Why Trump Is Getting Away With Foreign-Policy Insanity

The only people who can stop his sucking up to Russia have lost all their credibility.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrive to attend a joint press conference after a meeting in Helsinki on July 16. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrive to attend a joint press conference after a meeting in Helsinki on July 16. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)

If U.S. President Donald Trump wanted to provoke most of the foreign-policy establishment into a feeding frenzy, then his bizarre, baffling, and in many ways pathetic performance at the Helsinki meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday was a success. But his behavior is still hard to fathom: A guy who is trying to convince us that he isn’t Putin’s puppet and likes to portray himself as tough, strong, and “like, really smart” ended up exposing himself (again) as inarticulate, ill-prepared, gullible, and seemingly incapable of standing up to his Russian counterpart. If this were any other presidency, he’d be toast.

It was never entirely clear why he was so eager to meet with Putin anyway. The administration had deliberately lowered expectations before the meeting, aware that the two leaders were not in a position to reach important agreements about anything. Most observers expected a typical Trumpian photo-op and a bland communique like the one issued after the Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un last month, followed by a bunch of boastful tweets about how the president had singlehandedly gotten U.S.-Russian relations back on track.

Instead, what the world saw was a U.S. president rejecting the findings of his own intelligence services—now headed by his own appointees, by the way—and accepting at face value Putin’s entirely predictable denials. Trump also tossed in a word salad of discredited conspiracy theories about former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s email server and other irrelevant nonsense, and he said that the legitimate investigation into possible Russian interference was utterly baseless and bad for the country. (That very last claim might be true—i.e., the suspicion that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia is bad for the country—but whether it is without foundation remains to be seen.)

The response to Trump’s performance was immediate, overwhelming, and almost entirely negative. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times accused Trump of “treasonous behavior” and concluded, “Donald Trump is either an asset of Russian intelligence or really enjoys playing one on TV.” Former CIA head John Brennan agreed that Trump’s performance was “nothing short of treasonous,” a charged echoed at length by former Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck and repeated by many others. Even normally discreet officials such as former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and my colleague Ash Carter, a former secretary of defense, were visibly appalled, with Burns calling the press conference “the single most embarrassing performance by an American president on the world stage that I’ve ever seen,” and Carter saying, “it was like watching the destruction of a cathedral.”

Prominent Republicans also found Trump’s actions hard to defend or excuse. Despite the lamentable lack of backbone in today’s GOP, a number of Republican VIPs distanced themselves from Trump’s comments, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Even well-known GOP grandee Newt Gingrich, normally a Trump defender, joined the chorus of critics, calling it “the most serious mistake of his presidency.”

When you’ve lost Gingrich, you really are in trouble, which is why Trump returned home and tried to walk it all back, saying that he had gotten confused by a double negative in one sentence of his statement. His account was ostensibly enough to mollify Gingrich, of course, but nobody with a scintilla of integrity was likely to be convinced.

No one knows why Trump chose to act as he did in Helsinki, or why he’s been so forgiving of Russia all along. To be clear: Trump is correct to say that U.S.-Russian relations are in a bad place and that it would be better if they could be improved. More controversially, I also think he is correct in acknowledging that the United States bears much (though not all) of the responsibility for that situation, due to misguided policies such as NATO expansion. And let’s be honest for a second: The United States is hardly blameless when it comes to interfering in other countries’ internal politics. Nor is it a passive innocent in the world of cyberespionage.

Yet none of these considerations require a U.S. president to ignore the possibility that another state actively interfered in America’s own electoral process and continues to do so today. The fact that the United States interfered in other countries in the past is not a reason to excuse another state interfering there—that would be like saying it’s perfectly OK for an adversary to bomb Los Angeles because the United States has bombed Berlin or Baghdad. Trump could believe all the propositions in the previous paragraph and still fly off to Helsinki determined to confront Putin about Russia’s actions in 2016 and since. Ideally, he’d first line up a lot of allied support and confront the Russian leader from a position of strength. This approach hardly precludes reaching a constructive agreement with Moscow; it just makes it more likely that the agreement would be in the United States’ favor. Thus far, however, Trump has used the opposite approach, which is one reason foreign leaders such as Putin and Kim keep picking his pocket.

Why does he act this way? I don’t know. Maybe Russia really does have compromising material on Trump’s personal conduct. Maybe there was collusion between people in Trump’s campaign and Russian officials or agents, and he knows they can expose the connections. Maybe there’s real dirt about the Trump Organization’s alleged involvement in money laundering by Russian oligarchs. Maybe Trump just admires Putin as a strong leader and wishes he could be more like him. Or maybe the president is genuinely interested in improving relations for sound strategic reasons, like weaning Moscow off of China, but he is too ignorant, unskilled, impatient, and erratic to know how do that effectively. Or maybe he believes admitting that Russia did in fact interfere would tarnish his victory over Clinton, undermine his legitimacy as president, and wound his fragile ego.

But what is to be done? At this point, it is no longer news that the U.S. president is incompetent, careless, venal, an inveterate liar, and concerned only about his own image and the support of his base. Nor is it news that most of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment is horrified by his conduct and deeply alarmed by what he is doing to many of the institutions, commitments, and other endeavors to which they have devoted their lives. Indeed, the establishment’s deep opposition to Trump—an aversion that crossed party lines—has been apparent since the 2016 campaign, when a host of prominent Republican foreign-policy officials publically opposed Trump’s candidacy, questioning his character and declaring him “utterly unfitted to the office.”

How right they were. But what is equally striking is how ineffective their criticisms were then, and how ineffective they have been since he took office. Although “the Blob” has reined Trump in to some degree, the relentless drumbeat of criticism from angry liberal interventionists and equally vehement “never Trump” neoconservatives hasn’t had much impact on Trump’s support or on the president’s own convictions. The question is, why?

The main reason, I suspect, is that the elite foreign-policy establishment doesn’t have a lot of credibility anymore. After all, this bipartisan caste of national security managers are responsible for open-ended NATO expansion, which did not make Europe a reliable “zone of peace”; mishandled the Kosovo War; failed to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks; either conceived, supported, or went along with the invasion of Iraq; have continued to back the 17-years-and-counting-quagmire in Afghanistan; bungled assorted interventions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria; repeatedly mismanaged the Middle East peace process; and have presided over an ever-expanding and apparently endless “war on terror.” Some of these folks also approved the illegal surveillance of Americans, the torture and targeted killings of foreigners (some of them innocent civilians), and any number of other crimes or follies. The credibility of this elite was further tarnished by the 2008 financial crisis and their failure to recognize that globalization and rising inequality were leaving many people behind and were bound to provoke a powerful backlash.

To make matters worse, most members of this elite refused to hold themselves or their friends accountable for all of these failures. Instead, both Democratic liberal interventionists and Republican neoconservatives kept insisting that the United States had the right, the responsibility, and the wisdom to spread its values far and wide and that there was no alternative to their ambitious strategy of liberal hegemony. With a few notable exceptions, most of these folks have never acknowledged their past errors or shown that they’ve learned from their mistakes.

And when the confident belief that America’s “unipolar moment” would be a new era of peace and prosperity and lead to the continued spread of liberal values had come crashing to earth by 2016, it opened the door for Donald Trump. The Blob was understandably alarmed by the danger he posed, but given the track record of the previous 25 years, is it really surprising that few people heeded their warnings, or that Trump thought he could do better?

I raise this issue not to defend Trump, who is a greater threat to our political values than any foreign foe. U.S. foreign policy may have been badly in need of reform, but so far all he has done is remind us that mistakes don’t always get corrected. Even when things are bad, sometimes they just get worse.

Rather, my point is that it is no accident that the Blob’s warnings fell on deaf ears in 2016 and haven’t dented Trump’s popularity since he took office. To put it simply: It would be a lot harder for Trump to attack the press, the intelligence community, the diplomatic services, and the rest of the foreign-policy establishment if these institutions had done a better job over the past quarter-century.

So, here’s a radical suggestion. Instead of pretending that U.S. foreign policy was a stunning success from 1993 forward, and accusing Trump of dismantling the supposedly wonderful “liberal order,” Trump’s critics might start by acknowledging their own mistakes and admitting that many of the policies they pursued for many years didn’t work out so well. Maybe people like John Brennan, Susan Rice, Bill Kristol, Hillary Clinton, and others could reflect a bit more on their own mistakes and offer up some sincere mea culpas. And as they lambaste the president for his many blunders, they might also consider some genuine alternatives to both Trump’s misguided approach and the policies that helped bring him to power. If they did that, then maybe the country would start listening to them again.

[To read the full transcript of the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki on Monday—including the bit that the White House edited out from their transcript—click here.]

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

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