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It was a privilege to listen to Jake Sullivan at the Lowy Institute earlier this week. Jake worked with Hillary Clinton as Senior Policy Adviser and for the past two years on her presidential campaign.
Jake presented his view on the current status of the American foreign policy in the Trump era. Our key take-away is how, under Trump, VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) takes a new meaning. Especially when you're another world leader having to negotiate with him.
- Trump is unpredictable, even to his closest advisor. You can't see any pattern in his behaviour, except per Jake's words that of his "intense unpredictability"! (Jake seemed to incline that even if you inhabited Donald Trump's head, you wouldn't know what your next move would be!)
- The promotion of the US economy has always been present in US foreign policy. Yet for most of the past presidents, the approach was also backed by a value-based position. This centred on a sense that America had a role to play in the world. Trump doesn't believe in that approach. The only metric he worships is the trade deficit. Every conversation centres on economics and a win-lose approach. In short, it's all and only about the US!
- Trump doesn't trust multi-lateral agreements (too hard for him to grapple with?). He prefers bi-lateral agreements. This makes it impossible to deal with complex issues requiring multiple stakeholders involved. It also creates many uncertainties on the current American alliances. Will the US start placing more demands on its alliances? Will the US allies stop trusting the US? How will the world order evolve under Trump's presidency?
Jake also mentioned his perplexity on how to resolve the balkanization of the political debate in the US. How do you acknowledge and reconcile points of views when at times they are so polarised?
He also highlighted the need for the US to find a new narrative. The one that emerged from the Cold War where there was one defined enemy and one defined issue is obviously no longer relevant.
In his partying message, in a way to maybe convince himself, Jake was positive and hopeful about the resiliency and capacity of the US to reinvent itself... After all, it was only 8 years ago the US elected a black man to be president.
This was a fascinating conversation. We could see many parallels with the corporate world. The corporate world also faces the challenges of VUCA. Leaders too have to deal and negotiate with often irrational stakeholders. Creating a narrative that works is central to a leader's role. So is realising economic realisation whilst at the same time creating value-based organisations. Let's hope over time the balance tips more towards Obama-type leaders than Trump ones. And when a Trump-like leader is in charge, let's hope the damage s/he creates is not irremediable…