I suggest that when the Pantheon of these extraordinary geo-political chess players is reviewed in the future, it will include a man who would never be thought to be in their company: Donald Trump.
While Americans profess a very limited interest in foreign affairs, and typically do so until they are forced to confront foreign threats, they might not be paying attention to the most impactful and effective foreign policy president in decades.
Trump shares with his luminary counterparts some very important traits. First and foremost, he has a strong motivating vision, one that shapes all of his policies. Simply stated, he wants the United States to win, to be treated as the world leader it is, and not to be taken advantage of because it occupies that dominant role.
While distilling this down to “put America first” has to many ears an isolationist, nativistic ring, this is a misreading of what motivates Trump. He does not want America to be the big fat patsy who everyone exploits. He doesn’t want America to be snookered in the world marketplace of trade, economics or global agreements.
This is not an idea he adopted in order to advance his political career. One need only watch interviews with the much younger Trump back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when he was merely a brash real estate entrepreneur and not a reality TV star, to see how long term and consistent his motivating vision and perspective has been.
In short, like his great predecessors, Trump’s foreign policy is underscored by interests, and he is intent on advancing those interests.
While the practical implication of his foreign policy perspective has been overwhelmingly domestic – preserving and restoring American jobs and industries – he has been willing to play the Great Game with an aplomb and a savviness that runs completely counter to his image as a brash, impetuous narcissist.
What have been some of his achievements? He has shown no compunction in abandoning treaty obligations or commitments that he has seen as detrimental to US interests, and increasingly advancing those of its adversaries, such as China, at American expense.
Here, leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accords stand as pre-eminent examples.
What has separated Trump from most of his predecessors is his canniness, his comfort level with the ways of the shuk, the marketplace. Trump doesn’t think that just because he represents the US that he will get what he wants. Rather, he is masterful in the ways of carrots and sticks, hugs and threats, and the embrace and disparagement of other leaders.
If the Left did not hate him so much, they would be falling over themselves praising his unwillingness to embroil the US in new foreign conflicts, and conversely, his efforts to extricate the US from current ones.
While this achievement stands in stark contrast to his predecessors and deserves to be vocally appreciated, what makes it truly brilliant is that it has not meant the end of US disengagement on the world stage.
Quite the opposite. What elevates Trump to the Pantheon of Great Game Players is his understanding of the importance of soft power.
For some on the Left, soft power means doing things for others in order to feel that we have done something noble and worthy, and possibly in the hope that others will then reciprocate.
However, Trump sees a more subtle and sophisticated chess board, seeing soft power as first and foremost the way to advance US interests, not just to make friends or to feel virtuous.
Trump sees a more subtle and sophisticated chess board, seeing soft power as first and foremost the way to advance US interests, not just to make friends or to feel virtuous.
Trump’s consistent focus on isolating and enervating the Iranian mullahs is a great example of using sanctions to restrain aggression. His willingness alternatively to threaten and then to praise the likes of North Korean and Chinese despots has been masterful.
What many of Trump’s critics completely miss is the power of unpredictability that Trump so adroitly employs. Precisely because many of America’s adversaries cannot read him, cannot anticipate his reactions or next steps, they have been confused and restrained.
Critics see boorish impetuosity, or worse, but our adversaries see reflections of themselves: scheming, difficulty in fathoming motives and tactics, and an understanding that Trump is serious about employing American power in pursuit of American interests and his goals.
What has been truly eye opening and impressive is the rise of the talented amateur that Trump and his team represent. This in and of itself is a remarkable and highly instructive development.
Here you have smart guys with no formal diplomatic experience approaching problems with fresh perspectives, new eyes and no pre-conceived ideas as to how things are to be done or not done.
The recently announced UAE/Israel Normalization Agreement is the great example of this fresh perspective untethered to failed assumptions attitude at work.
Ironically, the groundwork for this agreement had been unintentionally laid by Barack Obama, whose craven courting of the Iranian mullahs so scared the Sunni nations as to make them reassess Israel as a potential partner with a similar interest in confronting Iranian aggression.
Trump built on that base of commonality to emphasize not just the security aspects of working together, but the whole array of technological, investment and cultural benefits that could come from normalization.
Lending US support and weight to the arrangement was critical, and Trump wisely sees the merit in having other Arab and Muslim nations also shake Israel’s hand.
All of this brilliantly reflected American interests: advancing the strategic posture of Israel, America’s true ally in the Middle East; confronting Iranian aggression; and creating the germ of what can be a much larger and comprehensive bloc of countries willing to confront increasing Chinese aggression.
Of course, of all this infuriates the State Department and the Diplomatic Establishment, who have been so heavily invested in the idea that peace in the Middle East can only proceed through finding an accord with the Palestinians.
So be it. The American people, and the people of the Middle East are much more the better for it.
It would be a shame for Trump not to be able to build on his successes in the Middle East and elsewhere. After all he has demonstrated a skill and ability to conduct American foreign affairs that against all expectations has put him in the Pantheon of the great statesmen.
Douglas Altabef is the Chairman of the Board of Im Tirtzu, Israel’s largest grassroots Zionist organization, and a Director of the Israel Independence Fund.