Donald Trump may (or may not) be good at negotiating in the business world, but he is a novice to international diplomacy and policymaking. International diplomacy is not just about bluffing or not in order to earn more money on an individual hotel, resort, or casino. It is not about standing firm and talking loudly. International relations at this high level are about nuanced alliances, honor, stability, support, and demonstrated friendship — all in a web of a couple hundred countries, with each affecting the other to some degree or another.
We do not have a simplistic relationship with China and a completely separate relationship with Russia and a completely separate relationship with the UK and so on. We have a relationship with China that affects our relationship with Russia, the UK, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries.
Furthermore, there are a few core global issues that affect our relationship to a couple hundred countries all at once.
China is a giant in international geopolitics and the global economy, but we probably forget how quickly this came about. Discussions 20 years ago didn’t ask, “Who’s more influential — China or the US?” They do today.
China’s international policy and economic alliances have increasingly put its power at the negotiation table equal to the USA’s. I think most would claim that US and global history — including the USA’s early leadership in democracy — have kept the red and white stripes of the old New World in the pole position, but that informal ranking has become more and more questionable and fragile.
After a decades-long geopolitical focus that basically made global US leadership vulnerable to an Asian superpower, at the same time that China quickly rose in economic and political power, Obama has been making progress to correct course in order to not lose our prime influence in the global marketplace.
But just at this tenuous time, Donald Trump has risen to power and Obama’s work has been undermined by strong movements within both the Democratic and Republican political communities.
Whether you support Trump or not, there’s no debate that he’s quite unpredictable and his presidency on the international stage could go a number of different ways. Inherent in that, he no doubt threatens to undo our longstanding position on the global stage and the work Obama has been doing to preserve it.
China probably realizes this as well as anybody, and I think its leaders are giddy at the opportunity to humiliate, marginalize, and take power over from the USA.
One sign of this came almost immediately after the election. China’s president had a quick, cordial call with Donald Trump after his win and buttered Trump up a bit with compliments. Trump’s takeaway: they had a “clear sense of mutual respect” for each other. But President Xi Jinping also reportedly said that “cooperation was the only choice” for the two, marking a clear stance against Trump’s proposals on the campaign trail.
The follow-up message in a major Chinese newspaper was even more clearly communicated: China will destroy the US economy if the US tries to move forward with Trump’s “naive” campaign proposals.
Apple iPhone and iPad sales in China would be halted. US auto and airplane imports would be blocked. The US would be left out of the gigantic, fast-growing Chinese economy.
From that Chinese newspaper: “When the time comes, large orders for Boeing planes would switch to Europe, US auto sales in China would face setbacks, Apple phones would essentially be crowded out, and US soybeans and corn would be eradicated from China. Trump, coming from a business background, is very astute. We do not believe he will treat China-US trade so childishly.” (I don’t think it was a coincidence that Boeing was mentioned and that Trump had referenced his friend at the head of Boeing when complaining about China on the campaign trail as well.)
But I think the place where China sees the biggest opening to not just assert its power through bravado like that but to legitimately undermine US international influence is in much less obvious global climate negotiations. Well, if you are Joe Romm, you saw this coming 100 miles away, but as we crawl into a Trump presidency, I think China is genuinely eager to push Trump and draw blood quickly. But let me just be completely clear: China isn’t looking to make the approach obvious. The attacks will be disguised and international witnesses will not be able to confirm an assault was made.
Interestingly, Russia may already be in on the plan.
From Sandy Dechert’s article last night about comments made at the COP22 climate negotiations in Morocco, here are two noteworthy quotes:
Liu Zhenmin of the Chinese delegation: “As the largest developed economy in the world, US support is essential. We have to expect they will take a smart and wise decision.”
Russia’s lead negotiator, Oleg Shamanov, said: “We’re talking about the big challenge of climate change. This issue is bigger than life. This is a long-term issue, longer than any mandate of any president of country X or Z, even if that country is a big one.”
I’m not a conspiracy theorist (unlike President-elect Trump, apparently), but I do love detective stories, and I think the jostling for power in the geopolitical arena is getting very serious right now. If you were a major power trying to diminish the USA’s role and grow your own, what is a better topic to take the high road on than one that is deeply moral, acknowledged to be a major concern of more than 190 countries, and priority numero uno for many of these nations?
In case you aren’t aware, Russia has long worked to weaken climate action. The statement above from Oleg Shamanov indicates to me that Russia sees this as a critical way to weaken the overall geopolitical power of the United States.
Will Trump’s team pick up on the nuance? Will it work to keep improving on the international climate and trade legacy Obama was trying to leave the country? Will it buck the science denial and obstructionism of domestic Republican Congresspeople who are disturbingly short-sighted, immoral, and societally suicidal? Will Trump take an opposite stance from what he has been saying for years, and what top advisor Steve Bannon’s website has been saying? Or will the Trump team keep itself uninformed, naive, ignorant, and arrogantly playing the “global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese” game?
One would hope that Trump’s team changes course quickly on this topic, but we’ve so far seen no sign of evidence it will and have seen a few very strong signs that it won’t.
Whichever path Trump chooses, this is another instance where Obama has made it easy for Trump to succeed and look good. But Trump could just as easily miss the story and destroy US credibility, US influence, and the US economy.
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