If Trump White House officials were running the foreign policy ship for the first two weeks, well, man, do they stink at it. A botched process leading to a botched raid in Yemen. A foreign head of state canceling a U.S. visit. A stupid executive order on immigration that will weaken national security. Pulling out of a trade deal in a move that will only benefit China. Counterproductive phone calls with close allies in Australia and Mexico. Sean Spicer saying things that are consistent with his tenure as press secretary, by which I mean they are inflammatory and untrue. A veritable geyser of leaks about all of these screw-ups. And then there are the loud tweets putting countries “ON NOTICE.”
It’s not surprising that the GOP foreign policy establishment is tearing its hair out at the array of stumbles, bumbles and tantrums that the White House has committed in its first fortnight. And the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been obsessed with it the same way he’s obsessed with this video:
But — maybe foreign leaders have adjusted to the fact that Donald Trump’s words don’t mean all that much on the global stage. The Post’s A. Odysseus Patrick noted this from an opposition leader in Australia:
Even figures in the opposition Labor Party conceded that Turnbull was in a difficult position trying to persuade the new president to uphold a promise made by the Obama administration. “I don’t believe Turnbull did the wrong thing,” Graham Richardson, a senior cabinet minister in a previous Labor government, told Sky News. “I think we are just facing a normal Trump tantrum.”
Vox’s Yochi Dreazen highlighted that quote, following on by noting:
What’s striking about Richardson’s words is that an experienced foreign politician is basically comparing Trump to an angry toddler. (As the parent of a toddler, I can tell you that’s not a compliment.)
Even more striking, Richardson is explicitly saying what many foreign leaders are beginning to grasp about Trump: that his unpredictable tirades at close allies (on Wednesday, Trump also kinda sorta maybe threatened to invade Mexico) are the rule, not the exception.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: That’s not a good thing.
Is Dreazen right? Well, there is one undeniable upside to foreigners updating their expectations of a “Trump tantrum” — it means that when Trump loses his cool to a foreign leader, that in and of itself won’t be a triggering incident for a deeper conflict. It will just be “Trump’s gottta Trump!” Much like Republicans at home, maybe foreigners will learn to ignore the president and focus on key interlocutors.
Even GOP foreign policy folks think that Trump’s tantrums are bad but not necessarily meaningful:
“I suspect our allies will probably try to smooth it over and just accommodate the fact that the president is somewhat mercurial, because they have a long-term vested interest in the relationship with the U.S.,” said Tom Nichols, a former Republican Capitol Hill staffer and a professor at the Naval War College (who stressed he was speaking only for himself).
One veteran Republican operative with close ties to the GOP foreign policy apparatus put it more bluntly: “It’s absurd, but it is what it is. The good news is, we’re still America, everyone has to shut up and take it, but it’s absurd.”
So maybe Trump’s words will be undiplomatic but also unimportant.
Maybe. But probably not.
There are two massive downsides to how Trump’s rhetoric affects the rest of the world. The first problem is that most non-Americans are pretty annoyed by it, particularly in democratic allied states. And that leads to a decline in American standing abroad:
If Donald Trump is unpopular, then elected leaders abroad will have a domestic political incentive to stand up to Trump. An unpopular Gerhard Sschröder clawed his way to re-election in Germany by making the fall 2002 campaign all about George W. Bush. This dynamic will make it much more difficult for the United States to cut deals with these states. Donald Trump, by raising the audience costs of others, undercuts his own bargaining position.
The second problem is that if Trump’s fits of temper are seen as exercise of hot air, then no one will believe it when Trump actually tries to issue a real threat. I warned everyone about this problem last November:
When foreign policy leaders get angry as a theatrical tactic, the idea is to get more in negotiations. What happens the first time the president loses his cool — and then just plain loses? Then the anger will be seen as a bluff. Credible commitment is far more important in international negotiations than the ability to engage in truthful hyperbole. As political scientist Anne Sartori argued in “Deterrence by Diplomacy,” leaders don’t bluff much in world politics because they want their promises to be believed by other countries. That is the nature of deterrence. … The more the Trump administration makes threats it doesn’t carry out, the more other countries will not take subsequent promises seriously. They will be perceived, as Trump put it, as “just words.” …
It is possible that Trump doesn’t know yet that his words will matter. Or it is possible that he does know and is trying to use his words to achieve a tactical advantage. As with most improvisers, however, the president-elect doesn’t seem to have thought about what will happen after other countries adjust to his bluffing and dissembling. If he finds himself cornered on a foreign policy issue, he will no doubt try to talk his way out of it. Whether he can so is another question entirely.
So there are two problems with the rest of the world learning to shrug off Trump’s tantrums. The first is that allied leaders will have an incentive to ignore him and play to their domestic base. The second is that adversaries will conclude that Trump is a paper tiger.
Foreign policy relies a lot more on credible commitment than the element of surprise. Trump, by acting the way he does, seems headed for the worst of both worlds. He’s becoming less credible and more predictable by the day.
That’s not good for America.