Some years ago, I heard the late Herman Kahn, founder of the Hudson Institute and a kind of global-strategic polymath, suggest a surefire way to win the game of “chicken,” in which two drivers aim their cars at each other and whoever veers away first is “chicken.” Kahn advised that anyone determined to win should get into his car obviously drunk, aim it squarely at his opponent, step on the accelerator, and, with 30 yards’ distance to cover, throw the steering wheel out the window.
Did Kahn ever meet Donald Trump? His chicken strategy looks suspiciously like an early move in “the art of the deal.” It signals a willingness to suffer and inflict injury rather than be defeated. Most players of chicken would veer their cars away from such a collision, because there’s no possibility of compromise or hope of gain. Their opponent is saying: “I’m not bluffing. Better take me seriously on this and all other matters.”
Is Trump playing the chicken game when he threatens China with a 45 percent tariff on its exports or bangs the NATO table and demands that Europe pay more for its own defense? Very likely he is. On other occasions, he says he wants deals with rival powers such as China and Russia that will serve the common interests we have with them. (Characteristically, he promises Putin a deal that is good for Russia but great for America.) He admits at times that he makes these threats as an opening gambit in negotiations in which he will eventually settle for less. That admission might undercut the threats, but Trump probably calculates that a willingness to enter negotiations is itself an admission that he won’t throw the steering wheel out the window. So he’s admitting nothing, perhaps confusing his opponents, and getting credit for candor into the bargain.
There are large downsides to this. Trump had already earned the reputation of a wild man in his primary campaign. Maybe his zigzags on foreign policy were not a clever negotiating strategy but the outward sign of some inner vertigo that simply alarms everyone. His critics in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment think so and have written about him in largely dismissive terms. So there was real interest last month when he presented his big-picture view of foreign policy in a major speech.
It was no easy task. Trump’s speech had to reconcile his “isolationist” argument in the primaries — that America should not intervene excessively in other people’s quarrels — with the reality that many unresolved conflicts involving both other countries and U.S. interests are heading toward the next president’s desk. President Obama’s basic approach has been to withdraw American power from key strategic regions in the belief that the locals will then establish their own balance of power. Instead, it has created or aggravated war and instability, and weakened and isolated America’s allies. For the moment, however, the American voter, blindfolded by the media and White House aide Ben Rhodes working together, has not noticed the gathering storm.
Trump’s speech was accordingly more “nuanced” than his usual casually sweeping asides. He laid out five weaknesses in our present foreign policy: We’re overextended; our allies don’t pay their share; they feel they can’t depend on us; our adversaries don’t respect us; and we have no clear goals. All these criticisms are more or less undeniable. Then he proposed three measures to remedy this state of affairs: develop a long-term plan to defeat radical Islam; rebuild America’s economy and military; and base foreign policy on U.S. national interests. All these are desirable policies, if hard to implement. He finally laid great stress on the importance of “stability” in international relations.
From a political standpoint, the speech looks designed to lay the groundwork for a new foreign-policy consensus on the right. About a third of voters express isolationist views in polls. Most of them change their minds when foreigners insult the American flag or take American lives. They turn into Jacksonians who favor intervening abroad to punish, restore order, and warn against repetition, and then leaving. Trump has them and wants to keep them. But as Owen Harries, the founding editor of The National Interest, to which Trump addressed his remarks, used to point out teasingly, after 50 years of fighting a worldwide Cold War, most Americans have gotten very comfortable with a quasi-imperialist national role. The conservatives among them have become Hamiltonian supporters of a world commercial order favorable to U.S. interests. Trump is hoping to win over them, too.
Creating a new foreign-policy consensus will require more than one speech by a mere candidate. But Trump probably obtained his short-term aim when John Bolton praised the speech and endorsed him. Many conservatives will reckon that if he’s good enough for John, he’s good enough for them.
Judged as a strategic exercise, Trump’s speech was sober, slightly more nationalist in tone than most such exercises, but otherwise not particularly novel. From anyone other than Donald Trump, it might have passed beneath the punditocracy’s radar. That didn’t stop commentators from across the spectrum from being highly critical. My colleague Andrew C. McCarthy thought it “incoherent and shallow.” Fareed Zakaria agreed:
Trump is against humanitarian interventions, but he implied that we should have intervened to help embattled Christians in the Middle East. Which is it? Trump put America’s closest allies on notice that if they didn’t pay their fair share on defense, . . . he would end America’s security guarantees to them. . . . Then he assured them that he would be a close and reliable ally.
These criticisms seem to me overdrawn. Bismarck is supposed to have said that asking him to take principles into account in his conduct of foreign policy was like asking him to walk through a dense forest with a twelve-foot pole between his teeth. Anyone trying to do so would soon have to remove the pole — i.e., pursue policies contradicting the announced principles. Both Obama and Hillary Clinton have reversed policies in office, for instance on Iraq. That is one way of resolving contradictions. Obama’s persistence with his Iran agreement is a worse way: pressing ahead with mistakes to avoid admitting error.
Foreign-policy principles, like battle plans, tend to disintegrate on first contact with actual crises. Sticking with them when they do is worse than inconsistency, for international politics is the domain not of principle and consistency but of circumstance and prudence. One might almost say that circumstances define such principles as the national interest and stability and even facts like peace and war. Looking at Trump’s proposed policies, I agree with Jonah Goldberg in thinking them “not bad,” even pretty good, as abstract propositions. But how do they look in the light of circumstance?
Take, for instance, his making the defeat of ISIS his highest priority. ISIS is certainly a security threat to the Middle East and an important source of inspiration to radical Islamists everywhere. It is an enemy well worth fighting, provided we have a clear idea of how to defeat it in an acceptable time frame. Another failed intervention would be the worst possible outcome, strengthening ISIS and boosting its influence worldwide.
Even if we grant that the military defeat of ISIS is achievable at reasonable cost, however, we must still ask: Is ISIS a threat — to the U.S., NATO, our main allies, and wider world stability — comparable to Putin’s Russia, which has forces fighting in both Syria and Ukraine? If not — which is my judgment — then we should focus first on the threats posed by Russia rather than playing, as Obama has sometimes done, with the idea of a deal with Putin to defeat ISIS. Putin has already demonstrated the folly of such an approach by using the threat of ISIS to bomb Syrian opposition groups supported by Washington. It would be the worst of two worlds if a future President Trump were to settle the Ukraine crisis on Putin’s terms in return for his support in defeating ISIS, to the main benefit of Putin’s allies in Syria and Iran.
This does not mean we should encourage the Kiev government to maintain its current military resistance to Putin’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine. Putin has already lost most of Ukraine beyond recall, in a huge geopolitical defeat. As Professor A. J. Motyl of Rutgers points out, it makes little sense to continue losing three or four young Ukrainian lives every week in order to prevent Russia from annexing, owning, and subsidizing a ruined and expensive Donbass statelet of no value to it. A President Trump should urge Kiev to cede the Donbass region de facto in return for Western aid on a Marshall Plan scale. Building up Ukraine, imposing the costs of the Donbass onto Moscow, and maintaining EU and NATO sanctions would be “peace,” but in circumstances that damage Putin more than war.
Consider, now, stability and interest, both principles embodied in two allied institutions, namely NATO and the EU. Or are they? Circumstances will tell us.
A stable Europe is certainly a U.S. interest. But the euro and the EU’s migration policy are currently the sources of two major crises threatening Europe’s stability fundamentally. Our main allies have no idea of how to calm these crises because they cling to the EU structures that brought them about — and stability is more threatened by clinging to fossilized structures that block gradual change than by adapting to reality. Trump’s recent remarks about helping the U.K. in the event of Brexit (rather than sending Brits to the end of the “queue,” as Obama threatened) suggests one of two things: Either he was deliberately irritating David Cameron, who had recently attacked him, or he sees the need for Euro-structures to become more flexible, more accommodating to national interests, and more attentive to real problems than to utopian aims. But he has not yet developed a full critique of global governance, nor sought allies against it. He will need to do both if a foreign policy based on national interest is to be more than a slogan.
Interest and stability also complicate Trump’s handling of the NATO allies. There is a reason that for years the Europeans have remained free riders and that Americans have complained but gone on paying. It is that alliances such as NATO, which preserve peace and uphold international stability, are harder to create than to maintain. His recent criticisms of NATO’s free riding suggest a rehearsal for a game of chicken with NATO allies that Trump imagines himself playing after November. If so, he has an advantage that previous presidents lacked. Nervous about Putin’s military buildup and the threat of radical Islamism, NATO governments are starting to hike defense spending. Trump could take credit for that and insist also that they maintain sanctions on Russia for the next round of chicken.
Putin may be driving a Lada, but he has already thrown his steering wheel out the window.