When it comes to foreign policy, the president’s most important characteristic is not amorality or a lack of curiosity; it is naïveté.
WN: This analysis is fascinating and insightful. While one celebrates America’s loss of hegemonic power, its sting is no less potent. On this see: The Pentagon’s New Wonder Weapons for World Dominion: Or Buck Rogers in the 21st Century.
Both of these theories miss the real significance of Trump’s presidency. After decades of international adventures that have left the U.S. overstretched, overwhelmed, and overburdened, it was Trump who blurted out the uncomfortable truth: American foreign policy was failing, and had been for decades.
Through a combination of hubris, ignorance, instinct, and ego, he pointed at the reality and demanded to know why it was being allowed to continue. Why was America still fighting wars in the Middle East and elsewhere? Why wasn’t it partnering with Russia against Islamist jihadists? Why was China allowed to abuse the rules of the game? Why were American workers losing their jobs to poorer countries? And why were so-called allies in Europe allowed to place high tariffs on American produce while American workers paid for their defense? Were these countries even allies at all?
One doesn’t have to like Trump or believe he has been a successful president to acknowledge that each of his challenges contains a grain of truth: American leaders were naive to allow China such an easy pass into the World Trade Organization; NAFTA did help hollow out American manufacturing; Europe was allowed to free-ride on American largesse; and the U.S. has become too tied up in military commitments. More than that, though, he was correct on the most fundamental point of all: the direct link between America’s economic strength at home and its power and stature abroad.
The remark came during one of several dozen interviews with senior Trump administration officials, foreign-policy specialists, diplomats, and aides in the U.S. and Europe. In those conversations, we discussed Trump’s worldview; his chaotic policy making, singular lack of curiosity, inability to compromise, penchant for dictators, and dislike of allies; and, above all, his curious ability to point out base truths that were being ignored.
Time and again, we were struck by the assessment, related by multiple sources in separate meetings, that Trump’s most important characteristic when it came to foreign policy was not what his critics charge—his amorality or vindictiveness, his lack of success or diplomatic vandalism. They said his most important characteristic, at once his most transformative strength and his greatest weakness, was his naïveté.
Speaking with an array of officials, diplomats, analysts, and advisers—many of whom requested anonymity to freely discuss sensitive issues, diplomatic relations, or government deliberations—it was striking just how many times our conversations came back to this central point. Hill told us, for example, that Trump was “a symptom of malaise, and decline, and decay” in the U.S. more widely. Similarly, Patrick Porter, a professor of international security and strategy at Britain’s University of Birmingham, told us it was impossible to disentangle Trump from the world he inherited.
Schadlow, writing in Foreign Affairs, argued that Trump had “offered some correctives to the illusions of the past—often bluntly and sometimes inconsistently.” She believes that Trump’s interventions “stem from an embrace of the uncomfortable truth that visions of benevolent globalization and peace-building liberal internationalism have failed to materialize, leaving in their place a world that is increasingly hostile to American values and interests.”
Kennedy’s thesis—that relative economic power is linked to relative geopolitical power—is key to Trump’s intellectual defenders today. America’s power, in this worldview, has declined and will continue to do so. In 1960, U.S. GDP represented 40 percent of the global total, according to the World Bank. By the time Clinton left office, in 2001, the U.S. contribution to global GDP was 32 percent. In 2018, the U.S. accounted for 24 percent. This share was expected to decrease to 14.78 percent by 2025, according to separate projections by the International Monetary Fund. At the same time, U.S. military spending as a percentage of its GDP has fallen consistently over time: from 6 percent in 1988 to 3.4 percent in 2016, according to the World Bank.
Trump may not know any of this, or see it strategically. The argument he makes is not new, nor is it uncontested. (Indeed, many of those brought into his administration reject such declinist arguments out of hand.) Yet the Trump critique—that American foreign policy has been failing, and that America has been weakened by its relative economic decline—is powerful, because it challenges assumptions both Republican and Democrat elites had considered settled.
“‘Because we’ve always done it’ is never sufficient with him,” Susan Gordon, Trump’s former principal deputy director of national intelligence, told us, describing interactions with the president. “If the best the system can offer is, ‘This is the way we’ve done it,’ he will say, ‘Well, why? Why are we doing that? Why in the world is that to our advantage?’”
In short, Trump, even as he calls out the American-built world order for its failures, has no coherent plan to replace it, no system that would work better. He isn’t trying to reorder the world; he’s just pointing at the order and calling it naked. Or as Hill put it: “He’s a chaos agent.”
Trump’s opinions on the world, and America’s role in it, may have emerged in the ’80s, but they were conceived much earlier. “When Donald Trump was born on June 14, 1946, the power of the United States was unprecedented,” write Charlie Laderman and Brandan Simms in Donald Trump: The Making of a World View. “In Trump’s formative years, however, Americans were forced to come to terms with the fact that America’s power, though considerable, had its limits.”
The 1960s and ’70s brought the Vietnam War, defeat, and division. Kim Darroch, who resigned as Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. after leaked cables detailing his unflattering assessment of the president sent Trump into a rage, told us that in his assessment, much of the president’s worldview reaches back to the America of those years. “A lot of things fixed in Trump’s mind do come from the 1950s, including a vision of America where the coal mines are working and factories are full and churning out American products that everyone buys. In a way, MAGA, if you want to drill down, is about re-creating America’s golden age.”
Trump is instead a mishmash of his instincts. Those instincts pull in contradictory directions: to restore the American supremacy of the 1950s, to revive the winner-takes-all style of the 1980s, and to reject the imperial restraints now holding the country back. Trump’s instincts cry foul at the very system of global leadership that America built—its institutions and alliances, military commitments and defense accords. At the same time, he demands more acknowledgment of American might, for the ease of the ’50s, when America did what it wanted and the rest of the Western world did what it was told.
Trump’s critique of the U.S.-led world order—however chaotic, unintentional, and incoherent—is not the only thing he has revealed.
There is also the emptiness of his official agenda, and the lack of any desire to build a strategy. To revisit the core early texts ostensibly articulating Trump’s foreign policy is to travel to a world that bears little resemblance to reality. Take the National Security Strategy, a document of seriousness, intellect, and thoroughness which calls for “principled realism” to advance American influence. Does Trump believe any of it? Is he in any way principled or realistic in his foreign policy? Does he even seek to advance American interests, or simply make it worth America’s while financially? Those we spoke with said Trump would do a deal with China tomorrow if Beijing agreed to buy America’s soybean crop for the next decade, which would bolster his stock among midwestern farmers and, by extension, his reelection chances.
From the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. has seen its manufacturing base diminish and the balance of power and wealth drift across the Pacific toward China. Faced with this reality, Obama’s proposed Asian pivot is understandable and defensible. And so too is Trump’s demand for burden sharing as America grapples with a more powerful adversary. The corollary of both strategies and demands, however, is the sharing of power alongside the financial burden. This is the contradiction at the heart of Trumpism: between righteous grievances and longing for lost supremacy.
This “declinist” account is not accepted by those who have surrounded Trump. Nor is it accepted by Trump’s most bitter critics. Indeed, mainstream Republicans and Democrats remain united by a shared belief in American leadership. Both sides in the U.S. today are complicit in the fairy tale that American supremacy is everlasting and cannot be questioned.
Please click on: Trump the Chaos Agent