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How Trump Plans to Change the World

Walter Russell Mead

Eighteen months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the nature of his foreign policy continues to elude most observers. The problem is not, as some admirers claim, that he is playing an elaborate strategic game that his critics can’t grasp. Nor is it, as some detractors believe, that Mr. Trump is simply a creature of impulse with no fixed views. The president’s approach to foreign policy may well fail—indeed, there is a case it deserves to. But a Trump doctrine exists, and neither friends nor foes can afford to remain blind to it.

Mr. Trump is hard to understand not because he is deep but because he is different. American presidents since the 1940s have primarily sought to conserve the post-World War II order. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is a revisionist who wants to alter the terms of the world system in America’s favor. From the president’s perspective, America’s superior military strength and its large trade deficit provide important advantages in international politics. Mr. Trump wants to boost America’s military edge while using military and economic tools to persuade other powers to accept his revisions to the world system.

Mr. Trump respects China as a serious long-term rival but believes that its economy depends more on Sino-American trade than the U.S. economy does. This is partly because China is much poorer than the U.S. on a per capita basis. Further, Mr. Trump believes that America’s bilateral trade deficit means that the current arrangement heavily favors China, and that China would be less able to withstand a disruption to that relationship.

The unequal trading relationship, in Mr. Trump’s view, is a primary element in China’s rapid rise on the world stage. Revising it will limit China’s geopolitical reach while expanding American power. The goal is to reassure Chinese neighbors like Japan, South Korea and Vietnam on security matters while improving the terms of trade with all of Asia. If successfully executed, this could strengthen the American economy, check the rise of rivals, and improve Mr. Trump’s domestic political fortunes. The president is flexible about the new deal he seeks with China, willing to offer President Xi Jinping better terms if China plays a constructive role on the North Korea crisis and otherwise moderates its international behavior.

In Europe, Mr. Trump seems quite serious about disrupting the status quo. In his view, the trans-Atlantic relationship is more valuable to Germany than to the U.S., even as America contributes most to its upkeep. Mr. Trump believes Berlin understands its own reliance on the relationship. Ultimately, the thinking goes, the Germans will engage in serious discussions about a revised model that would be less costly and more beneficial for the U.S. Mr. Trump seems less interested in the views of smaller European states, except when their lobbying might affect Germany’s position.

Most controversially, Mr. Trump does not see Russia as a significant economic or military threat to vital U.S. interests. Therefore he does not believe that containing Russia should be the centerpiece of America’s European strategy. As a realist, he does not think ideological disagreements or humanitarian concerns about President Vladimir Putin’s regime should impede advantageous cooperation with Moscow. Instead, he would like to gain Russian support in the Middle East and to pull Russia away from China.

In the Middle East, Mr. Trump believes that the Iranian regime is implacably hostile to the U.S.—but overstretched and vulnerable to a mix of economic, diplomatic and military pressure. If Iran resumes its nuclear program, he will support and perhaps assist Israeli military action to stop it. He is ready to work closely with Arab allies, authoritarian though they may be, and expects those allies to support American economic and antiterror priorities in return.

After an initial period of hesitation, Mr. Trump now seems to feel that he can emancipate himself from the tutelage of an American foreign-policy establishment that he does not respect. He has rejected the advice of those who worry about the cost of trade wars. Other countries, he believes, need the American market so badly that new and better trade agreements can quickly be reached.

Mr. Trump has taken the measure of the foreign leaders with whom he must deal, and they do not intimidate him. Looking ahead, it seems likely that he will act with growing confidence on the world stage, bringing the instincts of a casino operator, a real-estate developer and a reality-television producer to the tasks of geopolitics.

Drama, crisis and risk have been Mr. Trump’s constant companions for many years. He will not be easily deterred. His unorthodox foreign policy may not succeed, but he is determined to give it a try. We should brace ourselves for a wild ride.

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