Trump's Perilous Path

June 18, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: Donald TrumpChinaRussiaStrategyWar

Trump's Perilous Path

To the extent Donald Trump has a strategy, it is one grounded in assumptions and realities that were far more relevant 150 years ago than they are today.

Trump’s decision to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un represents a departure not only from decades of American policy and from his own incendiary rhetoric but also from the policy that the National Security Strategy outlined. Trump’s gamble does have considerable merit, given previous failed efforts to deflect Pyongyang from its determined effort to become a strategic nuclear power. Nevertheless, talk of Nobel Peace Prizes—which has become a new rallying cry from Trump supporters—is, to say the least, exceedingly premature.

To begin with, the summit could prove to be a disaster; Trump has already threatened an early walkout if the talks do not proceed smoothly while Kim Jong-un has made it clear that he is not prepared to accede to Washington’s demand that he terminate his nuclear program immediately. Second, as already noted, China may be the real guarantor of peace on the Korean Peninsula. Finally, it is not at all clear that the mercurial Kim would trust the word of an equally mercurial Trump, whose word, like that of North Korea, has rarely been his bond.

Other elements of Trump’s worldview, though echoed in the published strategy, actually run counter to its ambitious goals. Perhaps more than any other of its sections, the National Security Strategy discussion of immigration policy in the document’s opening pages, together with its outline of American trade policy, reflects Trump’s long-held views about these topics.

The strategy pulls no punches regarding immigration:

Strengthening control over our borders and immigration system is central to national security, economic prosperity and the rule of law. Terrorists, drug traffickers and criminal cartels exploit porous borders and threaten U.S. security and public safety.

What the document does not explicitly spell out—but what Trump’s tweets, public statements and executive orders have made clear—is that the targets of his administration’s immigration policies are non-European peoples based on racial and/or religious grounds. These include Muslims, Africans, Hispanics and Haitians, all of whom the president has at one time or another made disparaging remarks.

In a similar vein, the National Security Strategy asserts that:

We will address persistent trade imbalances, break down trade barriers, and provide Americans new opportunities to increase their exports. The United States will expand trade that is fairer so that U.S. workers and industries have more opportunities to compete for business.

Here too it is consistent with Trump’s pronouncements on trade before, during and since his presidential campaign and the tariffs that he has authorized since he took office.

Trump’s tariffs on imported materials are the first that have been imposed in seven years and the second in sixteen. Those earlier efforts, both aimed primarily at China, did not succeed. The 2002 tariffs imposed by the George W. Bush administration on Chinese steel products were dropped in the face of international pressure. The 2011 Obama administration tariffs on Chinese tires resulted in more jobs lost than saved. Yet, as noted, Trump’s orders for tariff increases have been aimed not only at China, a potential adversary. Indeed, Trump has reversed himself regarding penalties to China’s giant zte corporation, and has indicated a willingness to reconsider his aggressive tariffs policy toward Beijing.

On the other hand, his tariff policy is also aimed at Japan and the European Union—notably Germany, among America’s closest allies. Similarly, his determination to renegotiate the North Atlantic Free Trade Area agreement and to impose tariffs on Canadian and Mexican products is aimed not at an adversary but at America’s closest neighbors.

Trump’s tweets, his public statements, as well as official policy, have borne some fruit. South Korea, anticipating Kim Jong-un’s summits with both Presidents Moon and Trump, made a series of concessions regarding steel exports and auto imports in a new trade agreement with Washington that was inked in late March 2018. Early in April, Xi Jinping also seemed to indicate a willingness to compromise on trade. Though making no explicit commitments, Xi pledged to “significantly lower” tariffs on auto imports and to ease restrictions on foreign investment in China. The European Union, however, has shown no signs of backing down on its threat to increase tariffs on American products if Washington were to press ahead with increased tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Europe. On the contrary the European Union’s response has been to impose tariffs on products made in states represented by key Republican leaders.

Trump is frustrated because he is forced to work with the twenty-eight member European Union—unlike bilateral negotiations with China and Korea. Despite its inclusion in his strategy document, his refusal in practice to see trade as integral to national security—like his views on immigration and his uneasy relationship with European powers—reflects what can only be described as a mid-nineteenth-century understanding of national security and international affairs. His worldview is most deeply rooted in that earlier period of American history.

To the extent that he has given strategic matters any thought, Trump’s approach is not drawn from that of Andrew Jackson, the president he professes to admire most. Instead, it can more accurately be traced to a combination of policies variously associated with two other antebellum presidents: Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan.

Millard Fillmore was in many ways an accidental president. Fillmore was elected vice president in 1848 as the junior member of a ticket headed by Gen. Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Mexican-American War. Sixteen months after Taylor’s inauguration in March 1849, Fillmore was catapulted to the presidency when Taylor died suddenly in June 1850.

Fillmore, a New Yorker like Trump, was an exceedingly conservative politician. He turned a blind eye to slavery, publicly asserting that he was not an abolitionist. While Fillmore claimed to be personally opposed to slavery, he felt that the issue was a matter that the federal government could not legislate away. In that spirit he supported the 1850 Missouri Compromise, which his predecessor had opposed. This act both permitted the expansion of slavery to western states and spawned the Fugitive Slave Act that formed the starting point for the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case. Fillmore’s trade policies were both protectionist and aggressive. He sought trade advantages in Asia, supporting Commodore Perry’s efforts to open the Japanese market to the United States.

Nineteenth-century America witnessed the mass immigration of white Europeans, especially the Irish who sought to escape the ravages of the Potato Famine that had begun in 1845. White Protestant America was hostile to the overwhelmingly Catholic immigrants, and Fillmore—leaving the White House—openly aligned himself with the virulently anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party. Indeed, his only campaign for the presidency was as that party’s candidate, which had been renamed the American Party. He won only one state.

There were four leading contestants for the 1852 Democratic Party nomination for the right to seek to succeed Millard Fillmore—James Buchanan, Stephen Douglas, Lewis Cass and William Marcy. When a bitterly divided party could not agree on a candidate it nominated Franklin Pierce after thirty-four ballots. The Whig Party rejected Fillmore and instead nominated Gen. Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican-American War. Foreshadowing Trump’s own victory, Pierce was elected as much because of Scott’s inept campaigning as on his own merits.

Buchanan’s road to the presidency in 1856 was smoother. He won a plurality of votes on the first ballot, and then went on to win the Democratic Party’s then-required two-thirds majority on the seventeenth ballot. Running against John Fremont of the newly organized anti-slavery Republican Party, Buchanan won both because of Fremont’s vague platform and because the Know Nothing Party ate into Fremont’s potential vote.

Buchanan, even more than Fillmore, was indifferent to the expansion of slavery to states entering the Union. He considered slavery a matter for the states to decide; since blacks had no vote, the decision was left totally up to the white population. In that regard, he supported a constitution put forward by the pro-slavery faction in Kansas, which had become a battleground between those forces and abolitionists since the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act three years earlier.

Moreover, Buchanan appears to have influenced the outcome of the Dred Scott decision, which was handed down two days after his inauguration, by urging a justice from the Northern states to vote with his Southern colleagues. Having learned that the Southern view would prevail, Buchanan then included a request in his inaugural address that all abide by the court’s decision. The thinly veiled racist hint would not be the last of its kind emanating from a president.

Buchanan’s foreign policy, like that of Fillmore, was generally hostile to Europe but bullying toward Latin America, especially Cuba and Mexico. In particular, he employed the navy to pressure Britain to limit its presence in Central America; Britain controlled the colony of British Honduras, as well as numerous Caribbean islands.

Buchanan sought unsuccessfully to annex Cuba. As for Mexico, Buchanan tried to pressure America’s neighbor to the immediate south in a number of ways. He proposed to launch another attack on Mexico so as to seize its northern states, but the Congress would not go along. He asked Congress for funds to police both Mexico and Central America. Again, Congress did not cooperate. Finally, the Senate would not ratify a treaty that his administration had negotiated for American transit rights through Mexico. In the end, Buchanan managed to get Mexico—as well as Costa Rica and Colombia—to cover damages to American property and won transit rights from Nicaragua.