Dartmouth Hosts Trump Inauguration Week Panel to Discuss Global Affairs

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2017

Hanover — An endless and inextricable conflict in the Middle East, growing opposition to global free trade policies and increasing assertiveness from China and Russia — add to the United States’ many foreign affairs challenges an unpredictable, Twitter-loving, Taiwan-calling commander-in-chief, and you get a global affairs environment that has policy experts at Dartmouth College scratching their heads.

Take, for instance, President-elect Donald Trump’s phone call last month to the Taiwanese president.

“This was a move that came out of nowhere ... that surprised many,” associate professor of government Jennifer Lind said, speaking during a public forum on campus on Wednesday.

More than 80 faculty, students and community members filled a basement lecture hall and stood in the back to participate in Wednesday afternoon’s discussion on global affairs, which was led by a panel of Dartmouth faculty.

Above all, uncertainty defined the academics’ approach to the incoming Trump administration’s foreign policy.

Trump’s brief and apparently innocuous conversation, in which the leader of the small island country reportedly congratulated the businessman on his election victory, made “heads explode” in mainland China, Lind said. It upended years of U.S.-China relations, seemingly signaling to the East Asian power that America was willing to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation, a move that China would consider an existential threat.

The diplomatic gambit also was emblematic of the Dartmouth experts’ view of Trump’s foreign policy style and objectives.

“Is this a shrewd move by Trump?” Lind said. “We don’t know. We don’t know what his strategy is; we don’t know what his goals are. We can’t possibly assess if that’s good or bad. ... Without any kind of a strategy, we can’t figure out if that makes any sense at all.”

Trump may be “scaring the bejeezus” out of other countries, professor of economics Doug Irwin said, “but what does he want?”

The event in the Haldeman Center was one of several planned conversations on the policy implications of a Trump White House and Republican Congress. The “Opportunities and Risks” series, as organizers are calling it, also will include forums on domestic, security and energy policy.

The four faculty members at the dais began by summarizing the state of international relations in their subject areas before making what predictions they could about what changes Trump may bring.

William Wohlforth, a professor of government who specializes in Russian foreign policy, described the current consensus on the former superpower among American diplomats: Russia wants “a larger and more influential role for itself on the international scene,” he said, one that “comes at the expense of the U.S. position in the world.”

Despite President Vladimir Putin’s land grabs and influence operations abroad, including in America, the United States’ leaders believe that Russia’s corrupt and “kleptocratic” government will eventually pay a price for its aggression, and do not view the regime as a potential partner, Wohlforth said.

Trump, on the other hand, represents a minority view, Wohlforth said — that Putin’s reign is “organic to Russia,” and represents the will of the country’s people. Trump may be more likely to pursue closer relations, he said.

But assuming it were the president-elect’s goal to strike a deal with Russia, Wohlforth added, “you would be perplexed by the tactics that Trump has followed”: criticizing one’s allies, for instance, and taking issues such as the conflict in Ukraine off the table before bargaining has even begun.

Daniel Benjamin, director of the college’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, started with a disclaimer: He used to work as ambassador-at-large and counterterrorism coordinator for Hillary Clinton’s State Department.

“You should calculate that into everything you’re hearing,” he said.

True to his word, Benjamin defended most of the outgoing administration’s choices in the Middle East and expressed concern that the forceful approach Trump has advocated will further inflame the region.

On the self-styled Islamic State, Benjamin said that despite a “hyperventilated public discussion,” the fight against the terrorist group was “going very well.”

The former ambassador said he didn’t expect a large uptick in attacks abroad as the jihadis lost territory, and pointed out that the U.S. since 2001 has seen fewer and less deadly attacks than European countries.

Noting that Trump has said he has a “secret plan” to defeat ISIL, which he will not reveal, Benjamin said, “Secretary Clinton said she didn’t think he had a plan. I have to say I agree with her.”

Trump’s policy proposals — such as a Muslim immigration ban, the use of torture and a heavier bombing campaign against the Islamic State — appeared to trouble Benjamin, who said they may drive radicalization and give a pass to human rights offenders Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

On the other hand, Benjamin and the other experts noted, the formative Trump administration is not perfectly united. Some cabinet nominees, including attorney general candidate Jeff Sessions and U.N. ambassador pick Nikki Haley, have disavowed Trump policies they presumably would be expected to implement.

“I have never seen such disagreement between an incoming president and his cabinet in my life,” Benjamin said.

Despite her uncertainty over Trump’s approach to China, Lind, an East Asia specialist, said the U.S.’s current strategy was not working.

For the past few decades, she said, American leaders have tried to engage China in hopes of making it a “responsible” player in a Washington-led world order.

Nevertheless, Lind said, it is now clear “that China wants to become the dominant economic and political power in Asia.”

The nascent superpower has grown more and more aggressive, she said, using its newfound economic and military strength to pressure its neighbors and provoke the United States, despite the latter’s efforts to placate or intimidate.

But in other ways America and China have a mutually beneficial relationship, she said. More than 300,000 Chinese students are enrolled in universities here, and the two countries share an enormous amount of trade.

Into this mix, Trump and his phone call have “lobbed a hand grenade,” Lind said.

Given that the American orthodoxy isn’t meeting with success, “dissent is good,” she later said. “The hand grenade that I was saying had been lobbed into the middle of this — maybe a hand grenade is not a good thing, but a push, a spark, a churn ... maybe that’s a good thing.”

Trump’s policy package might not be the one to break open the relationship, she added, “but there is something to be said in stirring things up and finally considering contrary voices.”

Irwin, the economist, pointed out that he probably wouldn’t have been invited to the panel had Clinton become president.

Now, as Trump vows to renegotiate the country’s trade agreements and scrap proposals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Irwin wondered aloud what Trump was willing to put on the table, as well as how far he would go to bend other nations to his economic will.

“If you don’t like trade agreements I guess you can cheer,” Irwin said. “But what you will get is economic nationalism; what that means is playing tough with trading partners with the goal of bringing economic opportunity to the United States.”

Imposing tariffs on other countries’ goods and on U.S. companies that send jobs abroad, as Trump says he will do, could tip off a cycle of escalating economic sanctions from abroad, Irwin said.

“The question is do they have the nimbleness to pull off an economic nationalist policy without inciting a trade war?” he said. “On that, stay tuned.”

A point that Irwin emphasized and his colleagues echoed was that, during the campaign, media analysts and the political establishment took Trump’s bombastic remarks “literally, but not seriously,” whereas for his supporters it was the other way around.

“We have to judge them on their actions, not their words,” he concluded.

Dartmouth’s inauguration week panels will be recorded and posted online at http://www.tuck.dartmouth.edu/events/panels. A forum on domestic policy was held on Tuesday. A health discussion is scheduled for 4 p.m. today at the Tuck School of Business, and a conversation on energy and environmental issues will be held on Friday at the same time and place.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.