By way of explanation for some of President Trump’s bizarre foreign policy moves, we are often told that he is “unconventional” and that this could well be an asset. It’s certainly true that he doesn’t follow standard operating procedure on almost anything, from getting daily intelligence briefings to staffing the State Department. But his most striking departure from previous presidents has been in his rhetoric. American presidents have tended to weigh their words carefully, believing that they must preserve the credibility of the world’s leading power.
And then there is Trump, for whom words are weightless. During the campaign, he excoriated Saudi Arabia as a country that “want[s] women as slaves and to kill gays,” only to make his first presidential trip abroad to the kingdom and warmly embrace its rulers. He said NATO was obsolete and then affirmed the opposite. China was a currency manipulator that was “raping” the United States, until it wasn’t.
The loose rhetoric and idle threats have often backfired. After Trump was elected, he threatened China by musing about recognizing Taiwan. The Chinese government called his bluff and froze relations with Washington. Trump had to call President Xi Jinping and eat his words.
But there are situations in which such “flexibility” might work. On North Korea, Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the country, only to now welcome a meeting with its leader. Trump’s supporters say that this kind of maneuvering could well produce a deal that has eluded more conventional approaches to the problem.
We should all hope that it will. But so far, it’s worth noting that the circus-like atmosphere of Trump’s alternating threats and embraces has obscured a key point: It’s Trump, not Kim Jong Un, who made the concession. The U.S. position has long been that until North Korea took some concrete steps toward denuclearization, there would be no presidential talks. Until recently, the Trump administration itself insisted that it would not reward the nuclear buildup with negotiations.
There is a good argument for being flexible on this procedural issue. But we should be aware that Kim seems to be executing a smart strategy brilliantly. He embarked on a fast-track buildup, creating a genuine nuclear arsenal with missiles that can deliver weapons around the world, risking tensions and even his relations with China. With the arsenal built, he is now mending relations with China, reaching out to South Korea and offering to negotiate with Washington.
Trump’s skill here might well be his willingness to totally abandon a past position and endorse a new one. The United States will have to accept something less than its long-declared goal — complete denuclearization — and maybe Trump will be able to find a way to sell it.
There is, however, a different kind of tough talk that is more worrying. The administration pushes hard on an issue — trade with South Korea, for example — and then announces a deal, claiming to have won significant concessions. In fact, these have been mostly symbolic concessions made by allies to allow the administration to save face. South Korea agreed to raise the number of cars that each American auto manufacturer can sell in the country from 25,000 to 50,000. It’s an easy concession to make. No U.S. company sold more than 11,000 cars there last year.
The United States remains a superpower. Its allies search for ways to accommodate it. The Trump administration can keep making outlandish demands, and it will obtain some concessions because no one wants an open breach with the United States. If Trump says the Europeans have to come up with some changes to the Iran deal, they will try to find a way to do so, because they don’t want to see the deal collapse and the West fall into disarray.
This is not a sign of power but rather the abuse of it. When the George W. Bush administration forced a series of countries to support the Iraq War, this did not signal American strength — it actually sapped that strength. This is a style that goes beyond the presidency. In recent years, the United States has grown accustomed to all kinds of special treatment. For example, New York state has used the power of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency to force foreign banks to pay fines and make settlements. It works, but it creates enormous resentment and leads countries such as China to search for ways to work outside the system because they think the existing one grants too much license to the United States.
America has built up its credibility and political capital over the past century. The Trump administration is raiding that trust fund for short-term political advantage, in ways that will permanently deplete it.
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