Forget RussiaGate for the moment. Forget James Comey’s upcoming testimony before the Senate intelligence committee. Forget all the conspiratorial speculation that Donald Trump is the plaything of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In strictly foreign policy terms, Trump’s election is not really working out so well for the Kremlin. The sanctions against Russia are still in place, and Congress wants to make them even more punitive. Nikki Haley is lambasting Putin and his policies from her perch at the United Nations. Various investigations into the compromising ties of the Trump team represent a significant speed bump in the administration’s efforts to restart relations with Russia.
The Chinese are another matter.
Virtually everything that Donald Trump has done since taking office has somehow advantaged Beijing. One of the first actions of the administration was withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trade deal among a dozen countries that deliberately excluded China. Whatever the TPP’s potential impact on workers and consumers in the United States and the other signatories, whatever legitimate opposition the TPP generated among progressives, China was delighted to see the agreement unravel. China is the number one trading partner for virtually every country in the Pacific region. The dissolution of the TPP helps to preserve that advantage.
The most recent action by the Trump administration, the withdrawal from the Paris climate pact, is also a boon for Beijing. Once an international pariah for its growing carbon footprint, China has turned around its reputation by investing heavily into sustainable energy and embracing a Green future. Now, with the United States scurrying backward into the 19th century, China can present itself as a global leader in the 21st century on climate change and a range of other issues.
In between the withdrawals from the TPP and the Paris pact, the Trump administration has proceeded in a textbook manner to reduce U.S. influence in the world and give China a leg up. Some progressive critics of U.S. foreign policy are relishing what they believe is the first step in the collapse of the U.S. empire. Noted Norwegian sociologist Johann Galtung has even revised his prediction that U.S. global power will collapse from 2025 to 2020.
China is indeed gaining a lot from the Trump presidency. The reports of the imminent death of the U.S. empire, however, are greatly exaggerated.
Trump and China
In the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, the Communists capture a platoon of American soldiers and attempt to brainwash them. They succeed in turning one of the soldiers, Raymond Shaw, into an unwitting assassin that they plan to reinsert into American society. Shaw is related by marriage to a far right-wing politician patterned after Joseph McCarthy, so the notion that the stepson of a prominent red-baiter is a sleeper agent must have been a delicious Cold War irony for many in the audience at the time.
Over the last year, a number of writers have pointed to the relevance of The Manchurian Candidate to what’s happening today in the United States. Imagine, writes Neal Gabler, that
a candidate’s staff cooperates with Russian intelligence to sabotage his opponent, and then, once he’s president, openly embraces and even celebrates Russian adventurism and violence in what can only be a quid pro quo. Then, for good measure, throw in the assistance of the FBI to lacerate your opponent while covering up news of your Russian contacts. You wouldn’t have believed it for a second. And yet, here we are.
Donald Trump was never in the military. His oversized ego would seem to make him impervious to brainwashing. And even though he counted Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel, as a mentor, Trump was a relatively liberal Democrat for much of his life. He would seem to be a lousy candidate for a Manchurian candidate.
It’s also hard to imagine, given Trump’s wildly vacillating views, that the Russians expected him to do their bidding. More likely, they were hoping simply to inject an element of chaos into the U.S. political system. If this were indeed their aim, Putin and company have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
As for the Chinese, they probably had even lower expectations of Trump’s potential usefulness. After all, during his presidential campaign, Trump had nothing good to say about China. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing,” he declared at one point. “It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.” He accused China of manipulating its currency, stealing jobs, polluting the environment.
Then, after only a few months in office, Trump changed his tune. In April, he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and suddenly he sounded like a teenage boy after a first date. “I really liked him,” Trump gushed. “We had a great chemistry, I think. I mean at least I had a great chemistry – maybe he didn’t like me, but I think he liked me.”
All the hurtful comments of the past were forgotten as Trump imagined a future of happy cooperation. “Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?” he wrote on Twitter. “We will see what happens!”
Trump was following a common presidential pattern. Candidates bash China to win votes. Once in the White House, however, presidents discover just how important China is to the U.S. economy.
Trump, the businessman, began to “evolve” in his positions when the Chinese began to make their pitches. Chinese investors like Jack Ma of Alibaba promised to create a million jobs in the United States. Others are eyeing future contracts in Trump’s promised infrastructure boom. Then there’s Kushner Company’s promotion of a path to citizenship for Chinese (and others) who invest $500,000 in New Jersey real estate – yet another disturbing example of collusion between high-ranking officials in the administration, in this case Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and the enterprises to which they remain linked.
And here’s an even more naked example of corruption involving China. Even as she was having dinner with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago during his first state visit of the Trump administration, the president’s daughter received trademark approval to sell Ivanka brand geegaws and spa services throughout China. Most recently, Chinese authorities detained three labor activists investigating working conditions at the factories producing shoes with Ivanka’s brand. Here was an opportunity for Trump supporters to express outrage that their president was encouraging the outsourcing of production to China and the substandard conditions that enabled those products to be competitive with U.S.-made brands. Not a peep.
On the military security side in Asia, meanwhile, Trump has focused exclusively on North Korea and paid scant attention to the conflicts between China and a half-dozen countries over territory in the South China Sea. Indeed, the Trump administration has abandoned the effort of the Obama administration to reorient U.S. foreign policy to the Pacific. To the extent that Trump pays any attention to the world, he is focused on the Middle East: strengthening relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel, creating a broad anti-Iranian front, and destroying the Islamic State.
The Pacific pivot, as I write in a recent TomDispatch essay, has become the Pacific retreat. U.S. decline in Asia “has, in recent years, often been calculated in terms of approaching horizons: when North Korean missiles can reach the West Coast; when China’s military spending pulls closer to the Pentagon’s; when Japan and South Korea, like the Philippines, begin to reconsider their allegiances. Now, in the Trump era, add one more item to the list: when Asia faces an incompetent, corrupt, and self-defeating administration in Washington.”
China couldn’t have asked for a more pliant president than Donald Trump.
Not Henry Kissinger
If anyone in American history has resembled a Manchurian candidate, it would be Henry Kissinger. Not only was he responsible for the détente in U.S.-Chinese relations during the Nixon years, he went on to become Beijing’s greatest defender in the subsequent decades. Outside of government, he has also made hundreds of millions of dollars as a consultant linking China to outsider investors. Of course, Kissinger is no foreign agent. He’s only interested in boosting his own political and economic power. China has simply been the vehicle for his own self-aggrandizement.
Donald Trump is no Kissinger. His America First approach to world affairs flies in the face of Kissinger’s brand of liberal internationalism in which political and corporate elites from various countries benefit from a globalizing economy. By adhering to a nationalist foreign policy, the United States will lose its international edge in virtually all categories, from finance to trade to the soft power of the U.S. Agency for International Development. If Trump were brainwashed by a foreign power, it obviously removed his brain, gave it a thorough washing, then forgot to put it back in.
Indeed, Trump’s ham-fisted foreign policy makes me almost nostalgic for Kissinger who, despite being a war criminal, at least understood that the toolbox for international affairs contains more than just bombs and bullets. Kissinger was always focused on expanding and strengthening U.S. global power (and, by extension, his own). Trump, meanwhile, will preside over a significant decline in U.S. global influence, which the Chinese (and others) will celebrate.
But progressives should hold the applause. With his preference for Pentagon budget hikes and the reckless use of U.S. firepower, Trump will ensure that the United States remains the most powerful military in the world. And without other tools in the toolbox, Washington will turn more and more to the Pentagon to implement foreign policy objectives.
We can’t blame this on the Russians or the Chinese. The former are wondering if their investments in Trump were worthwhile; the latter are rejoicing at the unexpected windfall. But in the end, Donald Trump is controlled by nobody but Donald Trump. And that’s the scariest proposition of them all.