The psychological urge to analytically normalize Trump is a powerful one within the commentariat, and understandably so. In an age of disruption, it is natural to seek continuity. Which brings me to Gideon Rachman’s latest Financial Times column about Trump, Barack Obama and the Blob. Rachman argues that there is significant continuity between how Obama and Trump viewed foreign policy, and that view clashes with the Blob: “Both Mr Obama and Mr Trump have sought to disengage the US from the Middle East — a policy that has caused much tut-tutting in the Washington establishment, the group derisively labeled ‘the blob’ in the Obama White House. As they pulled back from the Middle East, both presidents focused on Asia instead.” He goes on to note: “Foreign policy caution inevitably leads to clashes with the blob — Mr Obama was attacked for ‘weakness’ and Mr Trump has been lambasted for ‘isolationism’.”
For other observers, the continuity is how the Blob gets its way on foreign policy even in the Trump administration. Writing in International Security last year, Patrick Porter argued that even in Trump’s first year, the foreign policy establishment largely got its way. He posited, “Habitual ideas ... make U.S. grand strategy hard to change. These habits are perpetuated by a foreign policy establishment known as the ‘Blob.’” Porter listed key Trump foreign policy advisers — Jim Mattis, Mike Pompeo, Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster and Daniel Coats — as examples of the Blob constraining Trump.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts agrees with portions of what Rachman and Porter are selling. Indeed, the first few pages of “The Ideas Industry” is devoted to the continuities between the two presidents in their skepticism toward the Blob. But it is worth noting two rather important distinctions between Obama and Trump on this matter.
The first is that while Obama’s skepticism toward the Blob was genuine, it was also narrowly focused. Obama was skeptical of crisis escalation in the Middle East. He carped on occasion about free riders in NATO. He was fine with almost every other aspect of the liberal internationalism that defines the Blob. Obama wanted to sign trade agreements that spanned the Pacific and the Atlantic. After Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, he doubled and tripled down on his support for NATO. His foreign policy mantra was “don’t do stupid s---.” While this dispirited some card-carrying members of the Blob, others were more copacetic about it. In other words, Obama’s relationship with the Blob was astringent — much like his relationships with policy wonks more generally.
The second is that one would be hard-pressed to argue that the Blob is constraining Trump any more. Anonymous acknowledges in their book “A Warning” that, “Americans should not take comfort in knowing whether there are so-called adults in the room. We are not the bulwarks against the president and shouldn’t be counted upon to keep him in check.” Trump political appointees have attempted to purge the foreign policy bureaucracy of, you know, competent people. By 2019, Trump had fired or removed almost all the people Porter identified as members of the foreign policy establishment. In his December 2018 resignation letter, Mattis made it clear that the reason for his departure as defense secretary was a disagreement over U.S. grand strategy. Former Navy secretary Richard Spencer’s op-ed in The Washington Post reads like a reprise of Mattis.
Over time, the Trump administration’s policy actions have reflected a grand strategy far closer to “America First” than liberal internationalism. On issues ranging from climate change to nonproliferation to trade policy, this administration deviated significantly from the post-Cold War consensus. More recently, Trump’s challenges to the traditional U.S.-created security architecture and economic order have become more prominent.
The inchoate aspects of this administration’s grand strategy might help to explain the meager outcomes that an “America First” approach has yielded to date, but that does not mean Trump’s strategic shift has abated — if anything, the opposite is true. Most of Trump’s foreign policy moves generated vigorous criticism from the Blob. Nonetheless, there has been little to no effect on administration actions and strategies.
Critics of the Blob should rejoice. Trump is not constrained by the foreign policy establishment in any way. I suspect, however, that these critics are not exactly jumping for joy. As flawed as the Blob has been — and let’s be clear, it has been flawed — Trump’s foreign-policy-as-oppositional-behavior is not any better and is in many ways worse.