Erratic, irrational and unconstrained: What a second Trump term would mean for America’s foreign policy

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This article was first published in The Hill on August 2, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

The Republican Party could well nominate a convicted felon for president in 2024, given the interplay between Donald Trump’s burgeoning criminal-trial docket and the party’s presidential-selection schedule. Still worse for the country, the felon might actually be elected, despite his prior Oval Office record proving him unfit to set national security policy.

That unappealing prospect warrants intense scrutiny of Trump’s foreign-affairs proclivities, whatever their role in the campaign. If he wins, the implications are enormous. What would a second Trump term hold?

The critical point, one America’s political class still has trouble grasping, is that Trump has neither philosophy nor policies. As president and candidate, his decisions and statements constitute what I’ve called an archipelago of dots, unconnected by chords of logic, salience or results. Trump knew little about international geopolitics upon taking office in 2017, and learned little during his term or thereafter.

Trump’s approach to decision making verges on incoherence. Systematic consideration of the pros and cons of various policy options is rarely his chosen approach. Some issues he considers only glancingly. Others, like international trade, where he believes himself expert, he considers ad nauseum, in endless, repetitive meetings, sometimes reaffirming his earlier conclusions, other times not.

Moreover, Trump presents a classic example of susceptibility to listening to the last person in the door, which itself encourages presidential advisors, members of Congress, political allies and outside interest groups to disrupt orderly decision making lest they be outmaneuvered.

Indeed, Trump disdains knowledge, seeing relations between the United States and foreign lands, especially our adversaries, predominantly as matters of personality: How is his relationship with Vladimir Putin or Kim Jung Un or others? If personal relations are good, Trump believes that country-to-country relations are good. In a recent interview, for instance, Trump said of Xi Jinping: “Central casting. Brilliant guy. You know, when I say he’s brilliant, everyone says, ‘oh, that’s terrible’ … Well, he runs 1.4 billion people with an iron fist. Smart, brilliant, everything perfect. There’s nobody in Hollywood like this guy.”

Trump’s regard for authoritarian rulers has been widely noted but remains inexplicable in a U.S. president. Perhaps Trump admires the powers dictators possess, which he lacks, but the admiration is not reciprocal. He may have fallen in love with Kim Jung Un, for example, but Kim, as cold-blooded as they come, has almost certainly not fallen for him. Foreign leaders, friend or foe, are far more likely see him as ignorant, inexperienced, braggadocious, longing to be one of the big boys and eminently susceptible to flattery. These characteristics were a constant source of risk in Trump’s first term, and would be again in a second term.

Anxious to justify Trump’s erratic behavior, supporters argue a version of the “madman” theory, where seemingly irrational actions strengthen Trump’s hand. In both game theory and reality, choosing seemingly weak options can sometimes, ironically, be advantageous. Take the game of “chicken.” One player can rip out his car’s steering wheel, proving clearly he cannot swerve away from a road’s center line, and thereby signal not just an unwillingness but an inability to turn “chicken.” Think of Richard Nixon telling Henry Kissinger to advise North Vietnam it should accept a U.S. position because otherwise “crazy Nixon” might react belligerently.

“Crazy Nixon’s” credibility, however, rested on his long history of anti-communism. Trump has no history of any principled behavior, so he is simply threatening unpredictably. Unpredictability operationally may surprise an enemy, but unpredictable policy moves only convince the enemy Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing. Moreover, policy shocks confound and dismay our allies, which rely on steady, consistent American leadership, even if they are loathe to admit it. Strategizing can be complicated, but Trump and his supporters reduce it to bumper-sticker-level thinking, reflecting that, yet again, that Trump is in over his head.

Beyond acting on inadequate information, reflection or discussion, Trump is also feckless even after making decisions. When things go wrong, or when he simply changes his mind subsequently (a common occurrence), he invariably tries to distance himself from his own decision, fearing negative media coverage or political criticism. Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford once said cogently: “I just want the president to own it.”

Taking responsibility for mistakes, which all executives make, is central to effective leadership. The willingness to acknowledge error distinguishes great leaders from failures and cowards. It is no accident Dwight Eisenhower prepared a statement for release had the D-Day landings failed, reading in part: “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” It is inconceivable Trump would ever utter such words.

Finally, for constitutional reasons, no one can accurately predict a second Trump term, on national-security or otherwise. The Twenty-Second Amendment bars a third term, freeing him from any reelection worries or constraints. From Inauguration Day on, Trump would be in legacy-building territory, always treacherous ground. Given his preternatural concern with his personal image (leaving other politicians, or even movie stars, far behind), Trump’s potential to make stunning policy reversals, at times not even realizing it, is boundless.

It is not merely possible but likely that hard-core supporters will be appalled, and hard-core opponents breathless, at Trump’s new second-term directions. Thus, despite increasing defense spending in his first term, Trump could freeze or slash military budgets next time. He thought he could negotiate lower prices than Pentagon officials, such as reducing Boeing’s price for replacement Air Force Ones. He would have preferred to spend more building his Mexico-border wall or civilian infrastructure projects. There is thus no guarantee defense spending in a second Trump term would be anywhere near adequate. Unburdened even by wisps of philosophy or consistency, varying day-by-day on how he sees his legacy, Trump will be something to watch.

Substantive philosophy and policy have been largely ignored in this analysis, because they are largely ignored by Trump. Beyond any doubt, that void remains the most important point to understand about a second Trump term. As before, it will be all about himself.