It is still early in the administration of Donald Trump (has it really only been a month?) and fortunately there haven’t been any serious foreign policy crises yet. But that is not to say that all is well in the national security offices of the executive branch. Disturbing and dangerous signs are visible that President Trump has no idea what he is doing, makes up policy on the fly, likely based on whatever cable news show he last watched, and ignores his cabinet and policy advisers, forcing them to either contort policy around Trump’s tweets and outbursts or to clean up the mess from what he has unwittingly done. Meanwhile, Trump spends much of his time on the links and trying to hide his golf outings from the press.
This is an echo of the offer that was allegedly made to John Kasich during the campaign that if he became vice president he would be in charge of making policy and running the country while the president focused on “making America great again.” But it is, in fact, much much worse.
Everything that the president says matters. His words are parsed and scrutinized by everyone from friends to allies to enemies. When the president does not, will not, and cannot lead effectively and efficiently it causes chaos and uncertainty, neither of which are desirable in foreign policy. While surprise is good on the battlefield, it is bad in geopolitics, where wars can erupt over misunderstandings and where delicate policy negotiations can be undone by one errant remark. Trump’s “un-leadership” is endangering not just US national security but the peace and stability that the international system has long enjoyed.
Just look at what his un-leadership has wrought so far, one month in:
- Secretary of Defense Mattis has had to reassure jittery Iraqis that the US does not plan to seize, occupy, and take Iraqi oil fields.
- Secretary of State Tillerson learned of the president’s move away from the two-state solution from the news while UN Ambassador Haley had to walk back the president’s remarks and state publicly that the US does, in fact, remain committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
- Vice President Pence has had to reassure jittery Europeans that the US remains committed to the European Union and the American alliance system.
- Meanwhile, top positions in the departments of defense and state remain unfilled, the National Security Council has yet to meet, and NSC staffers “responsible for regional issues like Europe and Middle East are the only ones preparing briefing reports and other material for Trump’s phone calls and visits with world leaders.”
This is not leadership. But it also isn’t not leading. Not leading would be doing nothing, sitting back, and letting the cabinet secretaries, NSC, and their staffs do the heavy lifting. Rather, this is un-leadership. The president appears uninterested in taking his foreign policy responsibilities seriously but is also unwilling to depart the stage. So he continues to run his mouth, making pronouncements that aren’t really intended to be American policy, and terrify American allies around the world.
This is incredibly dangerous in a number of dimensions. It leaves other actors with no sense of where the US stands on issues, making it difficult for them to understand how to proceed. But perhaps even more importantly, it threatens to damage the process of foreign policy making. Trump has chosen to rely heavily on retired generals for his national security decision makers; while there’s nothing wrong with former military moving into policy positions, military officers are often better at strategy than policy planning. Additionally, the lack of leadership from the top, combined with the problematic relations between the policy and political staff, could lead the generals to assert themselves more. Tillerson has been strangely quiet from the scene, with Mattis doing much of the work of diplomacy; it’s interesting to imagine how a coterie of generals treat a business executive like Tillerson. Institutional norms, such as civilian control of the military, can only go so far. Mattis has already been given a waiver of a law designed to keep former officers out of the defense secretary position and one of the hallmarks of the Trump presidency so far has been a disregard for traditional norms.
It will be bad for the US and the rest of the world if this situation continues. A globalized superpower without centralized leadership to give its policies coherence and direction can be a very dangerous thing indeed. There have been some signs that Trump might be learning on the job: He has backed away from initiating a trade war with China and moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and he exhibited uncharacteristic restraint in the wake of the Iranian and North Korean missile tests. Perhaps he will, in time, learn how the business of foreign policy works. Until then, we are left to muddle through his un-leadership, hoping that he doesn’t say or do anything that can’t be undone or unsaid.