US President Donald Trump walks across the South Lawn of the White House on Friday May 25. Photo: AFP/ Mandel Ngan
US President Donald Trump walks across the South Lawn of the White House on Friday May 25. Photo: AFP/ Mandel Ngan

The bright line that separates Donald Trump’s foreign policy from his predecessors is the question of regime change. Between the collapse of communism in 1989 and the departure of the Obama Administration, the American foreign policy establishment embraced the “end of history” premise that liberal democracy would replace all the autocracies of the past, and that the goal of American foreign policy was to hasten the inevitable march of history.

Trump, by contrast, puts American interests first and will make deals that reinforce the position of the Chinese, Russian, or North Korean regimes if the outcome is in America’s interest.

Now Trump’s opponents in the Republican Party – the neo-conservative caucus including Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) – have thrown a monkey wrench into the works, in the form of legislation that would overturn Trump’s carefully-constructed compromise with China over the Chinese telecom giant ZTE.

American diplomacy achieved a landmark result in Trump’s Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un, offering the repugnant North Korean leader legitimacy and the prospect of regime continuity in return for his nuclear weapons program.

The president’s “Art of the Deal” negotiating style had less to do with the constructive outcome than old-fashioned diplomacy under the skillful guidance of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: Consultation with allies, back-channel exchanges with the other side, and a proposal that both sides could live with. Asia Times published on June 10 former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-Kwan’s guide to getting a “yes” from Pyongyang, and a Pompeo adviser told me that South Korean insights were incorporated into the American initiative.

The Korean deal also entailed some quiet trade-offs with China. Importantly, President Trump intervened personally to rescind the Commerce Department’s late-April ban on American chip sales to China’s second-largest telecom equipment company ZTE, in retaliation for ZTE’s violation of sanctions against Iran and North Korea. ZTE’s mobile handsets use Qualcomm chips, and a ban on chip sales would shut the company down.

On the president’s initiative, the Commerce Department instead negotiated a $1.9-billion fine, changes in ZTE management, and the imposition of American compliance controls on the company’s operations. That was a severe penalty and an unprecedented assertion of American control over the operations of a Chinese company, but a deal that both sides could live with.

Now the US Senate has sought to sabotage Trump’s ZTE deal, by embedding a ban on US chip sales to ZTE in the national defense authorization act – despite intensive lobbying by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other administration officials.

The revolt on the part of Senate Republicans began May 22 with Trump’s primary opponent Marco Rubio, who threatened a “veto-proof” majority for legislation stopping the Trump compromise. Other Trump opponents in the Senate lined up behind the bill, along with most Senate Democrats.

Surprisingly, some of Trump’s long-time supporters in the Senate, including Senator Tom Cotton (R.-Ark), joined the neo-conservative caucus. quoted Senator Cotton on Monday saying, “The secretary of Commerce essentially proposed the death penalty for them. They came back and offered serious concessions … which is akin to life without parole…[But] I and every other senator believes the death penalty is the appropriate punishment.”

Rubio (whom Trump derided as “Little Marco”) ran against the president, as the quasi-official neo-conservative candidate with the backing of Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard. Rubio remains a utopian who thinks that the object of US foreign policy is to bring down authoritarian regimes and to replace them with democracies.

Rubio’s motivation can be discerned from his exchange with Secretary of State Pompeo at the April 12 confirmation hearings for Secretary of State Pompeo:

Rubio: “Of the five main threats facing the United State – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and radical jihadists –  they all have one common thread: authoritarianism. Would you agree that today the major fault line in global affairs repeatedly is the competition, really a global competition, between autocratic systems of governance and the democratic systems — that that in many ways has played out over and over again in the foreign affairs of this country and in global issues?”

Pompeo: “Senator, it is with striking consistency the case that the countries that share our vision of the world and share our democratic values are not authoritarian and those that don’t, are not.”

Rubio: “In that vein, you would again agree that promoting democracy isn’t just a nice thing to do or good thing to do or promoting democracy is not us butting into other people’s business or invading their sovereignty. So it’s more than just a moral imperative, promoting democracy is in the context of that competition as we’ve just discussed, promoting democracy is in the vital national interest of the United States?”

The notion that action against ZTE, or any American policy action, could destabilize the Chinese government is delusional

Some of Trump’s advisers believe that shutting down ZTE would destabilize the Zi Xinping regime. “I want to shut ZTE down so that 75,000 unemployed engineers demonstrate against the government in Bejing,” a former administration official told me. The usual suspects among the neo-conservative punditeska, for example the perennial predictor of China’s collapse Gordon Chang, accuse Trump of crumbling before Chinese demands.

The notion that action against ZTE, or any American policy action, could destabilize the Chinese government is delusional.

Nonetheless, it is hard-baked into the thinking of the foreign policy establishment. As Professor Wenfang Tang of the University of Iowa explained in a seminal essay in The Journal of American Affairs, “Ever since the domino collapse of communist regimes in the Soviet Bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the world has been waiting for China to follow suit. Indeed, the fall of the Chinese Communist government would probably mean the real end of history given the size of the country. Yet nearly 30 years later, history hasn’t ended and the authoritarian government is still going strong.” Tang provides some persuasive arguments for regime resilience in China.

The complaint among the foreign policy elite that Trump is crude and unsophisticated has a perverse element of truth: It takes enormous intellectual sophistication to convince one’s self that American democracy is a universal panacea for the world’s political problems and the inevitable goal of human progress. The foreign policy establishment is not stupid, but only psychotic.

Both the White House and Trump’s allies in the Senate have warned that the Senate initiative against ZTE effectively wrests control of foreign policy from the White House. Republican Senator David Perdue (Ga.) tried and failed to remove the ZTE bombshell from the defense appropriations bill, declaring that “My goal … is to make sure America is the best place in the world to do business and we remain competitive with the rest of the world. This cannot happen if we tie the hands of our commander-in-chief during critical trade negotiations.”

If the Senate passes the defense appropriation bill with the ZTE bomb, and Trump is unable to excise it by presidential veto or other means, Beijing will draw the conclusion that the president no longer is in control of US foreign policy. Instead, it will confront an adversary that does not want to achieve this or that particular policy objective, but rather wants to undermine the regime. Its first response will be to mobilize national resources to achieve independence in semiconductor production as quickly as possible, replacing its $220 billion a year in chip imports with domestic substitutes.

Rather than a tariff war, the world will face a disruption of the global supply chain, major dislocations in high-technology trade, shocks to pricing, and a return to national autarky in a number of economic policies. The result will be ugly in economic terms, and it will raise strategic tensions everywhere in the world. Hard to imagine an American policy initiative stupider than its attempt to export democracy to Iraq, this will go down as the dumbest thing America ever did.

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