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Preparing for President Trump

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OP-ED

by Lindsay Rodman

The Hill Times
November 30, 2016

Many Canadians and Americans alike were shocked by the outcome of the U.S. election. The election of Donald Trump as president marks a substantial change for U.S. foreign policy that will directly impact the Canadian-American relationship.

Trump is often caricatured as someone who is incoherent on foreign policy, but that is neither fair nor constructive. Three of the major issues he campaigned on were trade, ISIL, and immigration. As president he will serve as the chief diplomat of the United States and the commander-in-chief. For those who care about the U.S.-Canadian relationship, and the U.S. role in the world, now is the time to think about who he is likely to be as president, and to plan for what is to come.  

Above all else, Donald Trump perceives himself to be the ultimate businessman. He tends to speak about most things, including his approach to foreign and defence policy, using the language of business and deal-making. This was apparent in his repeated refusals to take potential use of nuclear weapons off the table. Although the international security establishment raised alarm bells about these statements, he has explained that he was posturing for future negotiations and discussions, playing to classic game theory principles. In business, this “game of chicken” approach to negotiation can be successful, though it does not make many friends.  

In taking this approach, Trump has shown his willingness to break the norms of foreign policy discourse. Some have argued that he isn’t conversant in that discourse, and that these statements are actually gaffes. More important to understand is that he does not care—he believes his business approach to governance, even if it flies in the face of previous norms (or perhaps because it flies in the face of previous norms), will benefit the United States in the long run, and he was elected in part due to this position.   

On trade, Trump has made his isolationism clear throughout his campaign. However, he has also reversed himself on major issues when it seemed either politically necessary, or wise given changing inputs. Although he has been criticized for his willingness to take different positions, this also implies that the businessman in him can be convinced of a different course of action. Free trade agreements will no doubt be an uphill battle, but a compelling business case, especially one that speaks to helping American workers along the way, may have some traction.  

Another likely trait of the Trump Presidency will be a lack of transparency, especially with respect to defence and foreign policy. He and his top advisers mentioned many times throughout the campaign that telegraphing military movements and the openness with which the Obama administration has conducted some of its operations were foolish and dangerous.  

Rudy Giuliani took a very means-justified-by-ends approach during debates about torture in the United States 10-15 years ago. His more recent statements indicate that he has hardened, not softened, over time on national security matters. Other top Trump advisers advocate for a more aggressive posture with respect to ISIL. These hardline approaches to national security are welcomed by many in the United States who fear terrorism and the implications of unrest in other parts of the world. They also have the potential to raise important humanitarian and civil liberties concerns.  

In reaction to Trump’s election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement on Nov. 9 explaining that the U.S.-Canada relationship was strong, and would include ties with Congress and in the economy in addition to those between the two leaders. That is no doubt true, but Canadians and the rest of the world, alongside disappointed Americans who did not support Trump, must now work to prepare to deal directly the new U.S. government that will take power in January. 

President Trump is not likely to adjust to meet the norms of international diplomacy. This deliberate demonstrated unwillingness to “swerve” is another game theory tactic that will force those who work with him to adapt to his style.

It is important for those who engage him and his administration to understand what they are getting, and react accordingly. For those who are concerned about the potential for multilateral engagement in the future, brushing up on harder-nosed negotiation tactics may be necessary. For those interested in free trade agreements, learning to speak to concerns about the American worker and making a solid business case for the deal will be key. And, as the potential for covert operations and harder lines on national security matters increases around the world, for those concerned about civil liberties and humanitarian issues, now is the time to begin organizing and thinking about how to ensure those interests are heard.  

Lindsay L. Rodman is a former Obama administration appointee in the U.S. Defense Department and White House National Security Council official. She now resides in Ottawa and is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Image: The Hill Times photograph by Chelsea Nash

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