Snap troop withdrawal from Syria? Overnight decisions for a dramatic military draw-down in Afghanistan?
America’s foreign-policy and national-security establishment is reeling from the rapid-fire changes, declarations and White House edicts. Our allies are shocked, too.
While President Trump’s tweet-from-the-hip policy-making is shocking and shaking-up the world, no one should be surprised.
The truth is, Donald Trump has never lied to us about his foreign-policy priorities. We may not have wanted to believe him, we may ultimately find out that they were improperly influenced, we may even disagree with them. But the reality is that he has not simply intimated or coyly indicated how he sees the world and what he wants to do. He has told us. Repeatedly.
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Nuclear weapons? Let Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea build their own.
Wars? Bring U.S. troops back home. America First.
Trade? America deserves fair conditions globally, hence the China trade war.
Allies? Pay up or shut up.
Trump’s near absolute power over foreign policy in the world’s most powerful job means his big bets better be good, preferably right, and always survivable. There are no guarantees that this will be the case. Regardless, he will continue his dramatically disruptive foreign policy-making with increased intensity and fewer bureaucratic obstacles, unless he meets his domestic match.
The government shutdown over his coveted U.S.-Mexico border wall, however, is the most important test of his personal will, presidential power and his soon-to-be challenged belief that the executive branch exerts primacy over a constitutionally co-equal branch of government: Congress.
Trump’s wall petulance is as much about Congress asserting its budgetary and legislative power as it is about his desire to consolidate and unilaterally control — unchecked — boundless executive power. If he wins this power struggle — whether in high-stakes negotiations or through the courts — there will then be virtually no way to control his whims, beliefs or behavior. As it is, the world overly depends on his getting foreign policy right.
The first two years of his administration have been about appeasing a foreign-policy establishment that is grounded in a post-World War II set of assumptions that he outright dismisses or finds unacceptable: Defending international institutions and maintaining global order. Honoring alliances and supporting friends. Promoting democracy and underwriting development.
The traditional underpinnings of global democratic peace and stability are undervalued and deemed unimportant for a Trump foreign policy that is transactionally driven and where values are an afterthought at best.
The president perceives Pax Americana as a pox on our house.
For more than 70 years, the world has relied on America’s leadership role as an inoculation against authoritarianism. During that time, America has ensured an enduring peace, enforced rules-based international relations and promoted stability and diplomatic dialogue both bilaterally and within the framework of international bodies.
In a dramatic break from tradition, Trump supports authoritarians over democrats, foes over friends. He told us long ago that he would strengthen our commitment to Saudi Arabia and build bridges to Russia. If there is a general consensus in the world, it is the blaming and shaming of China and Iran for their unquestionably bad behavior. Unfortunately, Trump’s confrontation with China and Iran has translated into escalating trade and military tensions.
In 2019, we may be getting numb to the sensation of shock, even though Trump’s policies should not be surprising. What is becoming more true by the day, however, is that Trump’s dangerously ill-advised — or unadvised — approach to profound policy shifts with spur-of-the-moment declarations are difficult to prepare for or anticipate.
As a result, whether in Syria or Afghanistan, Trump is undermining our institutions, allies, partners and friends’ abilities to manage a chaotic world that relies on stability and predictability. Trump, however, survives and thrives on keeping the voting public, Congress and the entire world off-balance. That may work for him personally and politically, but global survival relies on America performing a careful and predictable policy balancing act.
I’ve argued that we need to get out troops out of Afghanistan, both in my columns and on air, but I have also cautioned that pulling out of an 18-year war requires a methodical approach with informed partners in place, allies to pick-up the slack and the ability to force political concessions from America’s adversaries — in this case, the Taliban. Managed withdrawal is the right policy. Announcing unexpectedly and without preparation a cut-and-run action is irresponsible and dangerous. Right, Jim Mattis?
The world looks to America’s superpower status and global presence for security and stability and for its leaders to be extremely good poker players in foreign policy’s high-stakes game. In the current policy making standoffs and state of play, the president demands that he is house, dealer and prolific player at the no-limit foreign-policy gambling table.
Unfortunately, Trump has never been a very good poker player. The card game in which he excels is 52-card pick-up.