advocates of restraint, they would not have done this and would cease further provocations from now on, but of course they have not been listening. We can hope that the U.S. won’t be following through on the most dangerous statements made by Trump and his officials, but to some extent the damage to trust between Beijing and Washington has already been done and will impair relations between the two for quite some time.
Barry Posen pointed out several weeks ago that seeking out conflict with China (and other states) certainly isn’t consistent with foreign policy restraint:
His appointees seem to be people who wish to militarily confront those states and groups who challenge the U.S. in any way. China and Iran seem to be at the head of the list. Some of his appointees seem hostile to Russia as well. The President-elect seems to wish to do something more aggressive vis-a-vis Al Qaeda and ISIL than the outgoing administration. It is hard to see how this many military confrontations would be consistent with Restraint. With this many under-thought confrontations underway, it is likely that one or more will go awry.
Trump didn’t run as a candidate of restraint, and so far he is definitely not governing that way. On the contrary, he has been needlessly provocative, antagonizing China to no discernible benefit for the U.S., and he and his appointees have been suggesting that U.S. commitments overseas are going to be increased. No one interested in foreign policy restraint supports doing any of these things, and I expect that advocates of restraint will continue to be among the loudest critics of the new administration’s growing list of foreign policy errors. That won’t be difficult, since the gap between what advocates of restraint want to see in U.S. foreign policy and what Trump is doing is very wide and seems likely to keep getting wider.