On Trump’s foreign policy, let common sense prevail
The US president-elect and his cabinet nominees are not yet speaking as one; on matters such as China, the present course should be followed
American foreign policy has been shaped over centuries of trial and error. Donald Trump, who takes over the presidency in four days, has never before served in government, so is yet to appreciate the process. The differences of opinion expressed between what he has said and by his cabinet nominees during confirmation hearings before lawmakers made it clear that firm positions have yet to be laid out. Only towards China has there been any consistency, but even then, given the lack of a mapped-out policy, there is still every chance for common sense to prevail.
Trump has been fleshing out his vision in a series of media interviews in recent days, reiterating principles of ensuring fair trade deals for the US and protecting its borders. He said the emphasis should be smart, rather than free, trade. Taiwan would appear to be an integral part of his China strategy: he said “everything is under negotiation, including one China”, seemingly making the island a bargaining chip. It is the second time he has made the threat since breaking with well-established US protocol in November by having a phone conversation with Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen.
His choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, similarly angered Beijing by telling senators that China’s reclamation projects in the South China Sea were illegal and Chinese access to the area should not be allowed. But he and James Mattis, the nominee for defence secretary, diverged from the president-elect on numerous key areas, among them relations with Russia, American links to Nato, the nuclear deal with Iran and the Paris climate change pact. Tillerson admitted that there had not been much discussion about policy issues.
An effective foreign policy requires all government branches to speak with a single voice. Trump, his cabinet and other advisers have to decide what they want and lawmakers and the State Department and at times, the Supreme Court, have vital roles. There will be disagreements, but there is every need for consensus and a common line. On matters such as China and climate change, among others, the already set course makes the most sense.