Since Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy in the summer of last year, a cadre of self-described realists has jumped to the Republican’s defense whenever he challenges Washington orthodoxies in his foreign-policy statements.
These observers — wishfully and mistakingly — believe Trump’s utterances reveal a shared disdain of the liberal internationalist establishment and a common desire to put narrow self-interest (back) at the heart of American strategy.
The reality, as Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes for Politico, is that Trump has few, if any, fixed policy positions and can easily be manipulated into actions that damage America’s relations with the rest of the world.
Everything is negotiable
On foreign policy, Trump has been consistent about two things: his opposition to trade agreements and his obsession with “strength” and international strongmen.
Beyond that, everything is negotiable for him.
Gordon points out how Trump has been on every side of just about every conceivable issue, from abortion to gun control to health care. Trump supported the Iraq War before he opposed it. He called for an American military intervention in Libya in 2011 before criticizing President Barack Obama for pursuing one. He argued for torture before one conversation with former Marine Corps general James Mattis, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, changed his mind.
Doubts about Trump’s state of mind
Trump’s gullibility and constant changes of heart are a worry to America’s allies.
Even now, weeks away from Trump’s inauguration, diplomats and foreign leaders still struggle to make sense of the president-elect, wondering if he can really mean the things he says.
How is this making America safer? How can Trump’s realist apologists argue that doubts about his state of mind advance American interest around the world?
Maybe leaders in Asia in Europe are too jittery, but Trump isn’t making it any easier for them.
And he does this on purpose. Trump believes that the tricks he used in his real-estate business will translate into diplomatic skills. Nobody versed in international relations would argue for such an emotional, unpredictable stance — least of all in one’s relations with allies.
Influencing the president
The trouble is that Trump’s skepticism of experts and the Washington DC establishment makes him very selective about whom he takes advice from.
He reportedly doesn’t read many of his daily intelligence briefings and has refused assistance from the State Department in organizing and preparing for phone calls with foreign leaders.
Perhaps if he hadn’t, Trump might have thought twice before accepting a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, even though the United States have not maintained formal diplomatic relations with the island in decades.
Politico reports that a law firm that employs former Republican leader Bob Dole was paid by Taipei to arrange the call.
Realists have long felt ignored in Washington policy circles, so perhaps they’re not too worried that the State Department has so little influence over Trump. But if the alternative is the new president being led into diplomatic incidents by lobbyists, is that really better?
We don’t know exactly what Trump and Tsai discussed, but the very fact that they spoke was enough to startle the Chinese. They must now decide if Trump deliberately provoked them or is ignorant of long-standing American policy.
This is the single-most important bilateral relationship in the world and Trump is either about to embark on a warpath or he doesn’t have a clue. This isn’t realism.
No serious person has even bothered to defend Trump’s call with the prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, whom he told he was willing to “play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems.” Now India is worried Trump might switch America’s position on issues like the disputed Indo-Pakistani border, including Kashmir. Again: deliberate or oops?
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte claimed Trump praised his drug war in their phone call — a brutal campaign that has killed more than 4,500 Filipinos so far and which the United States under Obama have criticized.
What’s this? A cunning move to draw Duterte back into the fold after his flirtations with China? Really?
Hiding inside the buffoon
The most charitable interpretation, if you’re a realist, is that Trump shares some of your instincts but needs guidance.
You may agree it’s time to “put America first”. You can make the argument that any great power ought to reevaluate its alliances from time to time. There is nothing sacred about NATO. Maybe an accord with Russia is worth Ukraine. Maybe defeating the Islamic State is worth an alliance with Bashar Assad.
But these are tough questions that require a serious mind. Do not pretend a brilliant geostrategist has been hiding inside the buffoon all along. More often than not, things are as they seem. Trump has said or done nothing to suggest he isn’t as erratic and ill-informed about foreign policy as he has appears.