Add North Korea to Trump’s Foreign-Policy Blunders

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With the proposed U.S.-North Korea talks on pause, it’s a good time to tally up President Donald Trump’s record on foreign policy and trade:

  • He pulled out of the Paris climate deal, hoping to replace it with a better deal for the U.S. So far: nothing.
  • He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and replaced it with nothing. The other partner nations go on without the U.S. 
  • He’s still negotiating a new North American Free Trade Agreement, without success so far.
  • He canceled a much-hyped meeting with North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, whose nuclear capabilities are intact.
  • He pulled out of the Iran deal. Plan B apparently is just a wish list. 
  • His trade war with China is at least temporarily suspended, with no achievements.
  • We’re still waiting for a Middle East peace plan, which would surely be dead on arrival anyway.

Is there a pattern here?

On most of these issues, Trump campaigned on the same basic theme: His negotiation skills would buy gains for the U.S. at no cost by replacing the supposedly inept deals made by all previous administrations. “I alone can fix.” “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

This was always nonsense, and not just because it’s not clear that Trump has any especially impressive bargaining skills. Sure, a particular agreement may or may not be the best possible one, but negotiating international treaties and agreements is best left to professionals who know what they’re doing. 

Instead of relying on experienced experts, Trump seems to make important foreign policy decisions based on who flattered him best or what cable-news pundits say. By all accounts, professionals in the executive branch departments and agencies, and even within the White House, are sidelined. Every president has made mistakes; Trump is far more likely to make large blunders because he has no process to prevent them. 

The general consensus among political scientists is that foreign policy successes and failures have little or no effect on voting behavior unless they lead to significant casualties. That’s probably true in this case. And there’s nothing to stop Trump from simply proclaiming a huge victory whenever he feels like it. Still, one of his core promises was that he could get things done. A failure to back that up with successful action could matter at the margins.

As far as moving ahead? It’s almost certainly a good thing Trump canceled the summit because he wasn’t prepared and never should have agreed the meeting without a serious plan for getting results. At some point, he could be so desperate for any success that he’ll agree to something terrible just to be able to have an accomplishment to run on in 2020. For now, the episode with Kim only serves to further make Trump an uncertain ally for friends of the U.S.

Now he should do what he should have been doing from the beginning: Start running a professional White House and act professionally. That’s highly unlikely to happen, so we can only hope the damage he’s done and will do will be relatively contained. There’s no guarantee of that.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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