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Trump’s Foreign Policy Methods


You should read Susan Glasser’s retrospective on the first year of Trump foreign policy. There’s nothing particularly new or surprising in it, but she does a terrific job of documenting the horrors. She also provides additional details on Trump’s embarrassing and dangerous behavior.

For example:

By the time the dinner was over, the leaders were in shock, and not just over the idle talk of armed conflict. No matter how prepared they were, eight months into an American presidency like no other, this was somehow not what they expected. A former senior U.S. official with whom I spoke was briefed by ministers from three of the four countries that attended the dinner. “Without fail, they just had wide eyes about the entire engagement,” the former official told me. Even if few took his martial bluster about Venezuela seriously, Trump struck them as uninformed about their issues and dangerously unpredictable, asking them to expend political capital on behalf of a U.S. that no longer seemed a reliable partner. “The word they all used was: ‘This guy is insane.’”


Over the course of the year, I have often heard top foreign officials express their alarm in hair-raising terms rarely used in international diplomacy—let alone about the president of the United States. Seasoned diplomats who have seen Trump up close throw around words like “catastrophic,” “terrifying,” “incompetent” and “dangerous.” In Berlin this spring, I listened to a group of sober policy wonks debate whether Trump was merely a “laughingstock” or something more dangerous. Virtually all of those from whom I’ve heard this kind of ranting are leaders from close allies and partners of the United States. That experience is no anomaly. “If only I had a nickel for every time a foreign leader has asked me what the hell is going on in Washington this year … ” says Richard Haass, a Republican who served in senior roles for both Presidents Bush and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Glasser’s piece deserves to be paired with Evan Osnos’ New Yorker article, “Making China Great Again”, which details how Trump’s lack of tactical and strategic acumen comes at an excellent time for Chinese President Xi Jinping, as he seeks to establish himself as the leader of the next global great power.

Glasser’s account hits some other important notes. First, Trump’s approach to bargaining—of cultivating a reputation for bluster and unpredictability—is terrible for US foreign policy. It threatens America’s key advantages in alliances and partnerships without producing any discernible benefits.

Second, for all that Republicans accused Obama of diminishing American prestige and standing, Trump has done far more damage less than year into his administration. This is, I fear, more than a matter of Trump’s obvious unfitness for office—it’s what that unfitness suggests about the medium- and long-term reliability of the United States.

Third, given Trump’s mercurialness, his rampant dishonesty, and his false bluster, he really has left many of America’s closest allies and most important adversaries deeply uncertain about the direction of US foreign policy. I hear a lot of talk about the importance of ignoring Trump’s tweets. But Glasser makes clear that this foreign leaders and officials can’t easily do so. Twitter diplomacy is bad enough; when it’s conducted by someone like Trump, it unnecessarily elevates the risk of miscalculation and conflict.

Indeed, just today, Trump took credit for the lack of civilian aviation fatalities in 2017. Trump once claimed that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” This tweet is, as best as I can tell, his attempt to test a similar proposition when it comes to telling blatant—and trivial—falsehoods. I’m sure that it won’t damage him among his toadies and his ‘base’, but it’s no wonder that many foreign officials can’t take him seriously.

This was, in fact, the least unhinged of today’s tweeting, and the least dangerous. You can go check out the feed for yourself, but in the context of foreign policy, it’s the middle-school goading of North Korea that seems most relevant.

President Trump again raised the prospect of nuclear war with North Korea on Tuesday night, boasting that he commands a “much bigger” and “more powerful” arsenal of devastating weapons than the outlier government in Asia.

“North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,’” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

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