The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote one of the most revealing essays exploring the Obama administration’s foreign policy ideas, has written something much shorter explaining the Trump administration’s deep thoughts about American foreign policy. After hearing Trump officials try to summarize the Trump Doctrine (“No Friends, No Enemies”; “Permanent destabilization creates American advantage”), Goldberg arrives at the purest essence of the current administration’s grand strategy:
The best distillation of the Trump Doctrine I heard, though, came from a senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking. I was talking to this person several weeks ago, and I said, by way of introduction, that I thought it might perhaps be too early to discern a definitive Trump Doctrine.
“No,” the official said. “There’s definitely a Trump Doctrine.”
“What is it?” I asked. Here is the answer I received:
“The Trump Doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch.’ That’s the Trump Doctrine.”
It struck me almost immediately that this was the most acute, and attitudinally honest, description of the manner in which members of Trump’s team, and Trump himself, understand their role in the world. . . .
“People criticize [Trump] for being opposed to everything Obama did, but we’re justified in canceling out his policies,” one friend of Trump’s told me. This friend described the Trump Doctrine in the simplest way possible. “There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘[Expletive] Obama’ Doctrine,” he said. “We’re the ‘[Expletive] Obama’ Doctrine.”
Goldberg suggests in the article that this doctrine has a “delusional quality” about it. That might be the understatement of 2018. The Trump administration has squandered America’s soft power and put serious strain on core U.S. alliances in the past week alone. It has gained almost nothing for all of this beyond a glowing orb and some flattering statements towards Kim Jong Un (more on that later this week). It is ridiculously easy to point out the ways in which an America, stripped of allies and partners, doing the exact opposite of the Obama administration, is a recipe for failure.
This raises the question: Is there any explanation for this kind of behavior beyond simple stupidity? I think there is, but if I am right, it suggests an even deeper, more sophisticated layer of stupidity. Simply put, the Trump administration views diplomatic trolling as a prestige good.
There’s been a recent boomlet in international-relations research into the idea of prestige or Veblen goods in world politics. These are goods that might be of limited practical utility but are nonetheless viewed as desirable by many audiences. Think about hosting an Olympics, or building a manned space program. Each of these things confers prestige on the country creating the good, even if their primary utility is not that high.
By definition, status goods are hierarchical. As Paul Musgrave and Daniel Nexon have argued, those who can afford these goods can sit on the top of the international-relations pyramid. For these goods to have prestige, they have to be expensive to procure. If every country can build an aircraft carrier, then the cachet of having an aircraft carrier declines.
While diplo-trolling has been on the rise in recent years, the true masters of it are those who have been rogue states for decades: North Korea and Iran. Russia since 2013 has also excelled at thumbing its nose at the rest of the international community. Transgressive rhetoric and actions by these countries have led to painful responses, in the form of economic restrictions, hostile rhetoric and other diplomatic actions. Nonetheless, these nations have endured. If one thinks that flouting the rules of the game and living to tell the tale is an enviable quality, then these countries are at the top of that particular prestige hierarchy.
There is evidence that President Trump clearly admires leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte and Kim Jong Un for their ability to thumb their noses at diplomatic society. If this is the status hierarchy that Trump wishes to climb, then he needs to mimic their ability to offend.
At this, Trump has succeeded. His administration’s policies on trade and global governance have generated similar blowback. Group of Seven partners scolded the president last weekend. Multiple countries have promised retaliation in response to Trump’s protectionism. These moves are costly — but not so costly that the world has ended. Indeed, it is the very fact that these moves are costly that allows Trump to claim to be the biggest disrupter of them all. If one thinks that the ability to troll others is a desirable quality, then the Trump administration has made America seem like it is back on top.
To be clear, this is a messed-up kind of status hierarchy. It says that this administration’s lodestars reside in Moscow and Pyongyang. But the one thing that Trump, Putin, and Kim share is a contempt for the current rules-based international order. In this context, Trump’s ability to insult U.S. allies and throw U.S. partners off balance is seen as a strength, not a weakness. And domestically, Trump has inculcated a base that shares his glee in throwing feces at anything and anyone.
I do not know if this hypothesis is true. It might just be that this administration is not very bright. Either explanation, however, is appalling.