- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is coeditor of Shadow Government.
Recently, I argued that if he became president, Donald Trump’s foreign policy would resemble a “typical sophomore Model U.N. delegation.” I based this on a prediction that Trump would continue his pattern of pursuing puerile proposals (make Mexico pay for a wall on the border), would fail in those endeavors deeply hurting U.S. relations with our partners and allies in the process, and then cover for his embarrassing failures by trying to hijack the news cycle with further outrageous statements.
Recognizing that I might have been too tough on Trump, I further encouraged any Trump supporter who disagreed with me to write a piece explaining how I was missing the foreign policy virtues of a President Trump.
I was hoping to lure out of the shadows folks with bona fide experience in a senior foreign policy position who now had somehow convinced themselves that Trump would be a fine custodian of our national security policy. So far I have not found anyone like that, and after Trump’s disastrous performance in the Houston debate I very much doubt that any A-listers will rise to the challenge anytime soon.
Trump’s performance in Houston failed to pass even his embarrassingly low bar. It was the kind of gotcha moment I have seen many times as a professor: a not very bright student who is ill-prepared struggling to answer questions about topics he just does not understand. Over and over, Trump gave his one canned sound-bite and then, when challenged to elaborate beyond that, simply repeated the pre-cooked line a couple more times. When called out on that, he panicked and retreated to the corner like an insecure narcissist, bragging about polling numbers as if they were a rebuttal to a substantive critique.
My initial dare did not spur a senior expert to rise to Trump’s defense, but I have seen two direct responses to my challenge. I will address the second one later, but first let’s consider the one we have run here on Shadow Government, sent in by the intrepid Felipe Cuello, a policy analyst specializing in international aid and, more relevantly, a Model U.N. devotee.
Mr. Cuello’s defense boils down to this: Trump would not resemble a “typical” Model U.N.-er, he would resemble an “excellent” Model U.N.-er, because the way to win in Model U.N. is to be the fastest at throwing curveballs at your opponents. Mr. Cuello says that Trump’s change-the-narrative-to-win-the-next-cycle approach works very well in Model U.N. settings, particularly the fast-paced, short-lived crisis simulation variants.
The lion’s share of the comments I received privately were on the other side of the Model U.N. debate. They said I had callously denigrated high schoolers who, my interlocutors assured me, were far more diligent about preparation and facts than Trump has been, and far more careful to show the courtesies of diplomacy than Trump is.
To be fair, Mr. Cuello wrote his damningly faint praise before Trump’s meltdown in Houston. I think even Mr. Cuello would score Trump’s debate performance as mediocre on any reasonable high school grading rubric.
But for the sake of argument, let’s be charitable and stipulate that Mr. Cuello could have a point: Trump might rock at a high school Model U.N. session.
Here’s the problem: pace Mr. Cuello, the real world does not resemble those aspects of high school Model U.N. at which Trump would excel. The Model U.N. is a great teaching tool, but the real world of diplomacy is much closer to John Oliver’s clever satire of negotiations than it is to the kind of insult-competition that Trump has mastered and is promising to engage in as president. There are some exceptional cases where Trump-like behavior is observed — for example, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ 2006 speech at the U.N., or most press releases from North Korea — but what those moments have in common is that they bring their respective governments into disrepute and they undercut the geopolitical leverage of those countries, which is what would happen to the United States under President Trump.
Mr. Cuello confuses campaigning with governing. I already conceded that candidate Trump’s media antics were effective at manipulating the press. But the challenge for a President Trump would be to manipulate — really just influence — other national, international, and sub-state actors. They are not mesmerized by the U.S. media cycle; they are more influenced by their own media cycles, where Trump plays horribly now and will play worse in the future. Even more they are influenced by their assessments of U.S. credibility and resolve and how those factors shape the bargaining space. And when a U.S. leader makes an outrageous suggestion, it tends to produce serious outrage, not serious outcomes.
Beyond making my case for me and in so doing validating what I feared was a hyperbolic headline, Mr. Cuello mounts a pretty limp defense of Trump’s actual promise as a national security custodian.
Mr. Cuello acknowledges that Trump is deeply ignorant of basic facts about our nuclear arsenal, but discounts this because so too is the American public. But the rest of the American public is not trying to be Commander-in-Chief with a proverbial finger on the button (and yes, I know there is not a big red button in the Oval Office).
Mr. Cuello claims Trump’s election would “freak out” the rest of the world and this would somehow strengthen America’s hand. In the real world, however, coercive diplomacy requires well-integrated threats and reassurance and compromise. When you have campaigned so persuasively on an all-threat/no-compromise platform, you will fail the reassurance side of the equation and you will produce fiascos, not fanfares.
I concede Mr. Cuello’s point that perhaps I overstated the risks of leaks in a Trump administration. The more Trump fills the administration with his cronies from his business enterprises, he will be picking loyalists relatively reluctant to rat on the boss. Of course, there are very few of said cronies who have the requisite knowledge to staff all of the myriad technical offices that flesh out a comprehensive foreign policy and national security. And, pace Mr. Cuello, they will not find working on national security a cakewalk. If Trump follows Mr. Cuello’s advice, he will have an administration even less distinguished than I feared. Forget Trump Vodka, such an administration would be Trump University.
Finally, some minor points of rebuttal:
- I did not say that a President Trump would fail to build a wall on the southern border, I said that Trump would fail to get the Mexicans to pay for it which is the only original part of Trump’s campaign plank.
- Like Mr. Cuello, I do believe we should stand up to Vladimir Putin’s bullying. The problem is that Trump does not agree me or with Mr. Cuello. Putin is the only global leader who would welcome Trump’s presidency, based on the positive and concessionary things Trump has said about him.
- Contra Cuello, our Asian allies have been very consistent: they want a U.S. leader who speaks softly, carries a big stick, and does not make any threat or promise he can not or will not carry out.
So while I am grateful to Mr. Cuello for taking up my challenge in such a sporting fashion, I am more convinced after reading his defense than I was before about the crucial fact in question: maybe Donald Trump has shown he is ready to lead a high school Model U.N. delegation but he is manifestly not ready to lead the United States.
Mr. Cuello is right, a Trump presidency might make it fun to play the United States at the next high school Model U.N., but it would be a nightmare for the men and women who have to risk their lives on behalf of the real United States. The world would be better off with a few less nightmares, even at the price of a few more boring high school Model U.N.s.
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