How Trump Practices ‘Escalation Dominance’
“You have restraint on your side. He has no restraint. So you lose,” says outgoing French Ambassador Gérard Araud.
Following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, Gérard Araud has made a study of the United States while serving as France’s ambassador to Washington for nearly five years. Araud has also frequently expressed frank opinions on the fate of the West, sometimes on Twitter. After a stellar career in the French foreign service that earned him a reputation as an able negotiator on Middle East issues and took him to an ambassadorship in Israel, as well as to senior positions at NATO and the United Nations, Araud officially retired on April 19. He plans to publish a memoir of his experiences this year. Araud, 66, sat down with Foreign Policy to give his parting reflections on how to handle U.S. presidents—based on his own experience with Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Foreign Policy: What advice would you give your successor on how to handle the Trump administration?
Gérard Araud: First, I think I prefer somebody who doesn’t have heart problems. I will give you an example. We were in mid-May last year, and everybody in the administration was telling us the president was not going to take a decision [on the Iran nuclear deal] because no meeting had been scheduled on Iran in the White House. So, of course, I sent that to Paris, and, of course, Donald Trump took the decision [to withdraw from the deal] that following Tuesday because Donald Trump didn’t need a meeting.
FP: Is there any way you can predict what Trump will do, say, or tweet?
GA: I will tell you the advice I gave [to Paris] about the tweets. He once criticized the French president [Emmanuel Macron], and people called me from Paris to say, “What should we do?” My answer was clear: “Nothing.” Do nothing because he will always outbid you. Because he can’t accept appearing to lose. You have restraint on your side, and he has no restraint on his side, so you lose. It is escalation dominance.
FP: As ambassador, you bridged two very different presidents, Obama and Trump. Talk about what that was like.
GA: On one side, you had this ultimate bureaucrat, an introvert, basically a bit aloof, a restrained president. A bit arrogant also but basically somebody who every night was going to bed with 60-page briefings and the next day they were sent back annotated by the president. And suddenly you have this president who is an extrovert, really a big mouth, who reads basically nothing or nearly nothing, with the interagency process totally broken and decisions taken from the hip basically. And also, for an ambassador, you had a normal working administration with Obama. People in the executive branch offices were able to explain to you what the president was thinking or what the president was going to do. And suddenly it’s the opposite. A lot of offices are still empty. It’s amazing—after 55 months, a lot of people are changing overnight. It’s the fourth G-7 [emissary] we’ve had in the White house in two years! So the first problem is we have nobody in the offices or if they are there, they’re going to leave. But on top of that, even if you have somebody in the offices, they don’t know what the president is going to say. And if the president has said something, they don’t know what he means.
Very often even the secretary of state is surprised by a presidential announcement. When there was the announcement on Dec. 19 about the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, nobody was aware of it, including the director of the CIA. And for the [decision to concede Israeli sovereignty over the] Golan Heights, what I understand was that the secretary of state was not informed. So it means the job of the ambassador has become much more complicated.
FP: Do you report back on a regular basis: We have no idea what the Americans are going to do?
GA: Exactly. Which means that very often that’s the use of having Macron call Trump. Very often I’m obliged to tell Paris, “I’m sorry, I don’t know. If you really want to know, the president has to call Trump.”
FP: Recently, for example, your defense minister was here, and she had to go talk to acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan about getting clarity on U.S. policy in Syria.
GA: The problem of Syria is the problem of the way the president has been working. First the president says—to the total surprise of everybody including the secretary of defense, who resigned after that, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman—that the Americans are withdrawing. Then these administration officials don’t try to push the president to change his mind, but they go through modalities to change his policy, beginning with what number of U.S. troops will remain. But to be able to bargain for that, they need to be able to say to the president, “Oh, the French are going to double their contribution.” Which doesn’t make sense because on the French side we say, “We’re really sorry. We can’t tell you how many soldiers we’ll have if we don’t know how many soldiers you’re going to put in.” It’s chicken and egg. So basically we are used for the only negotiation that matters—which is the negotiation between the Defense Department and Trump.
FP: So has there been any resolution on the number of U.S. troops in Syria?
GA: No, of course not. The Americans, because of the Trump constraint, are not acting very logically. They are totally unable to tell us whether it will be 200 or 800.
FP: Is there any policy on which you do have clarity from the Trump administration?
GA: I think trade. It’s really very clear. Trade conceived as a zero-sum game on a bilateral basis and on the basis of the crude balance of power between both sides.
FP: So it’s mercantilism from the 18th century.
GA: Yeah, exactly. You have a big stick, and you don’t care who your interlocutor is. You treat China the same way you treat the U.K. or the European Union.
FP: Can the concept of the West survive this reversion to mercantilism?
GA: Basically the current president doesn’t care about the West. He is a nationalist. He is America alone.
FP: I understand your memoir is finished. Can you give us some highlights?
GA: What for me was striking was realizing that I had started my career more or less when Ronald Reagan was elected and I was completing my career when Trump was elected. And suddenly I realized by chance my career nearly exactly fit a particular period in history—a period that I’m convinced is over. I’m really convinced the direction of Trump is a signal that 40 years of what people call neoliberalism is over. This period where everybody was convinced that free trade was good, the market good, taxes were bad, and state intervention was bad, and suddenly with the election of Trump but also with Brexit and the populist wave in the Western countries, including France, the signal is that some of our citizens are saying, “No way, it’s over.” Nearly overnight all the certainties of my diplomatic life were shattered. You had an American president saying suddenly that the EU is a threat, that NATO is dangerous. That for me was the stepping stone of my memoirs.
FP: So if this era is over, what follows?
GA: I think that what’s interesting on the right wing of the political spectrum is you have a new conservatism that is suddenly defined. The Republican Party was the party of free trade, the party of active foreign policy, of budgetary restraint, and suddenly it’s over. In a sense Trump hijacked the Republican Party. So you can argue that after the mandate of the current president, things will come back to business as usual, but I don’t think so. That’s the advantage of being a foreigner: You see that conservatism is moving in the same direction everywhere. The French conservative party—and I’m not talking about the far-right—is also moving in the direction of identity, [closed] borders, anti-immigration, anti-globalism, so you have sort of a new right. And I’m regretting a bit leaving my post now because I’m convinced the 2020 elections will be a critical moment for the American left to redefine itself, and of course it has influence on the rest of the world.
FP: What went wrong? Why is this era ending in a backlash where people feel that the verities of the period you describe didn’t hold true anymore?
GA: The statistics show that half of Americans, roughly speaking, have seen stagnation of their income in the last 30 years. Overall the opening of the borders has been good for the poor countries, and very good for the rich of the rich countries, but the lower middle class and lower end have been really hit. And it’s not only the opening of borders but also automation. And on top of that, you had the storm of the financial crisis of 2008. I think it was very well managed, especially by Obama, but millions of Americans lost their homes and millions of Americans lost their jobs. So there was a moment when 30 or maybe 35 to 40 percent of Americans said, “It’s over.” And the genius of Trump has been to feel this crisis.
FP: Would Trump’s re-election in 2020 be a disaster for the West?
GA: I don’t know if it will be a disaster. I’m sure it won’t be a good thing. But at the same time it’s too easy to say Trump is responsible. Because on the European side, the crisis is on both sides of the Atlantic. You see the incredible soap opera [over Brexit] offered up by the British. Whatever the result, it’s a lose-lose situation for Europe. It’s a disaster that we are losing the British, all the capabilities they are bringing to us.
FP: You may not lose them now.
GA: Yeah. But even if we don’t lose them, it will be bad. Because for the British citizens, it will mean that once more the elites have stolen their future, and that is bad for British democracy. You see Italians, where they are. The Germans are also conservative, shifting to the right. Macron was the only voice for European integration, and you see the challenges he’s facing. So again, we can always hope for a rebound, but on both sides of the Atlantic, we have real reason for concern.
FP: What other advice, finally, would you give to your successor?
GA: Travel. Travel. Travel. We are talking too much about Washington, D.C. The job for an ambassador is traveling throughout the country. And as soon as you cross the Beltway, people don’t care so much about what is happening in Washington.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for publication.