America’s New President Is Not a Rational Actor

Foreign Policy, 25.01.2017
Stephen N. Walt, profesor de RRII (Harvard)
  • Whether by accident or design, Donald Trump is isolating himself and erratically unraveling the world order

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A lot of people have been appalled by Donald Trump’s behavior during the transition, at his inauguration, and in his first week in office. You can count me among them. But I also find his actions baffling from the perspective of Trump’s own self-interest. People who opposed his administration’s policies should take heart, because his conduct so far will make it harder to proceed as he seems to want.

For starters, Trump made zero effort to exploit the honeymoon period traditionally accorded a new president by the press, didn’t try to drive a wedge or two in the large coalition that opposes him, and declined to appeal to a broader sense of national unity. Thus far he has played entirely to his base, painting a dark portrait of a crumbling America where everybody except Trump himself is untrustworthy, corrupt, deceitful, and not to be heeded at all. The result: a president who lost the popular vote by 2.5 million people is even less popular now, and he enters office with the lowest approval ratings of any new president in history.

Never mind the irony of such a deeply corrupt and dishonest person accusing others of corruption; the odd thing is that he has been doing just about everything he can to unite key institutions against him. This may not matter if he and his lackeys can disseminate a squid-ink cloud of “alternative facts” and convince their many followers that down is up, black is white, 2+2=5, and what the president said on camera last week really never took place. As I’ve warned before, Trump & Co. seems to be operating straight from the Erdogan-Berlusconi-Putin playbook, and it remains an open question whether this approach will work in a country with many independent sources of information, some of which are still committed to facts.

The same goes for the agencies of the government that he is now supposedly leading. Government bureaucrats have been held in low regard for a long time, which makes them an easy target. But you also can’t do anything in public policy without their assistance, and my guess is that Americans will be mighty unhappy when budget cuts, firings, resignations, and the like reduce government performance even more. Get ready for a steady drip, drip, drip of leaks and stories emanating from dedicated civil servants who are committed to advancing the public interest and aren’t going to like being treated with contempt and disdain by a bunch of hedge fund managers, wealthy Wall Streeters, or empty suits like Energy Secretary Rick Perry, all led by President Pinocchio.

Then there’s Trump’s delicate relationship with the national security establishment. Having picked a fight with the intelligence community during the campaign and transition, Trump had a golden opportunity to mend fences during his visit to the CIA last week. No one expected him to offer a lengthy mea culpa; all he had to do was tell his audience he understood their work was important, he believed them to be patriots, he recognized that some of them had made sacrifices for the country that dwarf any he has ever made, and that he was counting on them to do outstanding work henceforth. He started off OK, but proceeded to make a weird and narcissistic detour into the size of his electoral victory, his uncle who taught at MIT, and his complaints about media coverage of the crowd size at his inauguration and whether or not it rained during his speech. Read this transcript, and see if you can find a statesman anywhere in this incoherent and self-centered performance. An even more relevant question: Did he think this sort of behavior would advance his cause?

There’s also the broader question of his overall approach to foreign policy. As I’ve noted repeatedly, a few elements of Trump’s worldview make sense, such as his aversion to nation-building in the greater Middle East. But as Jessica Mathews points out in an important essay in the New York Review of Books, Trump and key advisors like Michael Flynn also believe Islamic extremism is a mortal danger and have promised to get rid of the Islamic State right away. But how do you do that, and how do you make sure the Islamic State doesn’t come back, if you aren’t busy invading, occupying, and nation-building in the areas where it and other extremist movements live and recruit? In fact, Islamic extremism is a problem but not an existential threat, which is why the United States does not need to try to transform the whole region. But Trump doesn’t seem to see things this way.

Even more important, Trump seems to be blithely unaware that the United States is engaged in a serious geopolitical competition with China, and that this rivalry isn’t just about jobs, trade balances, currency values, or the other issues on which he’s fixated. Instead, it is mostly about trying to keep China from establishing a hegemonic position in Asia, from which it could eventually project power around the world and possibly even into the Western hemisphere itself. It’s easier to favor “America First” when no other great power is active near our shores, but that fortunate position may not last if China establishes a position in its neighborhood akin to the one the United States has long enjoyed in its backyard. With its surroundings secured, China could forge alliances around the world and interfere in distant regions — much as the United States has done since World War II — including areas close to U.S. soil. This development would force Americans to worry a whole lot more about defending our territory, something we haven’t had to worry about for more than a century.

Here’s a news flash, Mr. President: The United States is not located in the Western Pacific. As a result, its ability to prevent China from becoming a hegemonic power there requires close cooperation with Asian partners. The United States should not try to shoulder this burden by ourselves, but we sure ain’t gonna do it alone. That is why Trump’s hasty decision to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership is so short-sighted. It is even dumber if he plans to pick lots of fights with Beijing on economic issues and the South China Sea while launching bare-knuckle bilateral trade talks with the rest of Asia. Forget about Russia: Thus far, Trump’s nonstrategic behavior toward China makes me wonder if there is a Chinese word for “kompromat.”

But by far the most baffling lapse in the post-election period has been Trump’s near-silence on his strategy for dealing with Russia. And the truly weird part is that there is a perfectly sensible geo-strategic case for mending fences with Moscow, and it’s not hard to explain or understand at all. Suppose Trump met with a sympathetic journalist and said something along these lines:

“There are some losers who think I’m too fond of President Putin, and who believe he’s got something on me. That’s dumb, absurd, a crazy conspiracy theory that’s being promoted by the dishonest media. What these people don’t understand is that a better relationship with Russia is in our national interest. Russia is a major European and Asian power. It has thousands of nuclear weapons. Putin is a tough guy who really hates terrorists, and he doesn’t want Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Putin also helped the world get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons. As my really good friend Henry Kissinger told me, a bad relationship with Russia makes it harder to solve problems in lots of places.

“But for the past 25 years, the traditional foreign-policy establishment here in Washington kept ignoring Russia’s geopolitical concerns and pushing NATO eastward. How dumb was that? And they kept talking all the time about spreading democracy and criticizing Moscow for not being just like us. I can’t believe how stupid this was: All it did was alarm the Russians and eventually lead them to seize Crimea. That wasn’t good, but can you blame them? No, you should blame Obama and all those liberals in the EU. Even worse, this dumb policy just pushed Moscow closer to Beijing. Is that what we want? 

“Look, I love this country — and why not? The American people chose me to be president! I’m no fan of the Russian political system. But my job is to advance the national interest. I’m going to show the American people that I can get a better deal from Russia working with them than working against them. Trust me, it’s gonna be TREMENDOUS.”

Reasonable people can still disagree about a statement like that, but explaining the underlying balance-of-power logic behind Trump’s desire for better relations with Russia would help dilute the suspicion that he’s acting this way because he owes the Russian oligarchs billions, or because the Russians have some embarrassing kompromat on him. It would also diminish concerns that he and Rex Tillerson just want to lift sanctions so that Exxon can start drilling in Russian oil and gas fields.

Which raises the obvious question: Why hasn’t he offered such an obvious explanation? I don’t have the slightest idea. It’s possible nobody in his inner circle understands geopolitics in a serious way (and his scuttling of the TPP supports that point), so maybe it just hasn’t occurred to them. Or it’s possible that some of the rumors are in fact correct, and there really is some dirty laundry lurking behind the scenes.

But there’s a third possibility, one that offers a unified, coherent explanation for some of the apparent contradictions in Trump’s foreign-policy views. Trump and some of his advisors (most notably Stephen Bannon) may be operating from a broad, Huntingtonian “clash of civilizations” framework that informs both their aversion to multiculturalism at home and their identification of friends and foes abroad. In this essentially cultural, borderline racialist worldview, the (mostly white) Judeo-Christian world is under siege from various “other” forces, especially Muslims. From this perspective, the ideal allies are not liberals who prize tolerance, diversity, and an open society, but rather hard-core blood-and-soil nationalists who like walls, borders, strong leaders, the suppression or marginalization of anyone who’s different (including atheists and gay people, of course) and the promotion of a narrow and fairly traditional set of cultural values.

For people who see the world this way, Putin is a natural ally. He declares Mother Russia to be the main defender of Christianity and he likes to stress the dangers from Islam. European leaders like Marine Le Pen of France, Nigel Farage of Great Britain, and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands are Trump’s kind of people, too, and on this dimension so are the right-wingers in the Israeli government. And if Islam is the real source of danger, and we are in the middle of a decades-long clash of civilizations, who cares about the balance of power in Asia?

The problem with this way of thinking, as I wrote back when The Clash of Civilizations first appeared, is that it rests on a fundamental misreading of world politics. “Civilizations” are not political entities; they do not have agency and do not in fact act. For good or ill, states still drive most of world politics, and clashes within Huntington’s various “civilizations” are still more frequent and intense than clashes between them. Moreover, seeing the future as a vast contest between abstract cultural groupings is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If we assume the adherents of different religions or cultural groups are our sworn enemies, we are likely to act in ways that will make that a reality.

So where does this leave us? Way too soon to tell, but I’ll hazard two guesses. First, foreign and defense policies are going to be a train wreck, because they don’t have enough good people in place, the people they have appointed don’t agree on some pretty big issues (e.g., NATO), the foreign-policy “blob” will undercut them at every turn, and Trump himself lacks the discipline or strategic vision to manage this process and may not care to try. Even if you agree with his broad approach, his team is going to make a lot more rookie mistakes before they figure out what they are doing.

Second, get ready for a lot of unexpected developments and unintended consequences. If the United States is giving up its self-appointed role as the “indispensable nation” and opting instead for “America First,” a lot of other countries will have to rethink their policies, alignments, and commitments. Unraveling a long-standing order is rarely a pretty process, especially when it happens quickly and is driven not by optimism but by anger, fear, and resentment. I’ve long favored a more restrained U.S. grand strategy, but I also believed that that process had to be done carefully and above all strategically. That doesn’t appear to be President Trump’s approach to anything, which means we are in for a very bumpy ride to an unknown destination.

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