As Donald Trump embarks on his presidency, America and the world are venturing into unchartered waters. For optimists, it is the dawn of a new era in American greatness. For pessimists, it marks the beginning of chaos. Many realists largely take a wait-and-see approach, albeit some with a sense of trepidation, as the new president transitions from the rhetoric of the campaign to the reality of power. However, one thing is clear, it certainly will not be politics-as-usual as Trump’s unorthodoxy will do away with many customs and practices, just as he did during the campaign.
Trump has an historic opportunity to transform American politics and U.S. foreign policy during an extraordinarily volatile and polarizing period at home and abroad. Failure to provide constructive leadership will have grave long-term consequences for America and the entire world as the 21st century unfolds. The bottom line is that everything is at stake. It is crucial not to underestimate the seriousness of the challenges ahead.
Thus far, President Trump has taken fairly clear stands on certain issues including trade, healthcare, tax policy, judicial nominations and immigration. However, on several other fronts, particularly foreign policy, he largely remains a blank slate. As the world undergoes an historic geopolitical transformation, the new president must tread carefully in word and deed.
Many of Trump’s unconventional tactics, whether twittering or sudden outbursts, may have worked on the campaign trail. They may still prove popular and useful to pressure Congress into action. Perhaps over time more Americans may begin to take him “seriously but not literally”. However, the rest of the world may not, particularly new emerging powers like China.
Contrary to domestic policy, Trump needs to be far more selective in his choice of words on the foreign policy front. Rhetorical brinksmanship could prove excessively disruptive and risky. In geopolitics, words can often matter more than actions. Not only can words get lost in translation but can have damaging long-term consequences. In particular, they can often rapidly and negatively shape national threat perceptions which are often difficult to reverse.
Trump’s recent questioning of the long-held One-China policy was a futile waste of diplomatic capital. The fact that Taiwan is in reality a sovereign nation is a public secret that is widely accepted. There is simply nothing to gain by highlighting it and riling up China, which has become more assertively nationalistic under the leadership of Xi Jinping.
However, it is essential to show determination with China through responsible rhetoric and firm action on issues such as territorial claims in the South China Sea. Ensuring freedom of navigation is indispensable to the interests of the U.S., its allies and global stability. Words alone will not deter illegal land-grabs or sea-grabs.
If Trump wants to “to make America great again”, strong alliances and partners will be critical. Today, the nation’s resources are more limited than the past. Effectively managing them together with skillful diplomacy - bilaterally and multilaterally - are crucial for U.S. foreign policy. America simply cannot go at it alone internationally. However, the U.S. must also demand greater burden-sharing from allies, particularly for paying security bills. Unless the words “free-loaders of freedom” truly become terms of the past, America’s alliances will not survive in the long-term.
In foreign policy, Trump’s greatest asset may prove to be his pragmatism, which largely emanates from his business experience. He is not trapped in an ideological box like many in Washington. However, policy cannot be pursued on-the-fly or through drastically conflicting views, which have surfaced on Trump’s national security team. As commander-in-chief, Trump is the ultimate decision-maker who sets the broad strategy in U.S. foreign policy, which must have some basic cohesion.
A key element for successful presidential leadership is the effective delegation of power. Trump boldly picked a cabinet of high-achievers with impressive track records and results-oriented management styles. However, they also have egos that can be easily impacted. Trump must avoid any attempt to micro-manage or interfere with the execution of daily tasks unless necessity dictates due to ineptitude or any emerging inter-agency conflicts.
Furthermore, some degree of factionalism in the execution of foreign policy is somewhat inevitable. In the Trump White House, there is an inner circle of advisors from the start of the campaign led by retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn at the National Security Council. The outer circle of advisors will be led by crucial figures who joined during the transition such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and retired General and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Trump must skillfully manage the emerging factions in order extract the best from his advisors that will allow for effective decision-making. Failure to do so, may lead to policy gridlock and paralysis.
As a businessman and non-politician, Trump is no eloquent master of diplomatic-speak. His bluntness is likely to cause unnecessary controversies in future. Therefore, his foreign policy advisors must also play key roles as Trump translators. It will require grasping his broad ideas and providing critical details and then repackaging and selling it to the outside world. The main challenge will be keeping Trump on message – not an impossible task, but one that may prove difficult to achieve.