It is worth remembering that after Donald Trump won the election last November, there was reason for America’s foreign policy community to engage in some introspection. After all, petition after petition of national security and foreign policy professionals had been issued warning that Trump would be a foreign policy disaster. As I wrote in “The Ideas Industry”:
If America’s foreign policy community judged Trump harshly, he judged them right back. During the Republican primary, his campaign rejected most outreach efforts by GOP- friendly think tanks to help tutor him on questions of world politics. In his own rhetoric, Trump explicitly disavowed the value of existing foreign policy expertise. In an April 2016 foreign policy speech, Trump argued, “It’s time to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy. It’s time to invite new voices and new visions into the fold.” He went on to state that his foreign policy advisers would not be “those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” By the end of the general election campaign, Trump had framed the foreign policy debate as one between populist nationalists and elite globalists, warning about “a small handful of special global interests rigging the system.”
Despite these warnings, Trump won — which suggested that maybe foreign policy professionals and experts needed to do some soul-searching. This notion was compounded when Trump assembled a foreign affairs Cabinet of respected generals, financiers and CEOs. Maybe, just maybe, there was a different way to run foreign policy.
I’m someone who has defended the system for the past few years and mocked those who talked about the foreign policy Blob. Still, after 16 years of war in Afghanistan, 14 years of war in Iraq, policy fiascoes in Yemen, Syria and Libya, and a global financial crisis to boot, even I had to acknowledge that some reflection was in order. Perhaps Donald Trump and his foreign policy team shaking the rust off of foreign policy shibboleths would be a productive step forward.
That was then. Now, however, introspection is a thing of the past. Because I look at this president and his foreign policy team, and I just can’t stop laughing.
Let’s consider his team first. Rex Tillerson has given zero indication that he knows how to run the State Department. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross made clueless comments about Saudi Arabia that left the impression of him as a doddering fool. As secretary of homeland security, John F. Kelly keeps saying things designed to scare the hell out of people rather than make them feel more secure. He seems to have fallen victim to the worst pathologies of the Bush administration — and at least 9/11 could explain the behavior of those officials. National security adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn seem to be focused far more on pleasing the president than offering cogent advice. Whatever influence they had over the national security team seems to be on the wane. Jared Kushner? Please. The rest of the White House staff is busy trying to be more absurd propagandists than Kim Jong Un’s flacks. So far, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are the only foreign policy hands who have managed to retain their dignity, and that’s mostly because what they say contradicts Trump. And their assurances to allies do not seem to be working.
Then there’s the president himself. Just a glance at the decision-making process he used on withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord makes it clear how manifestly unfit he is to do his job. Trump seems not to have understood how the Paris treaty worked (kind of like how he doesn’t understand NATO). As for his process of deciding, Kellyanne Conway’s explanation — “He started with a conclusion, and the evidence brought him to the same conclusion” — unintentionally sums up just how bad it was. Today’s press reports are all about how Trump did this primarily to troll the world.
And what are the foreign policy results of Trump’s rust-shaking? Mostly that he’s getting played left and right. According to Matt Bai, “Trump is weak, and our rivals have figured it out. They’re walking all over the American president in a way we haven’t seen since at least the days of disco and Space Invaders.” On economic deals, Trump’s supposed strength, he keeps taking steps that undermine America’s bargaining position and make it harder for partners to want to cut a deal in the first place.
It’s hard to overstate just how badly Trump has navigated the global stage. The Chinese and Saudis have figured out how to buy him off with a couple billion dollars and some flattery. There is zero evidence of any appreciable policy gains. U.S. leadership is being constantly questioned. Whatever soft power resided in the United States has dissipated. Outside of the Persian Gulf, Trump’s approach has done nothing but alienate allies and bolster potential rivals.
How bad is this situation? I look at Trump, at McMaster, at Tillerson, and conclude, “Yeah, I could do better.”
I cannot stress enough how much I should not be thinking this. I am an international relations professor: The biggest deliverables I’ve ever managed is the occasional conference and handing my grades in on time. In the past, whenever the prospect of a policy position has come up, I start getting the hives because of the myriad ways I know how to screw things up. I know my skill set, and am rather dubious that ably managing the foreign policy process is part of it.
All that said, do I think I could run American foreign policy better than the current team? Yes. Heck, I could be on Twitter all day and only pay partial attention to briefings and still do a better job than the current clown show.
Many smart critics of American foreign policy disdained Trump but disdained the smugness of the foreign affairs elite at least as much. Trump’s performance to date has probably been the worst of all worlds for them. They know that Trump is incompetent. And now they’re seeing the foreign policy community shed any doubts that might have emerged about their core beliefs. Because the Trump administration’s performance to date suggests that yes, the alternatives were far worse.
In his remarks yesterday, Trump said:
At what point does America get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us as a country? We want fair treatment for its citizens and we want fair treatment for our taxpayers. We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore, and they won’t be. They won’t be.
Oh yes they will. They are laughing at Trump right now. And so am I. To use a word I’ve used a lot since January, Trump is beclowning American foreign policy. His foreign policy cabinet has disgraced itself.
The choice is to laugh or weep.