Like Presidents Bush 43 and Obama before him, Donald Trump’s personality so enrages his critics and so enthralls his supporters, that a dispassionate assessment of his actual policies requires almost superhuman effort by observers. Trump does himself no favors with his (as Jonah puts it) “bull in the china shop” approach, which of course is one of his main shticks. Focusing on personality may be okay for the political commentariat, but it is a problem for those in the policy sphere, who should instead be trying to understand equally what the president is doing and what he should be doing.
Yet behind all the sturm und drang, there is a consistency to Trump’s approach to the world, one that those in both opposition and defense should at least understand. This morning in the Wall Street Journal, I have an opinion piece entitled “The Logic of Trump’s Foreign Policy” (paywalled). In short, when a foreign policy is really about the home front, in Trump’s view, then his more radical instincts are pursued (such as on free trade); conversely, on issues that are purely foreign in their impact, such as alliances or U.S. security policy, Trump is far more willing to follow the status quo, at least for now.
The brevity of my piece in the WSJ leaves unaddressed a few more nuanced points. First is the question facing all presidents: Is his policy the right policy? Barack Obama certainly seemed to have a consistent, logical policy; it was, however, one that seemed manifestly inadequate to the challenges he faced. Trump may find himself facing the same criticisms if his policies do not lead to greater global stability or do not protect American interests. This may be all the more likely if he continues to adopt some of Obama’s policies vis-a-vis China, Russia, and North Korea.
Second is the role of Steve Bannon, who was profiled in a long piece on Quartz recently. If Trump has an world view based largely on instinct (as many want to believe), Bannon animates that instinct into policy. The “logic,” therefore of Trump’s foreign policy appears to be largely mediated through Bannon. If so, then either Bannon also supports the status quo in affairs purely foreign, or there is a tension at the center of the White House that will have to resolve itself.
Third, to assert there is a logic to Trump’s foreign policy is to say nothing about the competent execution of that policy. Here, Trump has come recently in for devastating criticism, with his policymaking and implementation being called a “mess,” among other even less complementary assessments. And this criticism is coming from left and right, equally.
There is no doubt that the selection and subsequent firing of Mike Flynn as national-security adviser lent an appearance of chaos to the Trump White House. But the alleged policy flip-flops that fuel so much criticism are instead part of the logic of Trump’s world view that I try to discuss in my WSJ piece. Yet having a relatively consistent worldview offers no assurances that the team charged with implementing that policy, or the process by which that policy is formed, will be neat, collegial, or even logical itself. We may indeed see a White House perpetually consumed by infighting, public contradictions, and back-and-forth on policies. That, however, is the norm for any White House, and certainly marked both George Bush and Barack Obama’s presidencies.
Some of those concerns over national-security policymaking are being assuaged by the appointment of Army Lt. General H. R. McMaster as the new national-security adviser. McMaster (whom I know slightly) is universally applauded as a military thinker, student of history, and effective leader. Like Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, his appointment complicates the storyline that Trump’s critics hoped to have of an administration staffed by bootlickers and incompetents. The central question, however, remains unanswered: Will McMaster, along with Trump’s other national-security-related Cabinet appointees, be given free rein to contribute to policy, to challenge the president and his inner circle, and to pick enough of their own teams to feel confident in their positions?
All this politicking will be playing out behind closed doors, at least until the leaks feed the scandal-hungry media. What remains steady, for now, is that Trump’s worldview has a logic, and that logic is so far informing his early foreign-policy formulation. There are no guarantees how long that will last, but critics should at least recognize how the Trump administration is approaching the world in the spring of 2017.