“We are about to run an experiment.” In January, 2017, a few days before Donald Trump assumed the presidency of the United States, Robert Jervis, professor of International Relations at Columbia University, delivered this powerful warning. He wondered what the foreign policy approach of a president who had never held public office before would be, one who had expressed positions on some issues that were radically different to those taken by his predecessors. Three and a half years later, that experiment has culminated in a commercial, geopolitical and technological war with China, a heavy dose of trade protectionism and the destruction of the liberal international order founded by the United States itself in the post-war period.
“Many of my colleagues thought that he was not going to be able to do all that because the domestic interests, especially within the Republican Party, would be too powerful,” Jervis said in a telephone interview. “We did experiment and Trump won out because he’s been pretty disruptive.”
In a devastating review of John Bolton’s book The Room Where It Happened, Jervis’ lucid and sharp pen dissected the chaos within the White House. It is a place where officials closest to the US president do not share his policies in the best of cases, or sabotage them in the worst. Jervis highlights the relationship with Russia, which Trump would like to improve, as one of those examples.
As for the rise of Beijing, who better than the author of Cooperation Under The Security Dilemma to determine if there is a dilemma of that kind between the US and China?
“There’s a danger of things running out of control and leading if not to a real armed conflict, to an unproductive, costly and induced arms race,” warns the expert.
How would you define Donald Trump’s foreign policy?
Trump’s foreign policy is very difficult to explain and sum up because it is a reflection of his personality, which is really chaotic.
Some issues matter to him and there we see consistency and some planning, mixed with a dose of chaos and incompetence. Those issues are immigration and trade. He always felt that other countries were cheating us in commercial terms. His understanding of the principles of international trade is totally primitive. He does not understand the principle of comparative advantage, bilateral trade balances, nor how the numbers of those balances are put together. He pushes a belligerent policy not only against adversaries like China but also against allies. And that’s very unusual.
With respect to the rest of the world his policy is a reflection of his personality. He’s an authoritarian who does not understand dissidence, who only wants to command. Trump feels affinity with other authoritarian leaders. He loves Kim Jong Un, feels affinity with Recep Erdogan and Xi Jinping, and never plants the typical US objections to autocratic rulers over human rights violations.
There is nothing rational about his foreign policy, it’s just a reflection of his personality. And in all cases he sees relations with other countries as an extension of his personal relationships with other presidents. When they ask him about a country, he answers that he gets on very well with “X” or that “X” really appreciates him. That’s totally bizarre. He sees everything in terms of his ego.
If re-elected, should we expect some change in his foreign policy?
I’m happy to say that at this moment everything points to his being roundly defeated. But in politics you never know. I’d expect more of the same and more extreme still. Some of the things he’s doing are for fear of losing the election.
If re-elected, he will take it as a vindication of his policies and will face less restraints. We can expect hostility towards Western Europe. He’s already expressed on many occasions his idea of reforming NATO.
You recently wrote an article in Political Science Quarterly about the legacy which Joe Biden will receive if elected. Do you think he will change US foreign policy unduly?
It will definitely change a whole lot and so it should because Trump has broken with over half a century of US foreign policy tradition.
Biden’s weakness is that he’s a traditional politician of the old school, more linked to the orthodox foreign policy of the US. I think he’ll try to return to a policy closely resembling that of Barack Obama.
What challenges will the next president face?
Many. I don’t envy whoever has to deal with them. Many of Biden’s foreign policy advisors were students of mine. I appreciate them.
The most obvious challenge is that he’ll have to worry about the pandemic, which won’t be over in January 2021. There are alarming signs, not only about the outbreak in the south and southwest of the country but also because this scenario will last a long time and it’s not at all clear how effective the vaccine will be. In the best of cases, he will have to accelerate its production, worry about its collateral effects and administer it to hundreds of thousands of persons.
And then, of course, to deal with the economy, which will be in very bad shape. And furthermore, the agenda of social justice will continue to be demanding.
Is there a security dilemma between the United States and China?
This is an extremely important and difficult question, and I cannot offer a definitive answer. To say that it is purely a security dilemma would mean that both the US and China seek to preserve their own security. But China clearly wants more than that.
It is understandably dissatisfied with the status quo that was established when China was very weak. Any conceivable theory of international politics implies that the prevailing arrangements in the region will have to change in response to the great increase of Chinese power. The US wants to minimise these changes, but the security dilemma comes in because neither it nor China want relations to deteriorate to a greater degree than is required by the real conflict of interest.
There is a danger, however, that things will spiral out of control and lead, if not to actual armed conflict, then to an unproductive, costly, and friction inducing arms race.
We are seeing geopolitical tensions affecting the world economy. The United States is trying to decouple from China, invoking national security reasons. However, companies don’t act with geopolitical rationality, they also put profit and costs on the table before making a decision. How does these companies influence bipolarity?
Most companies are deeply disturbed by the deterioration of Sino-American relations and so it is not surprising that the secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, has tried to moderate Trump’s policy. Although business usually has great influence in Republican administrations, on this issue they have relatively little leverage because Trump is deeply committed to his policy.
China is the main trading partner of many South American nations. On the other hand, the US is the hemispheric superpower. How should South American nations deal with the Sino-American rivalry?
This will be a delicate and difficult balancing act for these countries. They need to minimise friction with the US, but have important interests, largely economic, of their own. My guess is that they will try to carry on business as usual with China but avoid agreements and arrangements that attract much American attention.
Argentina needs the United States’ financial support in negotiations with bondholders and the IMF. What kind of bilateral relationship do you imagine if Biden is elected?
I think Biden will try to improve relations with South American countries, including Argentina. But as you know the situation with Argentine debt and the IMF is a difficult one.
My guess — and it is nothing more than that — is that while Biden would be sympathetic to Argentina’s plight, he would not want to do anything that would undercut the IMF.