The end of 2017 is upon us and the country has survived the Trump presidency. Not only has it survived but it appears to be flourishing at home and perhaps even abroad. Indeed, if we put aside the tweets and all the other unconventional features of his administration, can we fairly ask if Donald Trump is successfully pursuing a grand strategy in foreign policy?
Even before Trump’s recent Reaganesque moves — recognizing the truth that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and providing Ukraine with sorely needed lethal arms — leading conservative analysts of international relations have been answering affirmatively.
Walter Russell Mead finds that, as 2018 draws to a close, “the outlines of a Trump global policy now seem clear.” Mead sees an administration that has “set priorities” and embraced an “activist approach,” working with allies in the Mideast and Asia to “restore regional order under threat.”
The historian Arthur Herman locates a “Trump doctrine” based upon the “concept of ‘principled realism,’” which he says rests on a certain “philosophical underpinning,” primarily the recognition that we live in a competitive world. The Asia scholar Daniel Blumenthal sees a White House fashioning a “strategic approach” to his region of expertise, including an “inspiring vision” for the future of the Korean peninsula.
These analysts have not closed their eyes to shortcomings in Trump’s diplomacy. Mead observes that “questions about temperament and competence persist.” Herman suggests that Trump treats Twitter “as a space where emotion and instinct roam free from the restraints of rational discourse.” Blumenthal perceives “potential pitfalls and minefields” standing in the way of a successful foreign policy, but notes, in mitigation, that the arduous task of realizing Trump’s “visions and aspirations … has just begun.”
The effort to inquire dispassionately about how the Trump administration is conducting statecraft is both necessary and commendable. Our 45th president may be a novice in foreign affairs, but he is not the only player. Trump has surrounded himself with subordinates of considerable talent and experience. Beneath them is the permanent national security bureaucracy that brings both expertise and institutional memory into the mix. It is thus entirely unsurprising that glimmerings of consistency and flashes of intelligence can be discerned in Trump’s new national security strategy and in some of his diplomatic moves.
Yet at the same time there is something amiss in the effort to uncover coherence in Trump’s statecraft. The president is the lynchpin of the American constitutional system. And there are no unresolved questions about this particular president’s capabilities.
Trump gave a number of extended interviews on foreign policy during the campaign, and they did not reveal the mind of a Talleyrand or a Metternich. One finds instead the crudest of formulations punctuated by gibberish. A single sampling must stand in for the whole: “certainly cyber has to be a, you know, certainly cyber has to be in our thought process, very strongly in our thought process. Inconceivable that, inconceivable the power of cyber.”
His most crippling weakness, however, is a gaping hole in his character that creates an insatiable craving for adulation. That in turn leads him to soak up flattery, especially from autocrats abroad.
A sumptuous banquet at the Saudi royal court and a massive five-story portrait of himself projected onto his hotel façade were enough to make Trump swoon with delight toward a country he had formerly faulted for 9/11 and ripping off the American economy. When Trump traveled to the Philippines, strongman Rodrigo Duterte greeted him with gaudy baubles that led our president to gloat over his reception: “It’s a red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen.”
For every step Trump takes that has the appearance of purposefulness, there’s another step that reveals an infantile mind giving vent to impulses never successfully subjected to discipline 65 years ago in the sandbox: “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’” is what Trump, while on a state visit to Vietnam, tweeted about North Korea’s nuclear-armed tyrant.
n light of Trump’s mode of discourse, it is farcical to speak seriously about his foreign policy “visions and aspirations.” To expand on the “philosophical underpinning” of Trumpian “concepts” is to descend into the absurd.
The man who has boasted about grabbing women by the genitals, who cannot distinguish truth from falsity, whose ignorance is only exceeded by his hatefulness, who disses allies and puffs up dictators, whose daily intelligence briefings have been dumbed down to approach the level of The Cat in the Hat, whose own secretary of State reportedly has called him a “moron,” is more of a malevolent Forrest Gump than anything resembling a master statesman.
U.S. foreign policy is today running on fumes. Whatever contours of strategy remain visible are the residue of American power in the throes of dissipation under the maladministration of two successive presidents. The futile effort to uncover a budding strategist in Trump is living proof of George Orwell’s famous dictum that it requires a constant struggle to see what is in front of one’s nose.