Congratulatory phone calls between foreign leaders are seldom eventful affairs, with their boilerplate readouts usually scrutinized only by a select few. Not so with President-elect Donald Trump. With still a month and a half left to go before his inauguration, no less than three of his conversations with Asian leaders – from Taiwan, Pakistan, and the Philippines – sparked alarm worldwide in just a few days about potentially dramatic U.S. foreign policy changes once he takes office.
News about Trump’s calls were greeted a mix of sensationalist speculation and cynical dismissiveness. Some read the calls as signals by an administration whose foreign policy would diverge significantly from that of Barack Obama. His call with Taiwan was read as an early indicator of a more muscular approach toward China, while some accounts of his reportedly warm calls with Pakistan and the Philippines suggested that he might adopt a more conciliatory approach to two countries that have not exactly been in Washington’s good books of late. Others dismissed this as much ado about nothing.
As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere between these two polarizing views. On the one hand, as I have indicated previously in my in-depth look at what to expect from Trump’s Asia policy, too much tea-leaf reading now based on a few phone calls is premature when even sources close to Trump have indicated that as with other incoming U.S. presidents, it may take a year or so before we get a clear sense of what things will look like.
If you believe the headlines about Trump’s calls with Taiwan, Pakistan, and the Philippines and take them at face value, then in just one week he has single-handedly departed from Washington’s decades-old “one China” policy, thawed icy relations with Pakistan, and rolled out the red carpet for the anti-American Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House next year. But given that we are dealing with a candidate with no governing experience, little personal interest in foreign affairs, a speaking style that is relatable but also often inexact and incoherent, a habit of reversing or moderating his earlier positions, and a still incomplete Cabinet without a secretary of state, it would be unwise to take everything he says now as indications of what his administration will do once it actually begins governing.
Furthermore, apart from Trump himself, recent history has taught us time and time again that even if incoming administrations do try to undertake bold foreign policy departures, these initial positions often moderate or are eventually recalibrated given the constraints and crises they face. Then-President Jimmy Carter eventually reversed course on his Trumpian call to withdraw U.S. troops from the Philippines and South Korea following the Vietnam War after encountering stiff bureaucratic resistance and rising regional and global threats. In the case of Carter’s successor Ronald Reagan’s campaign suggestion that the United States re-recognize Taiwan back in August 1980, it took a few years for recalibration to take place between the United States, China, and Taiwan. If indeed there is a policy change that occurs, history suggests that there will be a gradual adjustment by all sides rather than some kind of apocalyptic scenario.
That does not mean that Trump’s early interactions with foreign leaders do not matter at all, however. Although the calls may tell us very little about new policy departures that a Trump administration is likely to adopt, they do compound existing anxieties about how the foreign policy process will be run during his administration that warrant attention given how unconventional of a president-elect he is. Specifically, there are three anxieties: whether or not he will adhere to traditional diplomatic practice; what the exact composition, hierarchy, and nature of his advisers will be; and how he will manage potential conflicts of interest brought about by the business dealings of the Trump family.
The first anxiety relates to style. A key concern about Trump, both during the campaign and after, has been whether an unconventional candidate will eventually evolve to embrace conventional diplomatic practices once he takes office or whether he will continue to violate them and raise even greater uncertainty in the foreign policy realm. Though it is still early days, the calls offer little comfort in this regard. The Trump campaign insists that they have been following the necessary protocol and preparations required to arrange these phone calls. But it is worrying that Trump has been taking the calls despite refusing the traditional intelligence briefings given to incoming presidents, since they provide useful contours and context upon which the next commander-in-chief (especially an inexperienced one) can engage countries.
With respect to the content of the calls, though Trump’s unconventional speaking style, with its hyperbolic and inexact language, may make him relatable at home, it has already gotten him into trouble abroad. The thing that is truly troubling about the accounts we have gotten from foreign governments – whether it be Trump promising to “play any role” Pakistan wants him to play in resolving outstanding problems or endorsing Duterte’s war on drugs – is that the next U.S. president, given his record, probably did say something to that effect, even though he did not mean it literally. And though it is easy to dismiss the value of this domestically in terms of U.S. foreign policymaking, the words of an incoming president carry weight internationally and foreign governments can be expected to play up any signs of support from Washington to boost their own legitimacy.
It is certainly true that this is not just Trump’s fault, as his advisers will quickly point out. In the case of the Pakistan call, for instance, Islamabad departed from traditional diplomatic practice by releasing an unusually candid version of the conversation written almost in Trump’s voice, rather than a dry, general readout that focuses more on what their own side emphasized rather than specifics about what the other side said. But silence or lack of clarity from the Trump side, as well as Trump’s own tweets, have at times only further muddied the waters. In the case of the Taiwan call, for example, though it is clear that it was planned, as most of these conversations often are, different sources and advisers close to Trump assigned varying levels of significance as to what it meant. Trump’s own tweets, first downplaying the call as a spontaneous and routine congratulatory message, then feeding speculation that the call signaled a more hawkish line on China by saying that Beijing did not seek U.S. permission for unfair trade practices and its South China Sea assertiveness, confused more than they clarified.
The second area of concern is advice. Given Trump’s inexperience in governing in general and foreign policy in particular, the question of who is advising him becomes even more significant, even if the buck eventually does stop at the president. But because Trump was an unconventional outsider strongly resisted among even mainstream Republicans, he did not have nearly as deep of a bench of functional and regional advisers during the campaign who were highly visible to the press as has traditionally been the case, and the degree to which “never Trumpers” will eventually return to serve in his administration is still unclear.
As a result, even though we know a few individuals who are in the running for posts or who are advising the transition team, we do not yet know the likely hierarchy of Trump’s advisers for specific areas like Asia as well as the balance of influence between various positions within key bureaucracies that will tell us how much policy continuity or change there will actually be. That creates even more uncertainty than is usually the case for presidential transitions as we wait for positions to fill in well into 2017. And as the calls last week demonstrated, it also provides the opening for speculation and conspiracy theories to take hold about shadowy interest groups or influential individuals – whether they be “neocons” or “China hawks” – hijacking the administration’s foreign policy in the absence of more seasoned Asia hands.
That was evident in the case of the Taiwan call in particular. The idea of rebalancing the way the United States deals with both China and Taiwan within the bounds of its longstanding one China policy and in light of changing circumstances – including Beijing’s recent troubling behavior and the new government in Taipei – is far from new and has been a topic of heated debate in Washington for decades. What is different with the Taiwan call is that it happened during an incoming administration of an unconventional and polarizing candidate without much public knowledge of both the personalities and processes ongoing within the campaign. That provided some with the opening to either prematurely dismiss it as a careless mistake or hold it up as a sign of a more hawkish China policy, which they themselves would like to see or speculate about, but may not necessarily end up manifesting.
Of course, in reality, it is neither. As one source familiar with the call told The Diplomat, while it was scheduled well in advance, as calls like these often are, and the campaign was prepared for potential blowback, focus on the call itself neglects not just Trump’s call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but the conversations that have been going on between the transition team and Chinese interlocutors as well. Nonetheless, perceptions often create their own reality, and the lack of knowledge about the composition and nature of Trump’s key advisers only fuels uncertainty in already fiercely debated areas of U.S. foreign policy and creates openings for uninformed speculation and conspiracy theories to flourish.
The third and final anxiety relates to interests. Trump’s business background has meant that, irrespective of what he did, there would be questions about whether, as president, he is promoting the national interest or his own business interests. But Trump has done himself few favors by not putting this behind him quickly and definitively. Though he has said he will turn over the company to his three oldest children – Donald, Jr., Ivanka, and Eric – and will make an announcement on December 15 with more details, given how deeply Trump’s family is involved in both his business as well as in providing him with political advice, there are doubts about whether this will be sufficient. Similar questions have been raised about some of Trump’s current and potential advisers, including Michael Flynn.
The result has been a slow drip of revelations about Trump’s business dealings following his election victory, prompting concern even among some of his supporters. Apart from the ethics surrounding potential conflicts of interest, they rightly worry that these dealings will result in scrutiny and speculation over related policy positions that a Trump administration adopts. The extent of Trump’s empire indicates that his is no small challenge. Information from Trump’s financial disclosures indicate that his companies have business operations in at least 20 countries, including several influential Asian countries like India, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
The cloud of a potential conflict of interest hung over several of Trump’s calls from last week. Following Trump’s call with Duterte, some already began to speculate that his alleged White House invite and support of the controversial war on drugs had to do with Jose E. B. Antonio, a Philippine developer in business with the Trump family on a tower in Manila and who was named special envoy to the United States by Duterte back in October. Even though Antonio already told Bloomberg News in late November that he saw no conflict of interest in both of his roles, that has not stopped speculation about the potential complications. Similarly, on Taiwan, earlier reports that Trump Organization representatives has visited the northern Taiwanese city of Taoyuan to explore a possible hotel venture near the international airport resurfaced after his call with Tsai, driving speculation about a business aspect to Trump’s emerging Taiwan policy. A Trump Organization representative denied this was the case, but again concerns persisted over potential complications.
As this analysis makes clear, the real trouble with Trump’s Taiwan call – and his early interactions with foreign leaders more generally – relate not to the extent to which he is departing from policy in a new way with every single thing he does or says, but rather the degree to which they compound lingering and legitimate concerns about whether or not he will adhere to traditional diplomatic practice; what the exact composition, hierarchy, and nature of his advisers will be; and how he will manage potential conflicts of interest brought about by the business dealings of the Trump family.
Some of these anxieties will be eased in time, as is often the case with personnel decisions. But others, like how he sorts out conflicts of interest and adheres to the established diplomatic traditions, may take a while longer to sort out and the jury is still out on exactly what will occur. As this process unfolds, we would do well to focus on these key questions rather than engaging in sensationalist and uninformed speculation about policies that have yet to be formed.