In the late 1960s and early ’70s, researchers at Stanford University performed a simple but powerful experiment. Children were put in a room with a single marshmallow in front of them. The kids were told that if they waited 15 minutes to eat the marshmallow, while the researcher left them alone with it, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. But if they ate it before the researcher returned: no more marshmallows.
Some kids scarfed it down as soon as the door clicked shut, unable to resist. Others showed more self-control, patiently waiting for their eventual reward. And the researchers found something striking as they monitored those same kids over the next years and decades: Those who resisted the immediate temptation of that first marshmallow did better in school and were generally more successful throughout life.
These days, we have a president who routinely fails the Marshmallow Test. Impulse overrules patience. Instant gratification outweighs long-term planning. So long as the right headline crosses the morning cable news screens today, it doesn’t matter what the long-term costs might be.
We see evidence of President Trump’s short-termism on a daily basis: the reckless tweets where he can’t stop himself from lashing out at his critics or taking cheap shots at some celebrity, or the abrupt hiring and firing decisions that so often seem dictated by momentary whim.
In domestic contexts, the consequences of Trump’s apparently spontaneous decision-making often present themselves quickly — as when his dismissal of FBI Director James B. Comey almost immediately backfired by triggering the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
In foreign policy, though, the ramifications of a decision might take years to play out. The return home of American prisoners from North Korea at 3 a.m. makes for a great photo op. Tearing up the Iran deal on television offers a dramatic break to be cheered by supporters. Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem affords an occasion for celebration among conservative Republicans and Israeli nationalists. But all of these highly telegenic moves could easily have destructive effects farther down the road, likely long after the favorable publicity has evaporated.
International affairs don’t play out as straightforwardly as the Stanford experiment. We don’t know what will happen if we engage in instant gratification rather than patient, strategic planning. But what is clear is that Trump’s presidency is defined by the unending pursuit of minor short-term “wins” — so long as the far more serious consequences are both delayed and diffuse.
This instinct is almost certainly tied to Trump’s reality-television stardom. It doesn’t matter what happens after the cameras stop rolling. Trump injected that mentality into politics. Who cares what happens down the road? What we are experiencing is the presidency of the now.
Now, it’s true that all presidents like photo ops. But Trump is different by an order of magnitude. This is the president who has tweeted 268 times about “crowds,” 263 times about “ratings” — and only three times about “human rights.”
Ask any of Trump’s supporters whether they think Trump’s foreign policy is going well and they’ll look at you like a fool for even questioning it. “Haven’t you seen how he’s won in North Korea?” Or, “Didn’t you see him rip up Obama’s Iran deal?”
To be sure, you can see Trump’s “wins.” Trump’s foreign policy achievements are easily and instantly broadcast.
What we can’t and don’t see, however, is how much we’re losing over the long run.
In pursuing impulsive short-term victories, Trump has savaged the world’s view of the United States. Between President Barack Obama’s departure and the first six months of Trump’s presidency, confidence in U.S. leadership fell 75 percent in Germany; 71 percent in South Korea; 70 percent in France; 57 percent in Britain; and 54 percent in Japan. This past week, after Trump torched transatlantic trust by unilaterally violating the terms of the Iran deal, the highly respected German magazine Der Spiegel, wrote an editorial proclaiming that “our relationship to the United States cannot currently be called a friendship and can hardly be referred to as a partnership. President Trump has adopted a tone that ignores 70 years of trust.” In most of Europe, Trump is a tragic punchline, not a statesman who leads the West.
But in concrete terms, what does that actually mean? And does anyone care? Where’s the photo op that underscores how our closest allies no longer trust our word after Trump has backed out of several international commitments? Where’s the footage of the transatlantic alliance slipping Titanic-like into an ocean that now seems wider than ever before?
Unfortunately, it’s not just European alliances that are being severed or downgraded by Trump’s lack of impulse control. Even if Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un next month offers yet another short-term win, there’s a serious risk that any concessions offered by Trump will be wholly unacceptable to one of our most crucial Asian allies — Japan.
Trump’s America First rhetoric increasingly means America Alone, and the United States is significantly weaker without allies. As China rises and Russia accelerates its chaos-inducing aggression, the United States needs all the help it can get. Proverbially, we need two marshmallows, but Trump is already busy chewing the first one while we all watch – and some of us cheer.