Trump’s Ego Is Officially a Foreign Policy Crisis

Throughout American history, a lack of presidential empathy has triggered international calamity.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters about Iran and Mexico after signing an executive order establishing a White House Council on eliminating regulatory barriers to affordable housing, in the Oval Office at the White House on June 25, 2019 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters about Iran and Mexico after signing an executive order establishing a White House Council on eliminating regulatory barriers to affordable housing, in the Oval Office at the White House on June 25, 2019 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may have been unduly harsh when he recently described the White House as “mentally handicapped.” But you can see why he may have thought so. U.S. President Donald Trump was so sure that if he pulled out of the nuclear pact with Iran he could then bully Rouhani and the Iranian leadership into submission that he was utterly flummoxed when they responded with bullying of their own. The people around Trump who had pushed him to abrogate the agreement were perfectly prepared to maneuver Iran into a position where the United States could initiate hostilities and blame the Iranians. Maybe they told Trump that wouldn’t happen; in any case, he believed it.

Trump’s cognitive limitations, whatever they are, are his alone. But he is also blind in a way characteristic of U.S. foreign policy: He is so sure of the rightness of his own position that it does not occur to him to consider the consequences for others who do not share that view. In recent weeks, we have witnessed the Trumpian version of imperial hubris.

U.S. foreign policy since World War II can be seen in part as a struggle between those who call attention to the likely consequences of U.S. actions and those who ignore them. In his famous article for Foreign Affairs in 1947, U.S. diplomat George Kennan, after warning pro-Soviet liberals that Russia could not be reasoned with, admonished the hawks that “tactless and threatening gestures” could place the Kremlin “in a position where it cannot afford to yield even though this might be dictated by its sense of realism.”

Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower generally avoided such unnecessary provocations. President John F. Kennedy, by contrast, arrived in office promising to “pay any price … to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” By first launching the Bay of Pigs invasion and then authorizing a massive increase in spending on both nuclear and conventional military capability, JFK persuaded the hard-liners around Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev that the United States was preparing to roll back Soviet gains. Khrushchev could not afford to put Soviet prestige at risk. He responded by building the Berlin wall, then by withdrawing from the ban on nuclear testing, and finally by stationing nuclear missiles in Cuba. Only later did Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admit that the whole thing was based on a misunderstanding of Soviet capacities and intentions. Sound familiar?

The story would be told again and again. First Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson stumbled into war in Vietnam in order to draw the line against what they understood to be communist ambitions to control the developing world. Neither could see Vietnam as anything other than a pawn deployed by China on a global chessboard. Yet as early as 1965, the scholar Hans Morgenthau observed—in an article titled “We Are Deluding Ourselves in Vietnam”—that in fact “China is the hereditary enemy of Vietnam” and that North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh had come to power “at the head of a victorious army of his own” and was thus a nationalist leader as much as a communist ideologue. Escalating the war, Morgenthau predicted, would produce precisely the result Washington most wanted to avoid—installing Vietnam in China’s orbit.

The Bush family furnishes a laboratory experiment in the consequences of not thinking about consequences. George H.W. Bush was the rare president who reached office with a deep knowledge of the world rather than an a priori sense of America’s transcendent purposes. He recognized that he had to help Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev manage the demise of the Soviet Union by passing up the opportunity to gloat and by treating the Russian leader as an ally rather than a foe. Bush pursued this goal so single-mindedly that he told the Ukrainian parliament that Washington was neutral as between the Soviet government and the republics seeking independence—a stark reminder of the moral drawbacks of a stringent realism.

George W. Bush, of course, grew punch-drunk on U.S. righteousness in the aftermath of 9/11. The National Security Strategy that he issued a year later begins: “In pursuit of our goals, our first imperative is to clarify what we stand for: the United States must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere.” If national security strategy is based not on what is out there but on what is in us, then taking into consideration the views of those whose insides differ from ours becomes a form of moral weakness. It is, of course, precisely this form of principled apriorism that gave us the war in Iraq.

In Barack Obama, the visionary strain of U.S. political thinking appeared to be fused with, and tempered by, a rueful recognition of what it meant to be on the receiving end of U.S. power. In the speech he delivered in Cairo in June 2009, Obama went to great lengths to demonstrate his respect for Islam and to acknowledge the harms done by colonialism—in order to then seek a set of reciprocal recognitions that would establish a new relationship based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.” Obama tried, and failed, to win over Iran with similar acts of strategic deference, but that effort enabled him to persuade the U.N. Security Council to pass the tough sanctions that ultimately brought the Iranians to the table.

Trump does not, of course, suffer from the self-hypnotizing idealism of George W. Bush. The blinders he wears are those of ego, not faith. But until now, America’s vast power has allowed him to engage in the bullying that is second nature to him without really suffering the consequences. Think of the contempt he has shown for “mutual interest and mutual respect” with regard to Mexico—yet that country’s left-wing government is now cracking down on Central American refugees out of fear of the punishments Trump has threatened. No doubt Trump thought Iran would fold as well. It hasn’t, and it almost certainly won’t. Unlike some of his advisors, Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran, yet he’s acted in such a way as to force a choice between hostilities and retreat. We can only hope that his fear of provoking his base with a Middle Eastern war is greater than his fear of provoking it with a failure of nerve.

What lesson should the Democratic candidates take from this history? Left-wing bellicosity is one problem we need not worry about. But as I noted in an earlier column, many of the candidates, and above all the more doctrinaire ones, like Bernie Sanders, talk about foreign policy as it were little more than a projection of domestic values. Because they rightly deplore the “forever wars” of the last 18 years, they are too quick to conclude that all important problems can be solved with diplomacy and development assistance. It would be a fine thing to live in such a world; alas, we do not. As Obama used to say, we must learn to accept “the world as it is” in order to reach the world as we wish it to be.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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