Shadow Government

Why Cozying Up to Trump Works

The rest of the world may not particularly like the U.S. president’s bluster, but playing to his ego is a pretty good strategy.

Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang talks to U.S. President Donald Trump at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in the Vietnamese city of Danang on Nov. 11. (Photo credit Jorge Silva/AFP/Getty Images)
Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang talks to U.S. President Donald Trump at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in the Vietnamese city of Danang on Nov. 11. (Photo credit Jorge Silva/AFP/Getty Images)

America First, here we come. “I am always going to put America first,” U.S. President Donald Trump told his counterparts at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Vietnam last week. His interlocutors were well prepared. With Trump having already pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a broad trade deal encompassing the Pacific region, the other members of that pact announced on Saturday that they were moving ahead anyway — without the United States.

Next on the chopping block may be U.S. participation in NAFTA and the World Trade Organization; Trump reportedly has both in his sights. In the meantime, Europeans are exasperated by Trump’s readiness to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal if Congress does not fix it to his satisfaction. As Europe’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, put it last week, “One thing is clear: renegotiation is not an option.”

America’s partners are understandably vexed, wondering whether it is time to give up on working with Trump and instead work against him. Even if justified, that approach is ill-advised. The United States is too powerful and influential to ignore or contain.

Instead, America’s allies need to step back and take stock of these latest turns in Trump’s presidency. They should embrace the harsh reality that the adults in the room will be unable to tame Trump and that his presidency is likely to get worse, not better, in the months ahead. Nonetheless, instead of turning their backs on Trump in anger and frustration, America’s friends should engage him to the end of curbing his destructive instincts.

It should not be surprising that Trump is ramping up his hard-edged populism. When demagogues stumble, they do not retreat — they double down. And Trump, if nothing else, is a stumbling demagogue.

His signature programs — health care reform, infrastructure investment, a border wall — have gone nowhere. He has been dueling with his own Cabinet, feuding with key members of his own party on Capitol Hill, alienating one world leader after another, and even insulting widows of fallen American soldiers. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has been indicted on 12 counts, including money laundering and tax fraud, providing further momentum and political attention to the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia.

In the meantime, Trump’s public support has plummeted. Since modern polling began, no president has been so unpopular at this point in his presidency. Trump’s base remains fiercely loyal, but it represents only about a third of the electorate. And the president’s unpopularity clearly hurt Republicans in the off-year elections that took place on Nov. 7.

Lacking the confidence of a broad cross-section of the American electorate, Trump is retreating to his faithful base — which, at least for now, is the beneficiary of the Republican Party’s meltdown. The Republican establishment is under siege, a mobilized and angry base is out for blood, and former White House advisor Steve Bannon is seeking to orchestrate a purge in favor of the far right. Whether he likes it or not, Trump is beholden to an ascendant insurgency of populist nationalists; he has already lost much of the rest of the country.

But Trump has gravitated to the far right by inclination as much as necessity. Even as Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and other fervent ideologues have been banished from the White House, Trump’s racially tinged brand of nationalism has continued, if not deepened. His ambiguous response to neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, his insults toward Hispanic immigrants, his disregard for suffering in a Puerto Rico ravaged by Hurricane Maria, his slugfest with NFL players who kneel during the national anthem — this is the real Donald Trump, not a political concoction of his handlers.

Confronted with this sobering reality, how should the international community handle the remainder of Trump’s tumultuous presidency?

First, America’s partners should engage Trump, seeking to exercise whatever influence they can over his behavior. Trump craves respect and acceptance; shunning and isolating him will only make matters worse. Moreover, engagement does have the potential to yield concrete payoffs. Even when Trump appears ready to start dismantling policies he does not like, he tends to offer an escape hatch.

Rather than simply dismantling the Iran deal, he handed it over to Congress to address his concerns. He announced the end of a program allowing some Dreamers (U.S. residents who entered or remained in the country illegally as minors) to stay in the United States, but then he opened a dialogue with Democrats about preserving it. He declared that he was rescinding health care subsidies needed to fund Obamacare, but soon thereafter entertained a bipartisan proposal to salvage the funding. Even though Trump has announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the United States cannot formally exit the accord until 2020, leaving room for maneuver.

It is impossible to know whether Trump’s stop-and-go style is a sign of genetic inconstancy or part of a shrewd negotiating strategy. But it does mean that the door is open to negotiation. Concerned parties should walk through that door. In the end, Trump may or may not uphold the Iran deal, allow Dreamers to stay in the United States, subsidize the health insurance of Americans in need, or return to the Paris agreement. But it is certainly worth trying to keep him on board. To walk away from Trump is to encourage his worst instincts.

Second, engaging Trump does not mean bending to his wishes. Instead, it means attempting to bring him around to sensible positions and standing one’s ground when that effort fails. On matters of foreign policy, America’s partners must staunchly defend the Iran deal come what may; it is the only game in town. The rest of the world is right to stand by the Paris climate agreement even though Trump has denounced it. Kudos to the remaining members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership for getting on with a deal despite Trump’s withdrawal from the pact. If Trump seeks to back away from the World Trade Organization, it will be up to other members to defend a rules-based trading order.

The international community, and Europe in particular, needs to ensure that Trump is not allowed to dismantle the liberal norms and rules-based institutions that like-minded states have worked so hard to establish. Trump will not last forever. Europe needs to make sure that the next American president does not take office in a Western world that has been reduced to rubble.

Third, America’s friends need to guard against allowing popular opposition to Trump from turning into anti-American sentiment. Even if anger toward Trump may be understandable, and even if it is tempting for politicians to cater to it, doing so risks setting democratic societies against the United States. If leaders around the world are to remain committed to working with Trump whenever possible — as well as reaching out to the U.S. bureaucracy, Congress, and state and local officials, all of which may be better partners than the White House — they need to ensure their own electorates have not come to write off the United States. Otherwise, any hope of sustaining a sense of solidarity and community among the Atlantic democracies will be illusory.

Judging by Trump’s speech to the United Nations in September, he is intent on taking us back to a world in which each nation is out only for itself. Let’s make sure that he does not succeed.

Versions of this article are also appearing in La Stampa, Le Monde, and Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs from 2014 to 2017.

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