The Limits of Trump's Transactional Foreign Policy

Unlike international business, foreign policy and national security involve issues of war and peace, and by extension, of life and death.

One of the popular conclusions among those trying to deconstruct President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy vision, is that such a vision may not exist, and that the businessman-turned-president is a not a man of ideas, and certainly not an idealist or an ideologue, but a pragmatic technocrat who approaches policy issues on a case-by-case basis very much like a business transaction.

A man who loves to fix things in the same way he helped bring back to life the business he inherited from his father, Trump considers himself a great dealmaker and he thinks that all the problems facing the United States, including in the international arenas—immigration, trade, national security—are consequences of bad deals made by incompetent figures.

Moreover, insofar as he seems to be raising broad political and strategic issues, he does so in the form of a cost-effective analysis. Hence presidential candidate Trump questioned the need to continue participating in NATO or maintain U.S. security commitments in East Asia, arguing that Americans are not getting bang when it comes to protecting its allies. It is just becoming too expensive when we need the money to spend on other things; although we may consider maintaining these military alliances if the South Koreans and the Germans pay us what we deserve for carrying out our services.

Some would argue that contrary to the caricaturizing by his detractors as an impulsive foreign policy ignoramus, Trump’s plans to impose punishing tariffs on China, or for that matter, his call for reassessing U.S. membership in NATO, should be compared to opening bids in an auction or a bridge game. No, President Trump isn’t a raving isolationist who wants to pull U.S. troops from the Atlantic or the Pacific or a China basher looking forward to launching a costly trade war with Beijing. Like a shrewd businessman he wants to demonstrate that he is entering into the diplomatic game with a strong hand, exerting pressure on the Chinese to make a deal under which Washington would drop its threat of imposing sanctions in exchange for China agreeing to refrain from manipulating its exchange rate. And facing the prospects of the United States ending its security commitments to them, Germany and Korea will agree to spending more on their defense.

More recently, following the phone conversation between Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen, some critics argued that it violated the spirit of the agreements made with Beijing in 1979 with respect to the so-called One-China Policy and amounted to a diplomatic blunder.

But then Trump during in an interview with Fox News seemed to suggest that it was a calculated move on his part, noting that he wasn’t “bound by a One-China Policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

In response, some analysts have proposed that President-elect Trump was inaugurating a new era of “transactional diplomacy” as opposed to the kind of “transformational diplomacy” championed by the administration of President George W. Bush.

Forget the Freedom Agenda and nation building. Replace Making the World Safe for Democracy idealism with Making America Great Again realism. In his dealings with other governments, the author of the Art of the Deal would not be promoting American ideals around the world but ensuring that the United States would achieve concrete results that could be measured in dollars and cents.

In fact, assuming that this is, indeed, what Trumpism would mean in the area of foreign policy, it’s important to note that it won’t mark a dramatic shift in American diplomacy.

Hence as part of FDR’s lend-lease agreement with Britain, the United States ended-up seizing what was left of Britain’s gold reserves and overseas investments to help pay for increased defense production.

And during the Cold War and the era of détente, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger branded the notion of transactional diplomacy as the so-called “linkage” policy under which they pressured Moscow and Beijing to restrain revolutionary movements in the third world (and communist parties in Europe, in the case of the Soviet Union) in exchange for American concessions in the economic and nuclear areas: Progress in area A was dependent on progress in area B and vice versa.

It also makes some sense that those who are masters in the art of the deal would be able to negotiate better trade agreements and even diplomatic accords than your average politician or government bureaucrat.

From that perspective, Trumpists note that President-elect Trump and his secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson are two tough and cunning businessmen who have demonstrated a lot of success in winning in their negotiations with their counterparts in the corporate world. That proves that they could be more effective in making deals with China or Iran than President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other officials that Trump has depicted in numerous occasions as “incompetent” and even “stupid.”

But the notion that to make foreign policy work, all you need are astute and tough businessmen who would make it more cost-effective is misleading, especially if you consider the following: No one would be willing to die fighting to protect the interests of ExxonMobil or to improve the Trump brand.

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