Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The opinions in this article belong to the author
Andelman: Trump risks providing the perfect message for the leaders of China and Russia
The US could lose the new Cold War before it's even started
Dear Mr. President,
Congratulations on your huge inauguration. Now, it’s time to confront the real world – and your first tests.
Now, everyone will be testing you, your mettle, your resolve – and especially the world according to your tweets. Crises, many of your own making, will be arriving from every direction. As president, you must be prepared to cope with them or defuse them before they overwhelm your entire agenda at home and abroad.
When you and your national security team arrive in the White House, you will find little to help you. As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former presidential adviser, observed when he and his National Security Council colleagues arrived in their offices in January 1989, “the cupboards were all bare,” not out of any malevolence.
“All the papers (of our predecessors) were gone from the safes to the National Archives.”
Starting with a clean slate has both its advantages and disadvantages. But in your case, the slate will hardly be completely clean. After all, as President-elect, you’ve been tweeting up a whole crowd of dangers in areas that have never before been crisis points. In each case, as president, every action, every one of your tweets, has real, tangible, potentially deadly consequences.
Test One: Syria
The first such test will begin just three days after your inaugural address. During a series of telephone calls between your national security advisor, Mike Flynn, and Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, President Putin extended an invitation to join Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government of Syria in the next round of Syrian peace talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan on January 23.
Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, observed, “Nobody can ignore the role of the United States,” as had all these parties during the final weeks of the Obama presidency.
So, does this return of the US to the table carry some pretty heavy quid pro quos? Quite likely. A quick end to Russian sanctions, for instance, which you’ve pledged to examine. All of Europe is anxiously watching. And in the coming year, with contentious elections in France and Germany, this is a particularly dangerous time for Europe, which Russia should not be allowed to exploit.
Better relations with Russia – sparked by an end to sanctions – may have consequences that reach far beyond any seat at a conference table in Astana.
Test Two: NATO
Your second challenge began barely a week before you even took office. An entire battalion of 3,500 US troops from Fort Carson, Colorado – under NATO auspices – backed by 80 main battle tanks and hundreds of armored vehicles, crossed the border from Germany into Poland, the old Iron Curtain.
NATO troops will be warmly welcomed in the face of such Russian gestures as the installation of batteries of nuclear-tipped Iskandar missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The key unknown? Will you, as president, keep US forces deployed?
Your interview five days before you took office with The Times of London and Germany’s Bild – particularly lumping Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel together as equals, your continued skepticism over the value of NATO, while linking nuclear arms reduction to a lifting of Russian sanctions – only reinforced fears that you could break with generations of political and strategic precedents that have maintained peace and stability in Europe.
The reality is that we should want better relations with Russia that would remove the need for any such measures. But at the top of your presidential agenda must be to help Russia understand that they must respect our national interests as much as they want us to respect theirs.
Test Three: China
As it happens, China may be an even more pressing challenge in the coming days, and your tweets are doing little to improve the atmosphere.
A host of deeply intertwined issues only complicate this relationship. China, it must be remembered, has 10 times the population of Russia, a more robust economy and is more closely linked to the US than Russia. Hence, there are more pressure points.
US companies have huge manufacturing operations in China and it is an exploding market for US goods, from cars and airliners to iPhones and even Hollywood movies. It also is one of the two largest holders of US treasury debt.
Contrary to your tweets, it is not manipulating its currency to our detriment.
Moreover, the US certainly doesn’t need an unwinnable trade war with China.
Test Four: North Korea
China also holds the key to the single most existential threat you may have to face: a North Korea with a deliverable nuclear threat.
Indeed, its unstable leader Kim Jong Un may even be tempted to test your presidential resolve in the earliest days of your presidency.
China can be an important lever on such a challenge, as it hardly wants an unpredictable neighbor with a nuclear-armed missile that could reach Beijing or Shanghai as well as Honolulu or San Francisco.
So, China may be prepared to ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang. But it would be little inclined to help if you, in turn, seem prepared to break with a half century of precedent and give aid and comfort to forces seeking to sever Taiwan from the mainland.
Test Five: ISIS and the refugees crisis
Terrorism and refugees will be at the top of your agenda from day one. As president, you cannot allow any grand desire to remake the Middle East overwhelm the need to maintain a degree of stability that allows the West to deal with those two immediate threats.
Stay the course in the war of the moment with ISIS. Continue to deny ISIS the territory that allowed its leaders to proclaim the creation of “the new caliphate.” Kill and capture as many of its leaders as possible, and prevent its followers from moving to Europe to carry on the war as terrorists. Removing territory from the grasp of ISIS will allow refugees to return home and send fewer into an exile that is not welcomed by any parties.
Test Six: Iran and Israel
Deeply intertwined are the issues of Iran and Israel. The nuclear treaty may appear near the top of your agenda, but it is not. Consider the repercussions of “tearing it up.” A mad dash by Iran for a nuclear weapon and a similar reaction by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates and Egypt will hardly bring Israel and Palestine closer to a settlement of their dispute, nor make the US or the rest of the world safer.
Equally, a sudden move to curry favor with Israel by becoming the first major nation to moving its embassy to Jerusalem will hardly win America many friends within Israel or abroad. Above all, do not feel as though you need to solve with any immediacy this Gordian knot that has entrapped a succession of your predecessors.
Test Seven: The Ultimate Danger – Isolated and Friendless
Above all, you must consider the ultimate danger – that any combination of actions could leave you and the nation you are leading isolated and friendless, backed into a corner in every region of the world.
Ending Russian sanctions or tearing up the Iranian treaty will cost you dearly among our most steadfast friends in Europe and Middle East. Picking a fight with China will only drive our remaining friends in Asia more closely into the arms of their giant neighbor. Tearing up the NAFTA trade pact will only destabilize the Western Hemisphere – the last remaining region of the world that remains tranquil and friendly.
Then there are your threats to opt out of the global climate pact that China has endorsed and a newfound agreement between Russia and China expressed in a virtually unprecedented joint statement condemning US deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system. This is some respects a greater threat than anything mentioned to your vision of establishing a new Trump global paradigm.
At Davos, China’s President Xi Jinping, paying the first visit by a Chinese leader, suggested this week, “the advent of new world order” as a replacement for the old “rules-based global order led by Washington.”
China and Russia are fully prepared to assume roles of global leadership long denied to them. If your Trump global agenda is not adroitly managed, you risk providing the perfect message for the leaders of China and Russia to their own people and much of the world: Just look at the mess democracy is in. America will have lost the new Cold War before it’s begun.