What’s the world to make of Donald Trump’s foreign policy advisers?
Republican presidential nominee’s Asia policy influenced by fierce critic of China
Unlike Hillary Clinton’s star-studded campaign team, analysts seem to have few clues who is advising Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on foreign policy issues.
“We know so little about Trump and, quite frankly, we don’t know very much about the kind of people he would take advice from,” said David Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins’ school of advanced international studies.
Apparently, it is in part a problem of Trump’s own making.
According to Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, Trump is an unconventional candidate with his own particular way of looking at things.
“Trump has made it clear that he does have a lot of advisers, but he does not need a lot of advisers,” she said. “He is his own best adviser.”
When Trump unveiled little-known members of his foreign policy team early this year, many prominent Republicans and supporters of the real estate billionaire appeared baffled, questioning Trump’s readiness to lead the country in a changing and volatile world.
Led by Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s advisory team includes former Defence Department inspector general Joe Schmitz and Lebanon-born counterterrorism expert Walid Phares, both of whom are critics of US President Barack Obama’s foreign and domestic policies on Muslims.
Others include retired US Army lieutenant general Joseph Kellogg, who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, the managing partner of Global Energy Capital, Carter Page, a former investment banker who graduated from the US Naval Academy, and energy consultant George Papadopoulos, who graduated from college seven years ago, according to Trump campaign officials.
Like his 13-member economic advisory team – comprising mainly real estate investors, hedge-fund managers and Wall Street bankers – his foreign advisers have been widely criticised as having little global exposure and no clear policymaking track records.
“These are not the advisers Trump is looking for. These are the advisers who are looking for Trump,” Foreign Policy magazine said in a commentary.
Many observers note that Trump’s line-up is a departure from the tradition of choosing veterans of previous Republican administrations with lengthy careers at the Pentagon or State Department.
“Many of the people around Trump are hardly known in the wider public,” said Lampton. “We don’t have any real idea of what their China policy would be and many of them don’t have much experience. So it could be that Trump would have wider swings in policy.”
Robert Sutter, of George Washington University, said many prominent Republicans, including retired officials and those in the Congress, disagreed with the way Trump was dealing with Asia.
“Trump has alienated a large cohort of Republican experts who have been very important in promoting America’s strong engagement with Asia,” he said. “His campaign on these issues and discussions are not informed by these specialists who are quite prominent in many cases, such as Robert Zoellick, [a former president of the World Bank]and Richard Armitage, [a former US deputy secretary of state under George W Bush and assistant secretary of defence under Ronald Reagan].
“This is a big loss because it means this force that really put Asia in a high priority is missing right now,” Sutter said.
Economy also pointed out that many heavyweight Republican advisers had ruled out being a part of Trump’s campaign or administration.
“It’s not so much that those advisers have been marginalised,” she said. “It’s just that these advisers have taken themselves out of contention because they don’t want to participate and they don’t want to support him.”
Some observers noted that of Trump’s advisory group, which largely remains a mystery to the outside world, only one familiar name stood out as being relatively experienced in Asian affairs: Peter Navarro.
While Navarro, a 67-year-old professor of economics and public policy at the University of California, Irvine, is a member of Trump’s economic team, he is also believed to be the campaign’s most influential figure on Asia policy.
“Honestly, the only person who’s been working on Trump’s Asian policy is Navarro,” Economy said. “He’s an economist and he’s written a fair amount about China, but he’s not a China expert. He’s the only one significant name [among his advisers] that I know.”
Describing himself as “distinguished author, distinguished speaker and distinguished professor” on his personal website, Navarro, a fierce critic of free trade and China, is best known for making a controversial 2011 documentary, Death by China.
While Trump spoke highly of the film, which attacked China on issues such as currency manipulation, abusive trade policies and toxic consumer products, the documentary, like many of Navarro’s economic analyses, was criticised as “one-sided” hyperbolic assertions supported with little evidence.
He admitted in a 2012 interview with Bloomberg that he had not visited China since the publication of his book The Coming China Wars in 2006.
“Since I wrote that book … it’s dangerous for me to go back there,” Navarro told Bloomberg. “My co-author Greg Autry was followed, and they searched his room.”
Navarro ran unsuccessfully four times for public office as a Democrat in San Diego, California, in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The most talked-about facet of his relationship with Trump was the fact that he had never met or spoken to the Republican nominee on the phone until weeks after he’d started working on Trump’s campaign early this year.
In a letter publicly endorsing Trump in March, he said: “Those who insist Donald Trump has no foreign policy are simply not listening. The ‘Trump Doctrine’ is a page right out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook: peace through economic and military strength.”
Navarro is known for his often inflammatory and relentless remarks on China and US President Barack Obama’s trade policies.
He claimed in a Huffington Post opinion piece in May that it was “only a matter of time” before an increasingly assertive China attempted to take the Diaoyu Islands from the Japanese by force, and that the US should be prepared militarily to respond to such an attack. In Japan the islands are called the Senkakus.
“There are any number of scenarios in which China might attack the Senkakus,” Navarro said. “Until disputes like these are unequivocally resolved, does it really make sense to continue to engage in massive economic trade with China?”
It has been widely reported in the US that Trump appeared to be having trouble finding the right people to run a successful campaign and transition team.
Observers said that if he was elected president, he would quite likely fill his administration with many people from outside his campaign team.
One possible pool of experts Trump might look to is the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Trump is known to have close ties with the foundation, including its former president Ed Feulner and economist Stephen Moore, who are among a handful of conservatives who expressed willingness to work for his transition team.
“If he were to become president, Trump would have to seal a number of positions he would have to have,” Economy said. “We don’t know who those people are likely to be at this point. So it’s not impossible that some of these people who’ve not been part of the campaign will become important players in a new Republican administration. We just don’t know.”