The leaked extracts of former national-security adviser John Bolton’s book have put into relief two sides of Donald Trump.
The first is the charlatan. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a president’s thinking about his electoral chances while conducting foreign policy. In fact, American presidents are in an enviable position of doing so almost all the time. The preeminent global position of America on the world stage has a way of aligning America’s national interests with the electoral interests of the president. Win the war, win the election. Strike a deal that’s a boon for the country, and it’s a boon for you too.
And yet there are still ways of committing a kind of fraud in this enterprise. And if we believe the accounts Bolton has given of the president’s dealing with China, Donald J. Trump has done so. In Bolton’s account, Trump simply and slaveringly asked for Chairman Xi’s intervention to help him win in 2020. Bolton says Trump “turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win.” The specific request was increased agricultural purchases in key states for Trump.
This request is, of course, a total betrayal of those who trusted Trump to rewrite our “bad deals” with China on trade. Trump promised to lower trade deficits, repatriate military-critical industry, and win back the kind of industry that would re-skill the American population and halt the downward mobility of our former industrial working class. It’s also a wasted opportunity, as even Trump’s phony trade war with China came at a very propitious time for American interests, and a difficult one for Chinese financial institutions. If Trump had patience and follow-through, he could have won lasting concessions.
And we should have known. Trump’s reluctance to criticize China’s handling of COVID-19 in February was a worrying sign. The preliminary trade deal he had just announced with Chairman Xi had sent markets absolutely frothing as the election year began. And the markets were frothing. But COVID-19 has brought a wrecking ball through the planned 2020 narrative of the Trump campaign. Instead of successful management of the economy, we have a globally below-average management of a global pandemic.
At the same time, Bolton’s book also reveals Trump’s consistent reluctance to use massive force and his aversion to causing death. While Bolton argues for far more dramatic conventional military responses in North Korea and Iran, Trump wants to be a peacemaker, limit U.S. involvement, and limit the casualties. He would only target one airfield in Syria at a time when he was being backed into a leftover regime-change strategy by Bolton and others. He would target one terror mastermind in Iran, General Soleimani, not a major installation. An adviser convinces him to back off a planned response attack to Iran by saying it could lead to 150 casualties. Trump concluded immediately that the U.S. response favored by his staff was “disproportionate.”
This is a contrast to predecessors. In elated moments, recent policymakers such as Barack Obama have said crass things like, “Turns out I’m really good at killing people.” Or recall Hillary Clinton, weeks before Libya turned into a smoking ruin and the center of international human trafficking, bragging about the fish-gutting of Qaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.”
This reluctance has served Trump well. Unlike his more hawkish advisers, the one bit of foreign-policy wisdom Trump has might be a form of self-awareness: He knows that he should not be leading the nation into another major war.