President Trump is now embarked on two ambitious foreign policy initiatives — redrawing the rules of international trade and defanging a nuclear-armed North Korea — that represent significant personal gambles. The question is, can he gain something politically from these efforts in the absence of demonstrable accomplishments?
The twin meetings of the past week, beginning with the Group of Seven gathering in Canada and followed immediately by the summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, highlighted a president always willing to shake the traditional order in defiance of norms and procedures. This was how he got elected, and it is how he has operated from the start — governing by breaking crockery.
The G-7 gathering and the Singapore summit taken together highlighted the president’s willingness to go against the grain, to offend his friends when they get under his skin and to butter up his adversaries in a calculated effort to get his way. His petulant reaction to relatively mild criticism from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (who said he would stand up for his country’s interests) and his praise for one of the world’s most brutal leaders produced head-spinning on all fronts.
What has been on display over the past five days are hallmarks of the Trumpian style: policy initiatives and processes that trample across political and establishment lines, great swings in rhetoric, promises and threats, anger and flattery. But then what? Trump is betting that it adds up to more than constant motion, that it is a winning political strategy in the end. It continues to bind him closely to his base. It infuriates his opponents but often keeps them off balance at the same time.
On trade, more Democrats than Republicans support his tougher, more confrontational policies, though their general dislike of the president keeps many from expressing it. Establishment Republicans, generally a bulwark of free-traders, dislike those policies, but few have truly confronted him. Many in Trump’s base see them as part of the president’s promise to put America first, and they applaud the president’s instincts, even in the absence of results.
But his reaction to Trudeau’s post-G-7 news conference — Trump withdrew U.S. support for the member nations’ joint statement — generated widespread criticism and condemnation (though most elected Republicans remained silent). Trade adviser Peter Navarro apologized Tuesday for saying on Sunday that there was “a special place in hell” for Trudeau, but the president remained peeved. In Singapore, he again attacked Trudeau and said the prime minister’s comments would cost Canada “a lot of money.”
His approach to North Korea may be even more unconventional. Earlier threats of “fire and fury” may have contributed to Kim’s decision to seek a summit, although successful tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles no doubt did as much. But by elevating a ruthless dictator onto the international stage, Trump handed the North Korean leader a propaganda victory that other presidents were unwilling to grant.
Initial reactions to the public scenes and photo-ops from Singapore were cautiously positive, a reflection of the desire to lower temperatures on the Korean Peninsula. But as Tuesday wore on and more people examined a joint communique that was longer on talk of peace and prosperity than on commitments by North Korea to get rid of its weapons, skepticism rose, and judgments of the summit’s value grew harsher.
Many politicians and former government officials see nothing but trouble in the president’s approach. They assert that his economic policies threaten destructive trade wars that would hurt all parties involved, including the U.S. economy and the well-being of American workers and consumers. If he were to focus more singularly on China’s trade policies, he might enjoy broader support.
By squabbling with allies over tariffs, and by invoking national security as the rationale, Trump has weakened relations and perhaps elongated the time it will take to resolve differences. Allies needed on the North Korea negotiations may be warier about working with him. He talks about an expeditious timetable for negotiations over the verifiable and irreversible elimination of the North’s nuclear weapons, yet after almost a year, his administration has not completed renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
While Trump enjoys support for diplomacy with North Korea over the saber-rattling of the recent past, his performance at the summit prompted questions from those who have experience in the region. He declared that he trusts Kim to make good on the commitment to denuclearization, but he got no new assurances in writing. In calling off decades-old joint military exercises with South Korea, and by calling them “provocative,” a word used by U.S. adversaries to describe such exercises, he gave Kim a major concession with nothing tangible in return.
Trump, a gut player, thumbs his nose at those kinds of critiques. He defied the odds as a candidate and believes he can continue to do so as president. What has been tried in the past hasn’t worked — or so he believes. In his view, multilateral trade agreements have disadvantaged American workers and created an imbalance between nations. He argues that the old bottom-up approach to North Korea has produced nothing but lies and a string of broken promises. What’s the harm of trying something different? Why not shake up the system?
His critics find all this beyond the pale. Democrats see a double standard in the way Trump’s allies interpret the Singapore summit vs. how they might have treated President Barack Obama had he staged a meeting of virtual co-equals with Kim, against a backdrop of American and North Korean flags; delivered little that was tangible; and then voiced his trust for the “talented” leader. Yet some Democrats privately fear that their party’s leaders still underestimate the president and believe that he could be formidable in a reelection bid.
Republicans hope that in November, the public will set aside questions of presidential behavior, controversial policies and the Russia investigation writ large and look only at the state of the economy, along with the negotiations with a dangerous adversary to give up its weapons, and see a president standing up for the interests of ordinary Americans, no matter who might be offended around the world.
But some experts think Trump’s threats of tariffs are likely to produce, in the end, only modest changes in overall trade practices with Canada, Mexico and European allies. Foreign policy analysts remain skeptical about the negotiations with Kim’s regime, which they fear could be long and slow and eventually end the way other efforts have — in failure. If that is the case, then how will voters judge the president’s record?
Trump’s biggest gamble could be his confidence that his unorthodox approach, regardless of the outcomes, will produce tangible political dividends for 2018 and especially 2020. That is an important part of what is at stake now.