Last week, a few days after meeting the US President-elect Donald Trump for the first time, the US President Barack Obama told reporters, “I don’t think he is ideological. Ultimately, he is pragmatic.”
Obama took a lot of criticism for this but putting aside the visceral distaste Trump arouses in many people he was really only saying — in his careful diplomatic way — what ought to have been obvious for many months. Trump has no well-defined policies and few strongly-held views. Mostly, he makes it up as he goes along.
This is why the frantic efforts of friends and foes alike to parse Trump’s statements, to dissect them looking for nuances that may have evolved over his months on the campaign trail are a waste of time.
Surely it ought to be obvious by now that Trump, at his core, is a salesman, that the product he is selling is himself and that his approach to sales is essentially amoral. He will say whatever he thinks he must to close the deal but once the deal is closed, he does not feel bound by anything he previously said.
So will he tear up the Iran nuclear agreement and demand that it be renegotiated on terms more favourable to the US? Will he move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Occupied Jerusalem? Will he ban Muslims from travelling to the US? Or refugees? Or maybe just Muslim refugees? Will he ally with Russia to support Bashar Al Assad’s government in Syria? Will he demand that Gulf countries pay to be America’s allies? Will he step up bombing directed against Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq or stop it completely?
Who knows. I certainly do not. Neither do you. The journalists and foreign policy mavens filling columns such as this one and hours of think-tank seminars with careful examinations of Trump’s rhetoric over the last two years don’t know either. There is a good chance Trump himself does not know.
My own guess is that foreign policy is likely to be the area where Trump most immediately and directly shatters international norms for good or ill.
Sooner or later (probably sooner) some friendly foreign leader will say or do something that gets on his nerves. Trump will feel obliged to lash out with a public put-down. Even more likely is that an unfriendly government will decide to test his resolve by either saying or doing something specifically calculated to embarrass him. What will happen then?
It’s equally possible that there will be some unexpected development requiring diplomatic tact. Think of the incident earlier this year when a group of American sailors accidentally cruised into the wrong part of the Gulf and wound up being taken prisoner by Iran for a day or so. Or the 2001 incident, barely 10 weeks into George W. Bush’s presidency, when a US spy plane and a Chinese military jet collided off the Chinese coast. The US plane was forced to make an emergency landing and its 24-person crew was interrogated by the Chinese for 10 days.
Incidents like these will pose a particular threat under President Trump because they are fast-moving and unpredictable and because the US president’s power to act in foreign crises is essentially unfettered. Congress and the courts can do little to stop, or even slow down, a presidential order for immediate military action during this kind of incident.
Foreign policy is also the area where a Trump administration offers the greatest danger of high level corruption particularly if Trump proves incapable of separating his government role from his life as a billionaire businessman. Just in the last week we saw Trump’s daughter Ivanka sit in on a formal meeting between her father and the Japanese Prime Minister. It also emerged that Trump has met privately with a group of Indian businessmen involved in promoting Trump-branded properties and that executives of his flashy new Washington DC hotel are urging diplomats to have their visiting heads of state and government stay there.
At the risk of stating the obvious, none of these things are appropriate. What is less obvious is whether Trump or the people around him understand that.
Much of this will come down to how engaged Trump actually is as president. Again, that is something no one, perhaps not even Trump himself, can really predict at this stage (though if he proves unable to keep his business and political lives separate a disengaged president might not be such a bad thing).
What would be better (or, maybe less worse?): an erratic autocrat who has the means to turn his campaign promise that “I am the most militaristic person in this race” into immediate, and possibly bloody, reality? A disengaged figurehead who lets Washington’s far right control Middle East policy? Or a grifter who sees the presidency mainly as a way to promote his brand and enrich his family? Very soon we are all going to have the chance to find out.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.