President Trump’s foreign policy approach to the United States’ allies has clearly switched. It used to be good cop/bad cop. Now it is all-bad-cop-all-the-time-we-do-not-care-if-there-is-video. The question is whether it will matter over the long run.
In 2017, Trump’s foreign policy instincts still lay in the “America First” direction. He withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate change accords, and he did not reaffirm NATO’s Article V in a speech in which all the groundwork had been laid. On the other hand, a panoply of Trump officials from Gary Cohn to H.R. McMaster to Jim Mattis reassured allies that beneath the bluster, the bedrock of the security architecture remained. By and large the Trump’s administration’s strategy documents reflected this more status quo orientation.
The sum effect was no small amount of confusion and incoherence, but also a belief that maybe the worst could be avoided. Some could even rationalize it all as just Trump’s version of good-cop/bad-cop tactics.
Welcome to 2018, when, as predicted, things have gotten much worse. Cohn and McMaster are gone, while Mattis has gone dark. As the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Katie Rogers report, Trump’s bad cop has almost purged his administration of good cops:
[Trump] left behind a West Wing where burned-out aides are eyeing the exits, as the mood in the White House is one of numbness and resignation that the president is growing only more emboldened to act on instinct alone.
Mr. Trump, a former reality television star, may soon be working with a thinned-out cast in the middle of Season 2, well before the midterm elections. Several high-profile aides, including John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, and Joe Hagin, a deputy of Mr. Kelly’s, are said to be thinking about how much longer they can stay. Last week, Mr. Kelly told visiting senators that the White House was “a miserable place to work,” according to a person with direct knowledge of the comment.
The turnover, which is expected to become an exodus after the November elections, does not worry the president, several people close to him said. He has grown comfortable with removing any barriers that might challenge him — including, in some cases, people who have the wrong chemistry or too frequently say no to him … .
People who did not work with Mr. Trump before the White House see his behavior as deteriorating; people who have worked for and with him for years say he has never changed, and there are simply fewer people around giving him a level of cover.
We can see this in the aftermath of Trump’s Twitter tantrum on the G-7 communique a half-day after he proclaimed that U.S. relations with allies from the Group of Seven industrial nations were at “10 out of 10.” White House officials went out of their way to throw as much gasoline on Canada and the rest of the G-7 as humanly possible.
Trump has modeled his staff to act just as unhinged as he does now. It’s bad cop/bad cop.
This is leading to a lot of gnashing of teeth about the future of the rules-based international order — you know, the one the United States created decades ago but in which Trump officials now object to the language.
In The Washington Post’s write-up of the G-7 fiasco, Griff Witte and James McAuley highlight the conundrum this represents for the United States’ European partners:
For many in Europe, the question now is how best to preserve any kind of multilateral cooperation. Dealing with Trump’s whims and last-minute changes of mind has proved a strategic nightmare.
“How is it possible to work this way if once you have agreed to something, two hours later the guy decides he doesn’t agree with what he agreed with?” said François Heisbourg, a former French presidential national security adviser. “Is there any space for a multilateral order under these circumstances?”
… But amid the animosity, there were signs among otherwise frustrated allied leaders that they see Trump and his “America First” agenda as an aberration and not necessarily as expressive of a new reality.
Are the allied leaders referenced in that last paragraph being too optimistic? It is worth noting that Trump himself does not view governing in quite that way. As far as he is concerned, there are no credible commitments from prior administrations; there is only the here and now. This appears to be how his Justice Department is approaching Supreme Court cases, and it is how Trump is approaching foreign policy. Asked at the news conference he gave before leaving Quebec whether the G-7 should now recognize Crimea as part of Russia, he responded:
Well, you know, you have to ask President Obama, because he was the one that let Crimea get away. That was during his administration. And he was the one that let Russia go and spend a lot of money on Crimea, because they’ve spent a lot of money on rebuilding it. I guess they have their submarine port there and such. But Crimea was let go during the Obama administration. And, you know, Obama can say all he wants, but he allowed Russia to take Crimea. I may have had a much different attitude. So you’d really have to ask that question to President Obama — you know, why did he do that; why did he do that. But with that being said, it’s been done a long time.
In essence, for Trump, anything that happened before Jan. 20, 2017 can be revoked. Which is why he is provoking such consternation among those countries whose entire foreign policy rests on the notion of a credible U.S. commitment.
Of course, turnabout is fair play. If Trump loses in 2020, then one can imagine the next president reversing much of this administration’s foreign policy. At this point, that would be pretty easy to do. Trump has wielded his discretionary authority to impose tariffs and pull out of executive agreements; the next president can simply reverse those positions. In that case, the G-7 allies might be correct to simply wait out Trump’s tantrums.
There are three whopping caveats to this sunny conclusion, however. First, the increased polarization of U.S. foreign policy might lead allies to wonder whether Trump is an aberration or the beginning of a nationalist/internationalist cycle of executive-branch foreign-policy-making. This would depend on whether one views the current populist moment as ephemeral or more long-lasting.
Second, as stupid and as counterproductive as Trump’s tariffs have been, he has three years to make things way worse. The proposed auto tariffs would be destructive. Attempting to withdraw the United States from NAFTA or the World Trade Organization would be extremely destructive. Whether Trump has these powers or not is unclear, but that uncertainty in and of itself could wreak economic chaos. This president does not have much of a policy legacy, but he has shown his ability to blow things up. Can U.S. allies tolerate the collateral damage until 2021 without erecting permanent countermeasures?
Third, Trump could get reelected. if that happens, the tombstone for the current order can safely be planted.