The president’s unpredictability once worked to his advantage—but now, it is producing a mounting list of foreign-policy failures.
“Gradually and then suddenly.” That was how one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters described the process of going bankrupt. The phrase applies vividly to the accumulating failures of President Trump’s foreign-policy initiatives.
Donald Trump entered office with more scope for initiative in foreign policy than any of his recent predecessors.
In his campaign for president, Trump had disparaged almost every element of the past 70 years of U.S. global leadership: nato, free trade, European integration, support for democracy, the Iraq War, the Iran deal, suspicion of Russia, outreach to China. Trump’s election jolted almost every government into a frantic effort to understand what to expect. Other countries’ uncertainty enhanced Trump’s relative power—and so, perversely, did Trump’s policy ignorance and obnoxious behavior. After eight years under the accommodating Barack Obama, the United States suddenly turned a menacing face to the world. In the short run, that menace frightened other states into attempted appeasement of this unpredictable new president.
Trump also enjoyed greater material scope: a growing economy, federal finances that were less of a mess than usual, and a lower pace of combat operations than at any time since 9/11.
Through his first months in office, Trump threw his power about as if it were an infinite resource. He growled threats, issued commands, picked quarrels, and played favorites.
And then consequences began to arrive.
When a president speaks, others hear. When he acts, he sets in motion a chain of reactions. When he selects one option, he precludes others.
This is why presidents are surrounded by elaborate staff systems to help them—and oblige them—to think through their words and actions.
If we impose tariffs on Chinese products, how might they retaliate? What’s our next move after that?
If we want to pressure Iran more tightly than our predecessors, what buy-in will we need from other countries? What will they want in return?
What do we want from North Korea that we can realistically get?
Team Trump does not engage in exercises like this.
Team Trump does not do it because the president does not do it. His idea of foreign policy is to bark orders like an emperor, without thinking very hard about how to enforce compliance or what to do if compliance is not forthcoming.
The administration canceled the Iran deal without first gaining European, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian cooperation for new sanctions.
Trump started a trade war with China without any plan for response to the inevitable Chinese counter-moves.
He enthusiastically pounced on a possible U.S.-North Korea summit in the false belief that such a summit represented a huge concession to the United States rather than—correctly—a huge concession by the United States.
The result: China pushed back on trade, and Trump blinked and retreated. The whole world saw him blink and retreat. Having yielded to powerful China, Trump is now salving his ego with a plan for new tariffs on cars from Japan, Mexico, and Canada.
The result: The U.S. has abjured its right to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities without any workable plan to impose global sanctions instead. India and China each trade more with Iran than with the entirety of the European Union—and neither is very vulnerable to U.S. pressure.
The result: Having ridiculously inflated hopes of North Korean denuclearization, Trump is now engaged in another ridiculously undignified name-calling match with the North Korean dictator, alienating South Korean opinion by bellicose threats of war.
The “bark orders, impose punishments, and bully friends and enemies into surrender to the mighty, imperial me” approach to foreign policy is unlikely enough to work even when applied to relatively weak states like North Korea and Iran. When simultaneously applied to the entire planet, allies and adversaries alike, it produces only rapidly accelerating failure.
In Trump’s case, the reckoning came especially fast, and for three reasons.
First, because he talked so much and tweeted so much, he revealed much more of himself much earlier than other presidents. His ego, his neediness, his impulsiveness, and the strange irregular cycles of his working day—those were all noted and analyzed before any formal action of his presidency. They were noted not only by leaders, but by electorates—with the result that long before he had decided on what cooperation he wanted from, for example, Australia, his offensive words had limited the ability of Australia’s democratically accountable leaders to cooperate with him.
Second, foreign leaders have concluded that the shortest path to Trump’s heart runs through his wallet. Oil states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have rushed to be helpful to the business interests of Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, seeking an advantage over regional rivals like Qatar. Authoritarian leaders who could hamper Trump-licensed businesses—like Turkey’s Recep Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines—have exploited their perceived leverage, acting with apparent impunity.
Third, Trump’s highly suspicious dealings with Russia before the election potentially put him at the mercy of countries in a position to embarrass him. “Ukraine, Seeking U.S. Missiles, Halted Cooperation with Mueller Inquiry,” The New York Times reported earlier in May. The Times report presented Ukraine as a kind of supplicant. “In every possible way, we will avoid irritating the top American officials,” a close ally of President Poroshenko told the paper. But Ukraine had already demonstrated it possessed extremely damaging information about the business affairs of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, releasing a ledger of undisclosed payments to him back in the spring of 2016. It’s not quite supplication when the supplicant holds information that the supplicee desperately wishes to keep hidden.
All this is only the beginning. Deficits are rising fast. Military commitments are rising fast. America’s friends are turning their backs fast. (Only 17 percent of South Koreans trust Trump to do the right thing, according to the Pew global survey in 2017, well before the latest chaos. Obama’s trust rating in South Korea bounced between a low of 75 percent and a high of 88 percent over his presidency.) At a time of relatively low military casualties and strong job growth, the president’s popularity at home roughly matches that of George W. Bush’s during the worst months of the Iraq war, 2005–2006, and Barack Obama’s during the most disappointing months of the weak recovery from the recession of 2009. The president’s options are narrowing even before the midterm elections.
It can only get worse from here for him and—more importantly—for America’s standing in the world under his leadership.