Trade and Globalisation


Donald Trump as a Nixonian president

09 Nov 2016 - 15:20

President Trump will have more power than his fellow leaders in other democracies, especially in the areas of security and foreign policy. When he is inaugurated on 20 January 2017, he will among other things become commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of foreign policy. The War Powers Act gives him the ability to deploy troops on his own initiative for 60 to 90 days in trouble spots around the world. And to personally carry out drone strikes every morning, a power Obama used during the covert operations in Asia, the Horn of Africa and Libya. The nuclear codes are also in his portfolio. It gives the American president staggering potential power.

In his campaign, Trump said that he wanted to conduct his foreign policy like he runs his business empire. Apparently, only he knows how to close a good international deal. According to him, this 'art of the deal' will always produce a masterpiece because Trump will be capable of playing the power card ruthlessly and, above all, smartly. Ideals are irrelevant, only the result counts. In all this macho arm wrestling in the business world, Trump prefers to operate alone. He knows what to do. He doesn’t tolerate proper advisors.

From day one in the White House Trump the businessman will discover that different skills are required in politics. It is sometimes necessary to behave like a bully in the world of international politics too, but usually progress is only achieved through a lengthy, subtle diplomatic game in which Trump will be just one of the players. Doing business and conducting politics are as different as apples and oranges. As a politician, Trump will make no progress at all if he is not willing to collaborate with his ministers, generals and Congress, which among other things has to approve the defence budget.

He may dispute NATO’s right to exist, but there is hardly any politician who supports him in this view. He will also have to discuss with his Secretary of Commerce and Congress how to erect a tariff wall of no less than 45 per cent to keep out China, with all the inevitable financial and geopolitical consequences.

Seen from this perspective, all President Trump’s crazy adventures might not add up to much after all. He constantly preaches ‘America First’ but on the other hand he wants tough action on ISIS with the heavy bombardments that he consistently promised during his campaign. But military advisors will explain to him that such an approach could lead to intensified, never-ending US involvement in the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. The humanitarian and financial price of a major military intervention would be huge. That will put Trump off.

Trump demonstrated bizarre behaviour during the campaign but he is not stupid. If he wants to be re-elected — which is, after all, the wish of almost every president — he will have to be able to show some results in 2020. Depicting Trump in advance as a dangerous business bully in the international arena is unnecessarily doom-ridden — for the moment.

The lights will not go out over America and the rest of the world now that Trump has been chosen and we will not be cast into darkness. History has taught us that the American democracy is mature and can cope with a bruising. The American people have spoken. We will consider President Trump critically but we will not simply write him off entirely beforehand. We will judge him according to his deeds. However, we can certainly expect Trump to pursue a foreign policy in the Nixonian tradition of power politics, rather than the Wilsonian legalistic tradition, which is characterised by a strong emphasis on universal values and standards. Getting hard results seems to be what Trump cares about most. Like President Nixon, Trump will be heavily dependent on his Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. And on many others.