Shadow Government

If You Thought 2017 Was Bad, Just Wait for 2018

Last year, Trump corroded U.S. foreign policy, but avoided disaster. This year, there are powerful reasons to think that matters will worsen.

President Donald Trump and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen meet in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on Jan. 4. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen meet in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on Jan. 4. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Is 2018 the year when President Donald Trump finally pulls it together in the realm of foreign policy, or is it the year when the train goes fully off the rails, with potentially disastrous consequences? As I argue in my new bookAmerican Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump, the first year of Trump’s presidency has been plenty corrosive to U.S. power and influence, because Trump has steadily undermined a number of qualities that made American statecraft effective in the past. Trump has often seemed determined to erode longstanding pillars of U.S. diplomacy: America’s reputation for steadiness and reliability, commitment to a positive-sum global order in which all countries that play by the rules can prosper, soft power and identification with the advancement of universal values, and image as a dependable ally and a country committed to solving the world’s toughest problems. Meanwhile, the administration has struggled (to say the least) with systematic policy formulation and execution. The combination of internal disorganization and understaffing, erratic presidential behavior, and very public disputes between Trump and his cabinet secretaries has made 2017 one of the messiest first years ever.

What can nonetheless be said for this administration is that it has so far avoided some of the most disastrous outcomes that were widely — and quite reasonably — feared when Trump took office. The president’s tweets have often proved beyond irresponsible, but so far there has been no preventive war with North Korea. Symbolically decertifying the Iran nuclear deal was a bad idea, but Trump did not commit the far worse error of unilaterally withdrawing from the accord. The White House reportedly flirted with lifting sanctions on Russia and bringing back torture and CIA black sites, but internal and congressional resistance apparently blocked those ideas. The president withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thus making a major strategic misstep, but he has so far refrained from initiating trade wars or pulling out of existing agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

On all these issues, Congress and other outside actors in some cases and his own advisers in others have blocked the president from carrying out his own worst ideas. For all the pyrotechnics associated with the first year of his presidency, then, the damage has been more the result of a slow bleed than an instantaneous blowup.

To put it more bluntly, Trump’s first year has been quite bad, but it could easily have been far more damaging still. The key question for 2018 is whether things are likely to get better or worse.

For those inclined to be charitable, there are, perhaps, some reasons to think the trajectory might improve. Advisers such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis have largely proven to be pillars of responsibility, managing a volatile president and restraining some of his potentially more destructive impulses. If anything, the internal balance of power seems to be swinging toward the adults, as true-believing, America-first firebrands such as former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn were gradually pushed out of the administration over the first year, and the lower ranks have been populated — albeit at a glacial pace — with more mainstream figures. Chief of Staff John Kelly has reportedly brought somewhat greater order to the running of the White House, mainly by controlling information and thereby reducing the quantity of wild ideas that make their way to the top. (The wild ideas that originate at the top are another matter, unfortunately.)

To his own credit, Trump has also changed his position on a few key issues — by not immediately terminating NAFTA or precipitously withdrawing from Afghanistan, for instance — and he has acknowledged that the world looks different from the Oval Office than it did from the campaign trail. Finally, he displayed occasional flashes of normality as 2017 came to a close, namely the publication of a National Security Strategy that had its Trumpian flourishes but was far less extreme than the president’s previous rhetoric might have suggested it would be.

The trouble, however, is that for every piece of good news regarding Trump’s foreign policy, there often seem to be two pieces of bad news. And if there are some grounds for optimism regarding what’s likely to come in 2018, there are also powerful reasons to think that matters will not improve — and that they could actually get much worse.

For one thing, Trump’s position may have shifted on a few issues, but fundamentally he remains as erratic, volatile, and destructive as ever. The examples of his immutable nature are innumerable by this point, but just take two from the previous month. In December 2017, the president might have simply basked in the modest applause he would likely have received for issuing a relatively measured and mainstream (by Trump standards) National Security Strategy. Instead, he gave a typically incendiary speech that slammed U.S. allies, soft-pedaled differences with adversaries, and amplified the inevitable doubts about whether he had even read — let alone agreed with — his own strategy. More recently, the president issued what the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf rightly wrote, “may be the most irresponsible tweet in history,” in which Trump casually threatened nuclear war with North Korea and thus continued his apparently ongoing quest to make Washington seem more reckless than Pyongyang. Trump will never evolve, we have now learned: He is who he always appeared to be.

Second, if the quality of policy debate is a predictor of the quality of policy, then there are some worrying trend lines. It may be that Kelly is better at screening access to the president. But Trump’s economic and policy illiteracy on key issues seems to be dragging down the level of argument within the administration and encouraging gamesmanship that can have unpredictable results. Figures such as Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic advisor, and Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s secretary of the Treasury, have reportedly sought to pull the president away from his protectionist impulses by making arguments that are dubious on their merits but designed to appeal to Trump’s vanities. That may be the best way to steer the president away from bad decisions on NAFTA and other economic issues. But it is a risky game to play, given that proponents of unwise policy choices can do the same thing.

Third, and most troubling of all, Trump’s penchant for talking tough but kicking the hardest issues down the road has created a series of time-bombs for the administration — all of which could explode in 2018. In mid-January, Trump must decide whether to continue waiving nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in the absence of discernible progress toward his notion of fixing the Iran nuclear deal. The NAFTA renegotiation is coming to a head, with little evidence that Canada and Mexico are willing to accede to the administration’s demands. Most dangerous of all, 2018 will almost certainly be the make-or-break year in determining whether North Korea masters the intercontinental ballistic missile capability needed to reliably deliver nuclear weapons to the United States. On all of these issues, Trump has essentially talked himself into a humiliation-escalation trap by making big promises that will be extremely difficult to fulfill. He may soon have to choose between backing down and ratcheting up confrontations with enemies and friends alike.

Trump will be making these calculations, moreover, as the political temperature again starts to rise. He always seems to be in campaign mode. But as the 2018 midterms approach and he begins looking forward to 2020, he will feel increasing pressure to fire up his base by delivering on his ill-advised public statements and campaign promises. Given that Trump is becoming ever-more politically dependent on mobilizing a relatively small base of voters, the temptation to do so will be strong indeed.

We still don’t know what will happen on these or other issues, of course. Trump may settle for continuing to threaten war on Twitter while avoiding it in reality. He may once again be swayed by evidence showing that a U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA would hurt his voters more than help them. And maybe Trump’s advisers will talk him off the more dangerous ledges that he manages to talk himself onto. This might actually be harder in 2018 than it was in 2017 — which is a scary thought.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of several books, including Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order and What Good Is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft From Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. He served as the special assistant to the secretary of defense for strategic planning from 2015 to 2016. @HalBrands1

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