Trump and the Art of Rope-a-Dope Diplomacy

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Department of Veterans Affairs Telehealth event at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Trump’s diplomatic repartee is a good start, but he must back it up with real substance.

Step Two: An off-ramp is not enough. Next, Trump needs a dependable means to deal with Chinese/Russian bait-and-switch, where one state appears to be helping while the other stabs the United States in the back. First rule: Don’t ask for anything from one state where you are not prepared to push back if they don’t follow through—or punish both states if they pull a bait-and-switch. Second rule: As a rule, don’t ask for anything. Measure improving relations by Beijing and Moscow bringing win-win proposals to the United States rather than asking them for something to test the status of the relationship.

Step Three: Being cagey with both states means not having to depend on either to protect vital interests and having the capacity to safeguard U.S. concerns in all three theaters (as well as deal with the challenges of the transnational criminal networks pressing on the Southern border). That calls for a more muscular American policy.

Trump’s instincts are right—a persistent forward presence in all three key strategic regions requires a “peace through strength” military, not one hollowed out or distracted by regime change and nation-building. Instead, American military power should focus on reassuring (as with our NATO partners) or aiding (as with Iraq and Afghanistan) friends and allies and deterring major conflict. Right now, U.S. military power is “marginal.” That is not enough to sustain Trump’s strategy over the long term. He needs a military build-up.

This administration also needs better soft power. Obama built a State Department that was good at advocacy. It should be restructured so that it is good at action. Hopefully, Secretary Tillerson will deliver the needed change.

Further, to efficiently operationalize American power, the United States needs strong bilateral relations with key allies in each region. Truth is, the administration is more aware of this need than many critics give the Trump team credit for. The White House recognizes that it has shared responsibilities with friends and allies in key regions. In fact, in the end, Trump may actually be better at alliance building than his predecessors—treating allies more like partners than subordinates.

Finally, the administration needs to fill out the “white space” in its regional strategies. How will it sustain the solidarity and effectiveness of NATO over the long term? How will it put Iran back in the box and keep ISIS 2.0 or Al Qaeda affiliates from destabilizing the region or metastasizing into global threat or a danger to the U.S. homeland? Also, how will it to keep China from crowding America out of the Asia-Pacific?

Publically, expect to see Trump continue to play rope-a-dope. If he backs this diplomatic repartee with real substance, America might wind up in a stronger place.

James Jay Carafano is a Heritage Foundation vice president and directs the think tank’s research into national security and foreign relations.

Image: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Department of Veterans Affairs Telehealth event at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts