Trump’s Foreign Policy Is Finally Off the Chain

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There was much that was shocking, but basically nothing that was surprising, in President Donald Trump’s whirlwind tour of diplomatic destruction over the past week. All the behavior that alarmed observers on both sides of the Atlantic -- the gratuitous humiliation of NATO allies, the predatory behavior toward friends in need, the credulous meeting with a smirking Russian dictator -- is straight out of Trump’s foreign policy playbook.

Yet repetition of the familiar can still be clarifying. Trump’s performance at the NATO summit in Brussels and his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki underscored that his campaign to deconstruct U.S. foreign policy is shifting into high gear. And it looks increasingly doubtful that the defenders of diplomatic tradition can contain the damage.

From the moment Trump was inaugurated, it was clear that his presidency would constitute an unprecedented stress-test of American global leadership. For 70 years, U.S. statecraft had been based on a positive-sum form of leadership meant to advance American interests by fostering a broader global environment in which the U.S. and like-minded nations could be prosperous and secure. Trump, however, was always cut from a very different geopolitical cloth.

Trump believes, and has often explicitly said, that the U.S. is being ripped off by the system it constructed, and that it can start winning again only by tearing down that system and using its unmatched strength to more effectively exploit other nations in the disorder that follows.

Add in Trump’s own personal proclivities -- his outsized faith in his deal-making abilities, his oft-expressed admiration for strongmen, his penchant for stoking polarization and conflict -- and you have the witch’s brew of influences that has guided his diplomacy. Trump cannot help but be who he is, and from his inaugural address onward, he has repeatedly reverted to form in taking an essentially antagonistic attitude toward alliances, free trade, multilateralism and other pillars of American policy. 

That attitude, of course, is anathema to observers in the U.S. and elsewhere who understand just how beneficial American leadership has been for the U.S. and for the world. And so even as the American president initiated his assault on U.S. foreign policy, there emerged an informal transnational coalition dedicated to containing Trump and the global disruption he caused.

Call it a globalist conspiracy or the Committee to Save the World, depending on your inclinations. But the foreign officials who labored intensively to keep their country’s day-to-day relationships with the U.S. on an even keel, the American senators and representatives who stood up for American internationalism, the foreign policy professionals and political appointees who frequently sought to moderate Trump’s impulses, were all working toward the same end.

In some ways, this not-so-quiet campaign has enjoyed remarkable success. U.S. military cooperation with NATO is as robust as at any time since the end of the Cold War. There has been no meaningful diplomatic reconciliation with Russia; that country is more heavily sanctioned than before Trump took office. The U.S. and NATO posture in Eastern Europe has only been strengthened. Trump has been reportedly dissuaded, at least temporarily, from withdrawing from Afghanistan, pulling U.S. troops out of South Korea, ditching Nafta or otherwise blowing up U.S. foreign policy. A recurring meme of 2017, in fact, was the idea that "the blob" had won the battle for U.S. foreign policy -- and that perhaps Trump himself was becoming reconciled to the establishment consensus.

From the perspective of mid-2018, however, these judgments were clearly overstated. For one thing, Trump is only becoming more Trumpian with time: He is reverting to his instincts on issues from the Iran nuclear deal to tariffs; he is doubling down on his antagonism toward allies and desire for rapprochement with Russia. Trump has fired, or begun to rely less on, advisers who have been publicly portrayed as keeping him in check -- even Secretary of Defense James Mattis is reportedly out of favor -- and he has taken more and more opportunities to give U.S. policy an America First imprint.

A simple comparison is instructive here. After his much-criticized refusal to explicitly endorse NATO’s Article 5 guarantee at the alliance summit in May 2017, Trump took more than one occasion to affirm -- albeit less than whole-heartedly -- that guarantee in the weeks that followed. In 2018, Trump’s equally disastrous display at the G-7 summit -- where he picked a needless fight with the allies before flying off to praise a vicious tyrant -- was followed not by repair work but by a virtually identical presidential performance at Brussels and Helsinki. As the president rallies his base in the run-up to the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential elections, expect the real Trump to make more frequent appearances.

Another big shift is that opposition to Trump’s America First agenda has arguably weakened over time. On Capitol Hill, Congressional Republicans have intermittently checked the president on particular issues -- notably sanctions on Russia and, potentially, on the Chinese smartphone-maker ZTE -- and internationalist stalwarts such as Senator John McCain have reliably condemned Trump’s outrages. But the Republican caucus as a whole has given the president a wide berth on most issues, especially trade, in recognition that Trump is extremely popular with the party’s base.

Within the administration, Trump has divided the Axis of Adults by empowering National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of state Mike Pompeo and other officials who either support at least part of the president’s agenda or are politically beholden to him (or both). Even more ominously, Trump is increasingly re-norming the Republican Party on key geopolitical issues. The president may not have moved the needle much on Russia policy, but he has inculcated a far friendlier attitude toward Moscow among Republican voters.

Finally, Trump has demonstrated that he can have a profound impact on America’s global role even when his rhetoric and behavior are far more radical than the policies Washington actually pursues. NATO is still doing fairly well on the concrete issues that make up its daily business, and many allies are stepping up: the U.K. contributed more troops to Afghanistan in the run-up to the summit, for example, and the alliance expanded its counter-terrorism training mission in Iraq. But Trump has nonetheless alienated and humiliated U.S. allies sufficiently to call the long-term health of the alliance into question.

Likewise, it is entirely possible that nothing concrete will come from Trump’s meeting with Putin. But the contrast between his solicitude for the Russian president and his disdain for American allies has still fostered unprecedented doubts about whether the U.S. is still willing to stick up for its friends and stand up to the country that is most actively destabilizing the international system. When the American president is not committed to American global leadership, the architecture of international stability and prosperity starts to get shaky pretty quickly.

What Trump’s behavior in Europe reminds us, then, is that there is no good long-term defense against a president who seeks to deconstruct the U.S.-led world order -- and that the short-term defenses are looking less reliable than they did only a few months ago. In a recent book, I argued that U.S. foreign policy could withstand four years of Trump, but that eight years would be a bridge too far. Right now, even January 2021 seems a very long way away.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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