Foreign Affairs: Enter the Trump era

If it’s up to him, Trump’s presidency will be dominated by a domestic agenda crowned by a pharaonic construction drive.

PRESIDENT-ELECT Donald Trump speaks at Trump Tower in Manhattan on Wednesday. Trump will become the White House's 44th resident next Friday. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRESIDENT-ELECT Donald Trump speaks at Trump Tower in Manhattan on Wednesday. Trump will become the White House's 44th resident next Friday.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
No American president will leave office with the reputation that carried him there, said Thomas Jefferson in what was an overstatement already when it was said, more than two centuries ago.
Even so, the world’s most intensely lime-lit job has made even popular heroes like Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower leave the White House humbled and demystified.
That can’t happen to Donald Trump.
The man who next Friday will become the White House’s 44th resident (the first was John Adams in 1800) will enter the Oval Office so scandalized that his actual presidency can only improve his reputation.
Better yet, chances of a positive presidency are actually not low.
Yes, much of what the world has so far seen and heard is not only aesthetically displeasing but also socially disconcerting and politically alarming.
National leaders are generally expected to serve as moral examples, a role Trump will never be able to assume. Prospects are also low that he will find ways to impress the minorities he has hurt and emerge as the social healer the US needs today no less than it needed one when it crowned its first black president.
Even so, several characteristics and circumstances play into Trump’s hands as he assumes office. The most important of these is that – with all due respect to his tongue – he is a man of deeds.
In perfect contrast to his predecessor, whose frequent delivery of eloquent speeches was often action’s substitute, Trump has spent his career doing things, whether successfully or not. People like him reach power not to preach but to affect; otherwise, they will be bored.
Coupled with Trump’s vow in his victory speech, “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure,” there is reason to believe he is out to do just that. This is what the markets are expecting, judging by the Dow Jones Index’s 12% climb since Trump’s election.
Considering his renewed vow in Wednesday’s press conference to fence the Mexican border, there is reason to believe that this controversial project will be the trigger of a pharaonic construction drive that will possibly be the Trump presidency’s hallmark.
AMERICA’S NEEDS on this front cannot be exaggerated.
More than 58,000 bridges across the US, including the fabled Brooklyn Bridge and Washington’s Memorial Bridge, were classified as structurally deficient by a recent American Road and Transportation Builders Association report.
US airports, especially its international gateways, are aging, faceless and criticized by passenger surveys as inferior to competitors abroad. Trump himself ridiculed, in campaign appearances, the airports of New York and Los Angeles as failing to meet the standards of their equivalents in China and the Gulf. His famous lamentation: “We have become a third world country” was made in this context.
Industry insiders estimate that the major American airports alone require some $75 billion in renovation this decade. The railroads demand much more. Absurd as it may sound, the land that originally came together thanks to coast-to-coast railways is now a light-year behind Europe and Asia on this front.
Nowhere in the US is there anything like the fast trains that swoosh daily between Tokyo and Osaka, Paris and London, Beijing and Shanghai, or Moscow and Saint Petersburg. European and Asian trains easily exceed 350 kph, whereas the fastest American line, the Acela Express, which crosses the Northeast Corridor, has a maximum speed of 240 kph and in practice averages 130 kph between New York and Washington.
These, along with the renewal of inner cities and veteran highways, and the creation of new hospitals and schools, are the kinds of challenges Trump is built to storm, whether in terms of his personality, which craves action; his expertise, which is real estate development; and his most urgent political need, which is to divert attention from the verbal Trump, who disgusted even supporters, to an executive Trump who – he hopes – will impress even opponents.
Trump’s impending infrastructure revolution will be his great political test, much the way healthcare reform was Obama’s.
Obama’s failure in this regard was not in the substance of the plan he ended up launching – that was expected to split the political system and the public – but his lack of a plan. The precious years he lost putting one together, then making it law and finally getting it activated could have been saved, had he assumed office armed with a detailed plan as opposed to an abstract ideal.
The public has no idea, for now, whether Trump has even the beginning of a plan, like a list of what projects should be launched first, how much each should cost, and how they will be budgeted. If he intends to finance them by expanding the budget, he might face resistance by the Republican lawmakers who choked federal funding for the planned San Francisco-Los Angeles high-speed rail project.
California ended up financing by itself, through new taxation, what Obama failed to deliver through the federal government. For Trump, such delegation will not work.
The new president will want to show he can deploy the federal system broadly and quickly, and this might involve wrestling with Congress, despite its domination by the Republicans. Trump’s lack of experience even in basic politics can then prove to be a major liability, a flaw that might also surface when he sets out to redo Obama’s healthcare legacy.
Moreover, the approaching budget clash will be but a detail in a broader defiance of conservative dogma, an attitude that might pilot a domestic presidency into diplomatic turbulence.
TRUMP’S RESOLVE to punish major trade partners like China by imposing import tariffs has alarmed not only Republicans but also diplomats and economists.
Ideologically, such protectionism contrasts with what Republicans have historically hailed and delivered.
Economically, it may well spike retail prices, a dynamic many Israelis still recall from their country’s socialist era, when duties made imports artificially expensive. And diplomatically, a trade war, like all wars, may prove easier to enter than to exit, and its results may prove easier to promise than to control.
Similarly, Trump’s vow to punish companies that outsource American jobs – underscored by his boast Wednesday: “I will be the greatest jobs producer God ever created” – entails an interventionism that conservatives have historically abhorred, and which economists dismiss as impractical.
Trump might end up losing on both of this war’s fronts: in the department store, Americans will pay more for imported goods, and in the factory, Americans will fail to return to the conveyor belts where their grandparents once assembled toasters, light bulbs and air conditioners. The pay will simply be too low, even after Trump’s edicts and handouts.
For better or worse, these domestic issues and commercial confrontations will likely dominate Trump’s initial agenda, as long as no sudden external event hijacks it.
It follows that the international system, particularly the Middle East, will initially be low on Trump’s agenda, if it’s up to him.
Trump is no Woodrow Wilson or Jimmy Carter. He has no illusions of transforming the world’s bad guys.
Like Harry Truman and Richard Nixon, he will judge them based on one question: Are you against me? According to this rationale, China is a problem because it is hurting the US economy, and Russia is not a problem because its industry seldom competes with American goods or threatens American jobs. The same goes for Russia’s emasculation of Ukraine, which Trump accepts because it does not directly threaten the US.
If this is true in Europe, it is doubly such in the Middle East.
The Middle East used to haunt the US for three reasons: oil, the Suez Canal and the Cold War. All three have lost relevance.
The US is now swimming in oil, thanks to fracking, which Trump will intensify. The Suez Canal is still important, but Egypt has lost the political urge and the economic option to tinker with its operation, the way it did last century. And unlike the Cold War’s presidents, Trump has no reason to spend time and resources courting allies in a strategically marginalized, economically impoverished and militarily brutalized region that he will happily abandon to its multiple civil wars’ devices.
During the War of 1812, an infantry battalion marched by Jefferson’s mansion en route to the Siege of Detroit. Spotting a stranger outside the famous house in Monticello, the soldiers asked him who he was, and were astonished to learn he was the former president they had come to salute.
No one will have a problem identifying Trump, but whether people will have reason to salute him will take several years to learn – the years that, next Friday, begin.