When it comes to foreign affairs, President Trump is not cursed with the burden of knowledge. This was always pretty clear, but the point has come into sharper focus in the past week. As his trade war with China escalates, Trump continues to display a fundamental lack of comprehension about how the policies he’s put in place work. He has repeatedly insisted that China pays for U.S. tariffs, even though every economist — including his own adviser Larry Kudlow — acknowledges this to be false. According to Axios, Trump’s staffers are convinced he really believes it; one former staffer says it’s “like theology.”
A similar dynamic is playing out in the Middle East. In Iran, the Trump administration is increasing pressure; administration spokesmen and spokeswomen have brandished military threats and plans. Based on Trump’s own comments, however, it is not clear he is aware of the implications of his foreign policy. When news broke about a Defense Department plan to deploy 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran were to escalate existing tensions, Trump simultaneously denied it but also suggested that “if we did that, we would send a hell of a lot more troops.”
Despite our nation’s superpower status, such threats from Trump keep leading to more conflict, rather than less. Perhaps, in some cases, more patience is required.
Or maybe, just maybe, the president simply does not know what he is doing.
Iran and China are not easy portfolios for any commander in chief. Nonetheless, the standoffs with both countries — either of which can easily worsen — were entirely avoidable. Both situations show just how wrong things can go when the ultimate decision-maker for the government of the most powerful nation on Earth doesn’t understand that he’s boxed himself in. Trump declared during the 2016 campaign that “I alone can fix” the problems facing the country. What we’re seeing now is the unfortunate counterpoint: He alone gets us into these new messes.
Unlike any of his predecessors, Trump possessed zero experience in any branch or level of government when he arrived at the White House. His only previous contact with the legal system had been suing others and being sued, which did not prep him for the finer points of law. Trump has repeatedly commanded his staffers and Cabinet secretaries to do things that, as president, he has no legal authority to do. And in return, they have repeatedly mocked his knowledge deficits. Reince Priebus, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, Steven Mnuchin and H.R. McMaster all reportedly called him some variation of “idiot” during their service in his administration. After leaving office, Tillerson explained: “What was challenging for me coming from the disciplined, highly process-oriented ExxonMobil corporation, to go to work for a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.’ ”
If Trump is the president with the least experience in government in American history, he is also the one most hostile to expert advice. Like a small child who thinks that no one is wise to his bluff, Trump has consistently claimed expertise on subjects that he clearly knows nothing about. During the 2016 campaign, Trump claimed that on foreign policy, “my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.” Despite Trump’s rather limited tech savviness, he has claimed expertise about wind energy, the aeronautics of Boeing planes, and self-driving cars. He has repeatedly rejected the assessments provided to him from the U.S. intelligence community on security matters. He has spurned his economic advisers on foreign economic policy. The reason for the high turnover on his foreign policy team has been his refusal to listen to their counsel.
Trump’s defenders might argue that the president’s dealmaking abilities compensate for his lack of knowledge, that expert advisers can compensate for what the chief executive doesn’t know on his own. These arguments do not hold up and mask considerable risks. Trump’s lack of knowledge erodes his ability to lead. Indeed, his ignorance enables his subordinates to pursue policies that might be at variance with Trump’s wishes. The president did not comprehend the veiled insults contained in outgoing defense secretary Jim Mattis’s resignation letter because he did not read it until it was covered in the news media. In just the past few weeks, Trump has publicly reversed his own administration’s actions on North Korea and the Special Olympics, unaware of policy initiatives until they were already in motion. As political scientist Elizabeth Saunders has demonstrated, inexperienced leaders are less able to constrain their subordinates from engaging in bureaucratic conflicts or pursuing risky actions. Their lack of experience and knowledge makes it more difficult for them to effectively monitor their subordinates, particularly when those subordinates have their own agenda. Saunders concludes that “a base of substantive, domain-specific knowledge is important, and is distinct from procedural experience and acumen (such as good organizational or bargaining skills).”
We see this at work in all the conflicts brewing this week. On Iran and Venezuela, Trump appears to be at the mercy of his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, who is running point on both policies. Bolton has made some extraordinary threats, including calling out individual allies of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro by name on Twitter. None of this has caused the Maduro regime to collapse, surprising Trump repeatedly. Bolton’s bellicosity on Iran is based on intelligence that has failed to persuade U.S. allies of any escalation in the Iranian threat. One U.S. official told the New York Times that, “the ultimate goal of the year-long economic sanctions campaign by the Trump administration was to draw Iran into an armed conflict with the United States” — a goal decidedly at odds with Trump’s desire to extract the United States from wars in the Middle East. In his economic war with China, Trump’s advisers are bound and determined to force U.S. allies into a binary choice between Washington and Beijing — and Trump is blissfully unaware how that choice intersects with his other trade wars.
The real reason Trump likes to threaten is that he likes cheap victories. A successful threat can compel other countries into making concessions without incurring costs. Trump, like every other president, wants as many wins as possible. Unlike other presidents, however, Trump has no grasp of the need for threats to be credible. As some of us cautioned back in 2016, the president’s bellicose rhetoric inevitably starts to wear thin after a while.
It is possible that the Trump administration will still manage to pressure some recalcitrant actors into submission. American power can be a great thing. It is not likely, however. Trump’s demands on China, Iran and Venezuela are much greater than what earlier administrations have asked, which decreases the likelihood of any settlement. Some would argue that this merely reflects Trump’s right sizing of U.S. priorities. The problem is that it is hard to square the notion of enduring great power conflict with a president who possesses large knowledge deficits and a limited attention span.
Unburdened by any knowledge of history, Trump can serenely gamble on economic and military brinkmanship, convinced that his escalation dominance on Twitter translates into success on the global stage. Those of us who have studied these matters, however, see too many brush fires that can escalate into an uncontrollable blaze.