Regime Change in the Trump White House?
No U.S. postwar president has managed to reset relations with Russia. Now the Trump administration must cope with a special counselâ€™s investigation. In the past, US efforts at regime change targeted foreign countries; today, the White House. How will it impact Trumpâ€™s stalled policy agenda?
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As I argued in spring 2016 (TWFR, April 25, 2016), US election is a global risk and it would continue to be fought after the Trump election win. But recently, these political struggles moved to an entirely new phase. First, the Department of Justice (DOJ) dismissed James Comey, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), reportedly only days after his request for increased resources to investigate Russiaâ€™s alleged interference in the election.
Barely a week later, DOJ appointed Robert Mueller, former director of the FBI (2001- 13) as special counsel overseeing the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. There is little doubt about the political outcome of the Mueller investigation. Just as he loyally served under President George W. Bush, along with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheneyâ€™s neoconservatives, he is unlikely to treat any Russian initiative – whether planned, unintended, alleged, or misrepresented – with silk gloves.
There is little doubt about the political outcome of the Mueller investigation.
So from the White Houseâ€™s perspective, the end result is known. Consequently, it is the process that has potential to undermine the effectiveness of the presidency.
In order to assess the probable impact of the investigation on Trump’s stalled policy agenda, it is important to understand what is actually new in his trade, political and military stances.
Obama-Bernanke origins of Trumpâ€™s anti-EU rhetoric
During a bruising series of meetings in the NATO summit in Belgium and at the G-7 gathering in Italy, President Trump was quoted as calling Germany â€œvery, very bad” on trade, which the White House denied, however.
That was followed by German Chancellor Angela Merkelâ€™s speech, which was perceived as historical in Europe, and in which she said that â€œthe times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over.“
While Merkelâ€™s Atlanticist supporters saw the speech as signaling the end of the postwar Western consensus, it was also geared to Merkelâ€™s domestic constituencies to pave way for victory in the German federal election in September 2017.
Also, Trumpâ€™s accusations of excessive German trade deficits and Western Europeâ€™s freeride at NATO are hardly new. He has made them repeatedly in the past two years. And truth to be told, so did President Obama. Trump is neither the first nor unique in his criticism of Europe.
Following the end of the Cold War, every US president, in one way or another, has engaged in similar criticism. The notion that Europeans are â€œfree riders,” enjoying the benefits of an international order safeguarded by the U.S. without contributing much to it, is an old one in Washington.
Trump is neither the first nor unique in his criticism of Europe.
Soon after he received his Nobel Peace Prize, Obama began to complain about those NATO members who do not pay their â€œfair share” in global affairs. In particular, he launched an â€œanti-free rider campaign” in which, among other things, he pushed his European allies to lead the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 – â€œto prevent the Europeans and the Arab states from holding our coats while we did all the fighting.”
What about deficit criticism? Thatâ€™s not unique to Trump either. Following the global financial crisis, both Obama and former Fed chief Ben Bernanke often argued that â€œGermanyâ€™s trade surplus is a problem.” Unlike China, which has been working to reduce its dependence on exports since the early 2010s, Germany has not. As a result, Obama and Bernanke often pleased Chancellor Merkel to launch Keynesian investment initiatives and promote German consumption so that European recovery could happen faster, but without success. To Obama and Bernanke, that was frustrating; to Trump, hypocrisy.
Obama and former Fed chief Ben Bernanke often argued that â€œGermanyâ€™s trade surplus is a problem.”
Whatâ€™s new in the current Atlanticist friction, however, is Trump’s willingness to push both NATO payments and trade distortions in parallel, as well as Chancellor Merkel’s shrewd timing in using anti-Trump sentiments to foster pan-European unity. Until recently, her center-right Christian-Democrats (CDU) were struggling against SocialDemocrats (SDP) and the radical right (Alternative for Germany AfD). But when Trump began his efforts to divide Europe before election season, Merkel started her attempt to rally Germans behind CDU and united Europe, taking advantage of antiTrump sentiments in the Old Continent. Thereafter CDUâ€™s polls began to rise again.
While Trumpâ€™s policy agenda is not entirely new, it is tougher, broader and less politically correct than its precursors in decades. However, Muellerâ€™s investigation will cast a dark shadow over the White Houseâ€™s policy agenda.
Deferred trade friction
During the 2016 campaign, Trump threatened to use high import tariffs against nations that have a significant trade surplus with the US. In 2016, the deficit list was topped by China ($347 billion), Japan ($69 billion), Germany ($65 billion), Mexico ($63 billion), and Canada ($11 billion). On a per capita basis, Germany is the leading â€œdeficit offender.”
In his campaign, President Trump promised to renegotiate America’s key free trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Right after his inauguration, he used executive order to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was seen as President Obamaâ€™s legacy deal. In turn, NAFTA renegotiations are set to start soon. However, according to the positive spin of US Trade Representative Robert Lighthize the Trump administration will seek to â€œexpand” NAFTA trade rather than to â€œoverturn” it.
As the talks are to begin after mid-August, they will be followed closely by other bilateral trade talks (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan), including allegations on â€œcurrency manipulation.” Since these negotiations are likely to endure through the fall, major trade friction may not be likely until 2018.
[T]he Trump administration will seek to â€œexpand” NAFTA trade rather than to â€œoverturn” it.
The Trump administrationâ€™s tone about China has also softened following an internal struggle between Trump’s trade hawks (head of the National Trade Council Peter Navarro, and trade advisor and former CEO of steel giant Nuctor, Dan DiMicco), and their more moderate opponents (Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and chief of National Economic Council Gary Cohn). After the two-day summit at Mar-a-Lago, President Trump and President Xi Jinping announced a 100-day plan to improve strained trade ties and boost cooperation between two nations.
However, unless the plan can offer major breakthroughs after the summer, trade haws may return later and deficit rhetoric may escalate toward the year-end.
Since sanctions fall under executive actions, Trump tends to have more strategic maneuverability in these areas. Then again, both Republican neoconservatives and Democratic liberal internationalists support sanctions against North Korea, Russia and, with some qualifications, Iran.
Headwinds against tax reforms
Until recently, progressive taxation has played a critical role in all advanced economies. In America, that model has been under a siege since the Reagan years. Today, US personal income tax rate is one of the lowest among the G20 economies, whereas US corporate tax rates are high internationally. As a result, US companies have parked more than $1 trillion worth of cash abroad.
Nevertheless, Muellerâ€™s investigation is likely to overshadow Trump efforts at tax overhaul, which depends on legislative support for success.
The Trump administration hopes to simplify the number of individual income tax brackets. It would like to reduce the tax rate on capital gains, non-corporate business taxes and those in the highest bracket, repeal the alternative minimum tax and the Affordable Care Act (the â€œObamacare”) surtax, and the estate tax. Critics expect the total costs of the plan to soar to $5 trillion over a decade.
Muellerâ€™s investigation is likely to overshadow Trump efforts at tax overhaul
While Republicans are ready to move ahead with a repeal bill, it has been diluted but still divides Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suspects that the new bill will not pass through the Senate.
The Trump corporate tax plan is seen as even more controversial. In 2016, these rates were around 30-35% in major advanced economies (France, Japan, Germany), except for the UK (19%). The US rate (39%) is the highest among all G20 economies. Trumpâ€™s plan would almost halve rates to just 15 percent, which would put America ahead even of low-tax city paradises, Singapore (17%) and Hong Kong (16.5%). With reduced rates and one-time and one-time repatriation tax rate stashed, the White House hopes that US companies’ overseas profits and corporate operations would return home. In reality, such expectations are inflated.
There has been no major outflux of foreign firms from large emerging economies, which offer growth that is 3-4 times faster than in the US or Europe. Since the 1970s, US trade deficits have been a regional issue mainly with Asia. As costs are rising in China, emerging Asia will take the mantle but US trade deficits will prevail. And even when relocation offers some benefits, US and other multinationals may prove reluctant to move their core operations because an increasing number of these companies rely on emerging-economy middle classes and new innovation hubs for their profitability.
In 2001, President George W. Bush wanted to reset US Russia relations.
While the Trump administration will try to push its stalled policy agenda, it must now do so with the White House in shackles. Intriguingly, despite their global might, all US postwar presidents have failed to reset relations with Russia.
Four presidents, four Russia resets, four failures
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between Russia and the US remained generally warm between the Bush and Clinton administrations, and President Boris Yeltsin until the US-inspired â€œshock therapy” caused Russia an economic nightmare that proved far worse than the Great Depression in the U.S. That is when three former Soviet satellites – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – were invited to join the NATO. By mid-90s, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states were also ushered into NATO – against the angry but ultimately futile protests by presidents Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 2001, President George W. Bush wanted to reset US Russia relations. But after the White House was swept by 9/11 and neoconservativesâ€™ increasingly unilateral foreign policy, it began incursions into Afghanistan, withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and invaded Iraq. As NATO began looking even further eastward to Ukraine and Georgia, Russian protests turned angrier and more aggressive. Most Russians saw the Rose Revolution in Georgia 2003, and US effort to build an antiballistic missile defense installation in Poland with a radar station in the Czech Republic, as intrusions into its sphere of interest, along with US efforts to gain access to Central Asian oil and natural gas.
Like Clinton and Bush initially, President Obama wanted to reset US-Russia relations and by March 2010 both countries agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Yet, the reset was not supported by Obamaâ€™s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and US ambassador to Russia John Beyrle. Subsequently, rising tensions in Crimea were seized to bury the effort.
Historically Washington has been involved in dozens of overt and covert actions aimed at regime change in other countries.
On the campaign trail, Trump lauded President Putin as a strong leader, arguing in favor of friendlier relations. Meanwhile, FBI began investigating alleged connections between Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, foreign policy adviser Carter Page and pro-Russian interests. In January 2017, Trump and President Putin began phone conferences as the White House still mulled lifting economic sanctions to reset relations with Russia. But in February, Trumpâ€™s security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign. As the Empire struck back, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said only two months later that US-Russia relations were at a new low point. And by May, Mueller was appointed to head the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.
The Wolfowitz doctrine had prevailed – against four US presidents.
Whoâ€™s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf-owitz Doctrine
Historically Washington has been involved in dozens of overt and covert actions aimed at regime change in other countries. The postwar list of covert involvement alone features some two dozen overseas attempts at regime change in overseas. Ironically, the list begins and ends with Syria.
Now a regime effort is targeting the White House, say the Trump supporters. That effort relies on the Wolfowitz Doctrine, a highly controversial policy blueprint developed amid the end of the Cold War by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, the prophet of the Bush neoconservatives, and his deputy Scooter Libby, later an adviser to Vice President Cheney until his indictment for leaking the covert identity of a major CIA officer.
U.S. could make â€œiron-clad guarantees” that NATO would not expand â€œone inch eastward“.
The Doctrine announced the U.Sâ€™s status as the worldâ€™s only remaining superpower and proclaimed its main objective to be retaining that status. Its first objective thus was â€œto prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union“.
In December 1989, Soviet President Gorbachev and US President George H. W. Bush declared the Cold War over at the Malta Summit. In February 1990, then Secretary of State James Baker suggested that, in exchange for cooperation on Germany, U.S. could make â€œiron-clad guarantees” that NATO would not expand â€œone inch eastward“.
Gorbachev acceded to Germanyâ€™s Western alignment on the condition that the U.S. would limit NATOâ€™s expansion. But behind the faÃ§ade, Bakerâ€™s own top officials and Wolfowitz at the Pentagon began to push Eastern Europe in the U.S. orbit inspiring â€œa call for 21st century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept, as Senator Edward M. Kennedy once put it.
It was the same Wolfowitz Doctrine that inspired the neoconservatives to initiate multiple wars in the Middle East following September 11, 2001; and that undermined the efforts of four post-Cold War presidents to reset relations with Russia. In each case, the â€œmilitary-industrial complex” – about which President Eisenhower, a fivestar general, had warned already in 1961 – – played a critical but low-profile role behind the scenes. President Clinton did not oppose the military interests, as long as they supported U.S. economic interests; Bushâ€™s inner circle comprised Pentagonâ€™s ultimate insiders; Obama talked against the military and security complex but became its cheerleader. In contrast, Trump fought efforts to kill the reset of Russia relations – until Muellerâ€™s appointment.
The Mueller investigation … can create great collateral damage, both at home and abroad.
The Mueller investigation does not indicate that the role of the U.S. as the major global risk has now faded away. These investigations can lead anywhere, as President Clinton discovered after his affair with Monica Lewinsky. In the process, they can create great collateral damage, both at home and abroad.
The role of the U.S. as a global risk is only about to begin.
This article was adapted from commentaries released by The World Financial Review 02 June 2017.