Trump Doesn’t Know What He Doesn’t Know About Foreign Policy

The president-elect sometimes says the right things, but always does the wrong ones.

MOBILE, AL - DECEMBER 17:  President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a thank you rally in Ladd-Peebles Stadium on December 17, 2016 in Mobile, Alabama.   President-elect Trump has been visiting several states that he won, to thank people for their support during the U.S. election.   (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
MOBILE, AL - DECEMBER 17: President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a thank you rally in Ladd-Peebles Stadium on December 17, 2016 in Mobile, Alabama. President-elect Trump has been visiting several states that he won, to thank people for their support during the U.S. election. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s backers seem convinced he is going to give the United States something close to the realist foreign policy that I (and others) have been advocating for some time. They are confident that Trump will play hardball with free-riding allies (or ditch them entirely), build a positive relationship with a misunderstood Russia, and emphasize stability over change in the Middle East. They are also certain that Trump will keep us out of war, do a lot of valuable “nation building” here at home, and enact policies that keep foreigners out of the country and preserve America’s supposedly “exceptional” character.

That may be why some of my friends, and Trump supporters like Justin Raimondo and Scott McConnell, keep wondering why I’m not embracing Trump. I’ve dealt with this issue in some previous columns (see here and here), but that was before Trump got elected — before we had any sense of how he planned to translate his contempt for the foreign-policy establishment, and the “complete and total disaster” that has been its legacy, into policy.

We now have some evidence to make a preliminary judgment, and I’ve made my own: Despite the overlap between some of Trump’s stated positions and some of the views I’ve expressed in the past, I’m still not jumping on the president-elect’s bandwagon.

Why not?

First and most obviously, foreign policy is not the only benchmark by which presidents are judged. One could agree with his entire approach to foreign policy and still find his conflicts of interest, propensity for nepotism, misogynistic attitudes, plutocratic appointments, and indifference to various forms of bigotry and racism deeply troubling. Given that his supposedly brilliant business career is replete with failures and a trail of unhappy customers, the American electorate could end up being the latest group of people he’s fleeced. Add to that his disdain for existing democratic norms and rules, and his indifference to the Constitution, and there’s reason to worry about him, even if his foreign policy turned out to be terrific.

Second, academics like me have a high regard for facts and a deep commitment to truth. A scholarly career is all about trying to use basic canons of logic and evidence to uncover how the world actually works. Scholars and scientists are human and make mistakes, of course, but our entire enterprise depends on a commitment to honest discourse, including the willingness to admit it when we’re wrong, when new evidence is presented, or when someone comes up with a better argument, superior theory, or more convincing data.

Given that basic worldview, it’s hard to be enthusiastic about a president-elect who lies with such frequency, facility, and with no apparent sense of shame and who seems constitutionally incapable of admitting he has ever been mistaken about anything, including subjects about which he clearly knows nothing. The danger of this mindset operating in the Oval Office is obvious: If you try to make policy based on fables and falsehoods — that is, on a self-serving, made-up version of the real world — failure is guaranteed. It’s like trying to design an airplane while pretending there is no gravity or cook a gourmet meal with dirt. I know that past presidents have sometimes lied, too, and the republic managed to survive them. But the Donald is in a class by himself in this area, perhaps because his entire career is based on self-promoting hucksterism. In the world of politics, the only mythmakers and fabulists who compare are leaders like Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Benito Mussolini, and Silvio Berlusconi, all of whom did enormous harm to their own countries (and others) because they governed on the basis of ideas and arguments that simply weren’t true.

So even if one left foreign policy completely off the table, there are sound reasons to be skeptical of the president-elect. Unfortunately, Trump’s early moves in the foreign-policy domain don’t inspire a lot of confidence either — and especially for those who would like to see the United States move in a more realist direction.

Let’s start with what is arguably the single-most important foreign-policy issue that the next U.S. president must address. News flash: It’s not the Islamic State, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, trade policy, or immigration — it’s China. China is America’s only potential “peer competitor” and the only country that could potentially replace it at the top of the global pyramid. It is also a potential “regional hegemon,” a major U.S. economic partner, and the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Dealing with China properly is going to require resolve, careful judgment, clever and consistent diplomacy with Beijing and its neighbors, and a lot of patient diplomatic spadework. It’s a task for grown-up professionals, not bombastic tweet-addicted amateurs.

What have we seen so far? Trump started out by holding an ill-advised phone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and followed that up by questioning the “One-China” policy that has been in place for decades. He apparently still believes China is “stealing” U.S. jobs and manipulating its currency and has appointed radical China hawk Peter Navarro to head the newly created National Trade Council. All of which points to big trouble with China.

The issue isn’t Trump’s desire to take a firmer stance against China (though a trade war would damage both countries). Rather, the problem is the inept way he is trying to do it. If you want to limit China’s influence in Asia and pressure it over key issues, for example, the last thing you’d do is trash the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a laboriously negotiated multilateral trade deal that was central to President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia and intended to solidify U.S. ties with key allies there. Pro-American leaders like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe worked hard to overcome domestic opposition to TPP in their own countries, and Trump’s dismissal of the agreement undercuts them badly. It also raises valid questions about the long-term U.S. role in Asia and has given China a great opening to tailor economic relations in the region to its own benefit.

In short, even before taking the oath of office, Trump has picked a fight with Beijing and weakened the U.S. position at the same time. Instead of being an imaginative and deft student of realpolitik, Trump’s handling of China exposes him as an impulsive and ill-informed leader who does not understand how diplomacy works.

A similar myopia clouds his vision of Europe. Like all of his predecessors, Trump wants to get America’s NATO allies to take greater responsibility for their own defense. That is a worthy goal, but the smart way to do that is through a gradual and deliberate reduction in U.S. support — to give the Europeans time to build up their own forces — and not by threatening to simply ignore existing U.S. treaty commitments. Moreover, reducing the U.S. role in Europe will be easier and safer if politics there remain fairly tranquil. But instead of doing what he can to encourage responsible leadership in Europe, Trump and his associates are flirting with elements of the European far-right, the very groups that pose the greatest danger to fragile European unity. Unless you genuinely believe resurgent and virulent nationalism is a force for peace in Europe (a view belied by several hundred years of history), this is playing with fire.

Which brings us to Russia. Trump is correct to question the reflexive demonization of Russia that prevails in the foreign-policy establishment, and I’d even argue that the West is more to blame for the deterioration of relations than Vladimir Putin is. Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria have been brutal, but it’s also pretty typical great-power behavior and no worse than some of the things the United States has done in the past (remember Iraq in 2003?). Moreover, mending fences with Moscow could make good strategic sense if it drove a wedge between Russia and China.

But that sensible position hardly requires Trump to ignore the unsavory nature of Putin’s Russia in praising his leadership or to turn a blind eye toward possible Russian interference in U.S. domestic politics. I don’t know what Russia did or did not do (and neither does Trump), and I recognize that the United States has interfered in other countries’ internal politics on numerous occasions, too. But if Russia did in fact try to tip the election in Trump’s favor, responsible U.S. officials cannot and should not ignore it, even if they happened to benefit. That is, unless those officials don’t give a damn about the integrity of America’s electoral process, Trump’s refusal to even entertain the possibility of Russian misconduct invites Putin to think of him as a pawn, someone overly eager to give Moscow what it wants (such as a rapid end to U.S. sanctions) without getting anything significant in return. Trump’s pro-Putin attitude may also encourage the Russian leader to think he won’t object if Putin increases Russian support for authoritarian movements in Europe or tries to undermine pro-American leaders like Angela Merkel in Germany. So far, Trump’s approach to Russia looks like the kind of brilliant deal-making that brought him to the brink of bankruptcy not just once but repeatedly.

And then there’s the Middle East. Apart from rejecting regime change and armed “nation building” (pretty much a no-brainer at this point), Trump’s approach to the Middle East has been the antithesis of realism. A realist approach to the Middle East would focus on the regional balance of power and seek to ensure that no single state is able to dominate its energy resources. Because the Middle East is about as divided as it has ever been, however, this goal is fairly easy to achieve at present and doesn’t require a big U.S. commitment. Moreover, a dispassionate, realist analysis of the region would reveal that none of America’s current allies there deserve unconditional U.S. support and certainly not a “special relationship” of the sort the United States has tolerated in the past. Instead, the United States should cultivate business-like relations with all states in the region and play contending forces off each other. As Paul Pillar recently wrote in the National Interest:

“[T]he United States should maximize its leverage and its opportunities by dealing freely with every state in the region, unfettered by habitually applied labels of friend or foe. Doing so is not an abandonment of friends but instead a recognition that every state has some interests that parallel, and some that conflict with, those of the United States. This approach exploits whatever interests of foes parallel interests of the United States, reduces the danger of friends or purported friends becoming tails that wag the dog, and enables the United States to benefit from the game of playing other actors against each other at least as much as the United States is a target of others playing that game.” 

You’d think this approach would appeal to Trump’s deal-making instincts, but that’s not what he’s doing. His views on the Middle East are hard to summarize neatly, but his actions to date sure aren’t realism. He has repeatedly exaggerated the threat from the Islamic State because it reinforces his Muslim-baiting posture, and he has appointed a national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who’s an unrepentant Islamophobe. He has openly embraced the settler movement in Israel, chosen a rabidly pro-settler lawyer to be the next U.S. ambassador to the country, and trashed the Obama administration’s abstention on the recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlement building. By openly siding with the settlers and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rejecting the Obama administration’s well-intentioned if ineffective effort to achieve a two-state solution, Trump is throwing his support behind the groups most responsible for turning Israel into an apartheid state. Needless to say, this is a far cry from “realism”; it’s just mindless pandering to the most extreme and intransigent elements in America’s still influential Israel lobby. Furthermore, this approach will do nothing to help America’s image in the broader Middle East.

After denouncing the nuclear deal with Iran during the campaign, Trump hasn’t said whether or not he’s going to abandon it once in office. If he does, Iran will eventually resume enriching uranium and leave Trump with the choice of either a nuclear-armed Iran or starting another war in the Middle East. Even if Trump abides by the agreement (as the other parties to it clearly want him to do), his national security team seems obsessed with Iran and with Islamic extremism, and they are likely to push Trump to adopt a more confrontational approach toward both. This policy will strengthen Iran’s hard-liners, keep the United States pinned down chasing terrorists in various places, and encourage Tehran to deepen ties with China. And Trump doesn’t seem to have figured out yet that Russia, the Syrian regime, Iran, and Hezbollah are allies, which means he can’t cuddle up to Moscow and leave Bashar al-Assad in place in Syria without strengthening Iran’s position, too. Instead of playing smart balance-of-power politics, in short, Trump’s own position is rife with contradictions and a far cry from the realism that Pillar (or I) would recommend. Instead, Trump seems poised to repeat his predecessors’ Middle East mistakes and make new ones of his own.

The bottom line: It’s not enough to say past U.S. foreign policy has been a “disaster,” because it can always get worse. It’s not enough to question some well-worn foreign-policy dogmas unless you have something better to offer. A president also needs a clear sense of what U.S. interests are, a decent understanding of how international politics works, a sound knowledge of the basic mechanics of international trade, a certain empathy for how others view the world even if one doesn’t share their views, and enough consistency to elicit reliable cooperation from others over time.

Last but not least, a president also needs the discipline and management skills to assemble the right team, set clear priorities, and not be thrown off course by unexpected events. I’ve seen no evidence that the president-elect has any of those qualities. Instead, he keeps showing us that he’s a thin-skinned, dishonest, vengeful, and self-absorbed blowhard who cares far more about himself than he does about the country, and the team he has assembled so far is rife with internal divisions and deeply worrisome appointments. I’d be delighted to be proved wrong about all this, and I’d be pleasantly astonished if Trump turns out to be a uniter at home and an offshore balancer abroad. But until there’s clear evidence that either of these things is true, I’m keeping my guard up and my skepticism intact.

Photo credit: MARK WALLHEISER/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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