As CNN put it, “Within a few hours of extraordinary political shape-shifting, President Donald Trump abandoned stances that were at the bedrock of his establishment-bashing campaign.”
This is causing some journalists and commentators a bit of policy whiplash:
When Trump was running for president, he took great delight in disparaging “the Blob,” Ben Rhodes’s ever-so-affectionate term for the foreign policy community. He initially staffed the national security portions of his White House with populist nationalists like strategist Stephen K. Bannon. Less than a hundred days into his administration, however, his first national security adviser is gone, his deputy is going, Bannon is on the outs and Trump sounds like some a garish facsimile of a mainstream foreign policy type. This leads to the obvious question: What the hell is going on?
To answer McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, I don’t think an international relations (IR) theory can explain it. A certain strand of structural realism might argue that the anarchic system imposes such powerful constraints on actors that Trump had no choice but to alter his policies. This doesn’t really work in explaining Trump’s actions toward Syria, however. A structural Marxist would argue that the dependence of the state on capital explains Trump’s turn to CEOs — except that Trump hasn’t really softened his stances on immigration all that much, and that is an area where one would have expected business to exert an effect.
Alas, I think that McFaul is asking the wrong question. International relations theory tries to explain the behavior of generic classes of actors, like democracies or great powers or spoilers or nongovernmental organizations. The one thing that the president and I can agree upon is that he is sui generis. The best explanation for Trump’s erratic shifts in behavior is Trump-specific.
I would explain Trump’s foreign policy reversals by citing three factors. First, in his dealings with foreign countries, he is learning just how uninformed he sounded on the campaign trail, so even a small scrap of information can cause him to change his mind. Consider what he told the Wall Street Journal about the relationship between China and North Korea:
Mr. Trump said he told his Chinese counterpart he believed Beijing could easily take care of the North Korea threat. Mr. Xi then explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said.“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Mr. Trump recounted. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea,” he said. “But it’s not what you would think.”
Oh, wow, it’s a good thing Trump got that insider information from the Chinese premier because no one else could have told him that. And by “no one,” I actually mean any halfway-knowledgeable foreign policy wonk.
The second thing is that Trump responds to whomever he talks to or watches on television last. And it seems pretty clear that the more mainstream foreign policy advisers are better at being
related to him by marriage on television.
Finally, Trump craves adulation and popularity, and after Syria, Trump appears to be getting at least tepid support from some parts of the foreign policy community. As Mike Allen pointed out in Axios, “Trump goes where the applause is loudest. If that means being a full-throated birther, fine! If that means inciting hysterics about Mexicans, game on! If that means hugging NATO or smiling at corporate cronyism, Trump’s your man!”
Is this shift permanent? Maybe. As Alan Rappaport points out in the New York Times, the economic nationalists have lost Trump’s ear for now. And as Byron York points out, Trump doesn’t have a lot of loyal acolytes and therefore won’t be injecting many new voices into his orbit that are not Jared Kushner-approved.
Still, I doubt this is a permanent shift. The Blob has won for now, but Trump is a mercurial guy, and bad things can happen in world politics. And even if Trump sounds more mainstream now, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s awful at foreign policy rhetoric, has zero sense of strategy and appears to have appointed an incompetent secretary of state.
Trump is saying some good things right now. Bad things are sure to happen in the future. And when that happens, he’s very likely to flip-flop yet again.