“My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want”.
Donald J. Trump, “The Art of the Deal”
Alphen, Netherlands. 6 January. Giving evidence to Congress yesterday leaders of the US intelligence community were clear; Russia was not only complicit in the election-warping theft of data and its release, Moscow is a “full-scope cyber-actor” engaged in a cyber offensive against the United States. In other words, Russia is using cyber as statecraft as part of a concerted anti-American geopolitical campaign. And yet, President-elect Trump seems to reject much of this assessment. Why?
Geopolitics is the competition of and for power. The successful conduct of geopolitics is driven by a clear understanding of a state’s interests, a proper perception of relative power and weakness, driven forward by well-considered policy, and applied via well-crafted strategy underpinned by an appropriate mix of hard and soft power tools and instruments of which cyber is now but one. The aim of geopolitics is to shape the choices of others in pursuit of those interests. Central to the successful conduct of geopolitics is in turn a proper understanding of the strategic environment, the likely choices and capabilities of adversary states and actors, and indeed those that lead them. Consequently, the gathering of information and the expertise to interpret it are the stuff of ‘intel’. Knowledge and understanding are strategic weapons in geopolitics.
However, if one reads with serious intent President-elect Trump’s recent Twitter storm his ‘beef’ with the US intelligence community seems to run far deeper than concerns that the intelligence community is seeking to de-legitimise his November 2016 election victory. There is profound ‘cultural’ dissonance between Trump’s understanding of geopolitics and that of much of the Washington policy establishment. For the status quo latter American geopolitics concerns the establishment and maintenance of strategic relationships with friendly states and actors vital to the securing of American interests. For the radical Trump geopolitics seems rather to simply be an extension of his real estate business, with the world as real estate.
Cultural friction is not the only issue between Trump and High Washington. President-elect Trump seems also to conflate his determination to ‘clear out the swamp’, with his rejection of intelligence assessments, and his desire to reform US intelligence efforts. Let me try and untangle the Trump conflation.
That US intelligence structures need reform is a moot point. There is no question that since the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in the wake of 911, to better co-ordinate the efforts of the many agencies in the domain of ‘intel’, there have been occasions when intelligence assessments and analysis have been politicised. The structure is also top heavy and critically the CIA’s vital Directorate of Operations has withered. However, the need for agency reform has nothing whatsoever to do with the US intelligence assessment of Russian complicity in the 2016 cyber-attack on American democracy, most of which comes from the National Security Agency (NSA). If Trump wants that evidence ‘re-scrubbed’ he should speak to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The British also have clear evidence of Russia’s 2016 cyber-offensive, and I am sure Prime Minister May would be only happy to share that information post the January 20th inauguration as part of the new ‘special relationship’.
What this rumpus really reveals is Donald J. Trump’s understanding of geopolitics is vastly different from that of High Washington. In Art of the Deal Trump states, “…listen to your gut, no matter how good something sounds on paper”. Trump has repeatedly said during the transition that he sees his strength as a deal-maker. In real estate the deal is the end in and of itself, with relationships merely a ‘beautiful’ means to that end. However, geopolitics are not iterative they are constant, meaning that relationships are as important as ends. Indeed, in geopolitics means and ends are essentially the same thing, with relationships built on years of analysis-led mutual understanding.
If President Trump sees geopolitics as merely a series of trade-offs then the world is in for a rough few years. For example, if President Trump seeks a deal with Putin over combatting Islamic State, would he in return accept Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and much of Eastern Ukraine? Will he offer Europe a continued American security guarantee but only in return for much more money spent by Europeans on their own defence, and on condition they offer more support for what he deems to be America’s interests? Art of the Deal suggests that implicit in any of those ‘deals’ would be the constant threat that he could abrogate all and any of them at any time if he did not get what he wanted, as he pushed for ever more. Art of the Deal certainly implies he will be anti-EU. He would far rather have a group of weak European satellites subject to his will, than a co-ordinated group that could act as both partner and competitor. If so, NATO would only be of utility to Trump as a tool for ensuring European compliance as the supplicant partner in a new transatlantic ‘deal’.
However, it is his relationship with China that is likely to be the biggest challenge for the Trump ‘doctrine’ of geopolitics. Donald Trump is instinctively attracted to those with a ruthless appetite for and understanding of power. That is why he is a ‘friend’ of Putin. However, Beijing is far more complicated and sophisticated than one-man Moscow. Like Beijing and Moscow Art of the Deal suggests that Trump geopolitics would also be instinctively drawn to the idea that might is right, with Western-led institutions seen merely as constraints on his deal-making action.
What allies need to understand is what matters to Trump. Trump’s overarching aim is to secure and maintain his own power and wealth. America is a means to that end. Preserving his voter-base will thus be central to Trump geopolitics. A trade deal with China is central to that ambition. However, to get such a ‘deal’ with China will demand trade-offs. What would those trade-offs be? Would be implicitly accept China’s absurdly grand self-proclaimed sphere of interest in East Asia in much the same way he is about to legitimate Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East? What would he want in return? China to stop using competitive devaluations of its currency in a de facto geo-economic ‘war’ with the US? China to enter into a bilateral trade deal with the US to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the rest of Asia-Pacific simply be forced to accept their 'place' in the new Pacific order? He says he wants China to thwart the nuclear ambitions of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un but in return for what? Would be implicitly accept that Taiwan's future is an internal Chinese matter? They must be quite nervous in Taipei right now.
Yesterday it was announced that two Russian warships had arrived in the Philippines for ‘exercises’. President Putin has sent those warships deep into the Pacific because he sees a strategic and political vacuum developing due to America’s retreat from geopolitics. Traditionally, American presidents have prevented the emergence of such vacuums by establishing early a series of foreign and security principles or 'doctrines' that make it clear to the world where America sees it vital interests, and which in turn are reinforced by a series of alliances and relationships.
If, as seems likely, President Trump abandons a ‘doctrine’ in favour of a series of iterative deals he will help deepen the emerging vacuum because neither allies nor adversaries will have any certainty as to the nature or extent of America’s commitment to them or indeed anything else. To say this would be somewhat of a paradox is an understatement; that is precisely what happened on President Obama’s watch with a White House that had neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, just values…and vague ones at that.
President-elect Trump must realise and quickly that the White House cannot play petty politics with geopolitics. There are brave Americans risking their lives and their freedom daily to give the Office of the President the information it needs for the Commander-in-Chief to successfully conduct geopolitics and, when the time inevitably comes, make some very big calls. And, there could well be a very big call to make during President Trump’s first year in office if North Korea proves it can place a nuclear warhead atop a missile capable of reaching Seattle.
In geopolitics gut feeling is never enough. Indeed, successful geopolitics demands far more than the art of the deal. ‘Deals’, however clever, are often the antithesis of geopolitics because in the absence of principles of political realism they destroy good, long-term relationships with friends, too often in favour of bad, short-term relationships with (excuse me) assholes.
Relationships not deals are the key to successful geopolitics as President Donald J. Trump will soon discover…along with the rest of us!