Trump lacks the brains to reshape the world, even if he thinks he can

The US president-elect has been tearing up the diplomacy playbook, but he is either talking off the top of his head or trying to emulate Richard Nixon’s madman theory of foreign policy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2016, 1:37am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 6:19am

Donald Trump had barely finished telling Fox News he might end the one-China policy of the US when alarm bells on the mainland started ringing. A cornerstone of Sino-US relations, the doctrine is deliberately ambiguous so that all sides – including Taiwan – can interpret it the way they want without provoking an outright conflict.

By giving up on “one China”, Trump would not only overturn a policy but also eliminate that calculated “win-win” ambiguity. That would mean Washington would have to explicitly define its commitment – or lack of it – to defending the renegade island if push comes to shove. Is Trump ready to force the US into committing one way or another?

Watch: China warns Trump on Taiwan comments

Trump has been taking shots at many of the key international arrangements that underpin the US-led world order in the last few decades. It’s hard not to think his potshot at “one China” is just one of those things.

He has said the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) is obsolete and that he would consider pulling out if other member states don’t cough up more money and resources. He has said the same thing about insufficient defence spending of Japan and South Korea, saying at one point both Asian countries should go nuclear.

‘Donald Trump is ignorant and one-China negotiations won’t happen’, state media says

That might save on defence while strengthening deterrents, presumably to North Korea and China. Trump has also threatened to scupper the international agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions, one of the signature foreign policy goals of the Obama administration. Admittedly, this is not an outlier like the others as most Republicans oppose the deal.

With respect to Canada and Mexico, Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) “the single worst trade deal ever” and threatened to tear it apart unless he can renegotiate. The pact has been the foundation of free trade between the three countries since the mid-1990s. I haven’t even gone into climate change.

He may have a grand scheme to reshape the entire global order. But neither Trump nor anyone working for him has the strategic knowledge or conceptual genius of a Henry Kissinger or a Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Trump is either talking off the top of his head or rehearsing Richard Nixon’s “I am a mad man” routine to throw world leaders off balance. It’s probably a bit of both.