The Obama-Trump Grand Strategy

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At the same time, the Trump partisans and apolitical normies who like the North Korea summit need to recognize that the problems that beset Obama’s attempt at “offshore balancing” could beset Trump’s efforts as well. Hegemony’s burdens are considerable, but often when the hegemon pulls back the new equilibrium turns ugly enough to pull us right back in.That’s what happened in the Middle East in Obama’s second term, where dealing with Iraq from “offshore” led to the rise of the Islamic State and the Iranian nuclear deal may have stoked conflict in Yemen and Syria. It could easily happen under Trump in northern Asia as well, depending on how his approach looks from Pyongyang and Beijing.As Tyler Cowen writes in one of the more optimistic takes on the summit, the wooing of Kim represents a gamble that the North Koreans really want to change their posture, to reap the possible benefits of normalization, even to enter America’s orbit instead of Beijing’s. (If Kim’s regime became merely authoritarian rather than totalitarian, imitating the House of Saud instead of Stalin, the last scenario isn’t entirely fanciful.)But we simply don’t know whether Kim’s regime still envisions an endgame in which America retreats and South Korea submits — in which case the idea of permanent détente would be a fantasy. We also don’t know how the Chinese (and their potential allies of convenience in Moscow) would react to North Korea swinging into our orbit; there are ways in which peninsular stabilization could lead to regional destabilization. And given that Trump is a longtime huckster who’s feeling his way entirely by instinct, there should be a lot of skepticism about how well this is likely to turn out.That skepticism, though, needs more sophistication than the “Can you imagine how the right would react if Obama cozied up to a murderous dictator like this?”/“Well, the left used to love it when Obama cozied up to murderous dictators!” argument that’s being carried on by Trump’s liberal and conservative critics on Twitter.The reason that this “mirror, mirror” argument is possible is that Trump and Obama, for all their differences, are dealing with the same brute facts: American power is limited, America’s grand strategy is outdated or nonexistent, and being a superpower in the 2010s requires making harder choices and more unpleasant bargains than it did circa 1999.Trump’s Korean bargain may be a bad one, or it may evaporate. But what Trump and Obama have in common — a skepticism about received foreign policy wisdom, a recognition that some burdens need to shift and some alliances need to change, an accurate read on what domestic public opinion will bear — is something the statesmen who succeed them need to share.

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