Dumb and dumber: Trump's foreign policy repeats decades of American mistakes

Trump's foreign policy is entirely incoherent. But it's just a stupider continuation of everything since 1945

Published October 22, 2017 6:00AM (EDT)


Topic of the week seems to be Donald Trump’s foreign policy. This is about right. Annual reviews of a president’s record managing America’s conduct abroad are standard fare in the press and among the think-tank set. But he has not been in office a year, you protest! Don’t sweat the small stuff, as we used to say. It seems like three years, so we are arguably two years late. Let's get on with it.

It is an excellent moment to take up this exercise: Last week we had a twofer. The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the monument-saving, symphony-sponsoring agency based in Paris and commonly known as UNESCO. Donald the Crude, this is. A day later, Trump leveled at the accord governing Iran’s nuclear programs, suggesting that if he does not get the alterations he wants he may choose the nuclear option, let us say just for fun. Donald the Reckless.

This week it is the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. The three-sided negotiations that began at summer’s end are turning very sour, primarily because Trump’s demands for a remade agreement are so onerous neither Mexico nor Canada is likely to accept them. The cliché of the week spreads like a virus: Trump is planting poison pills so as purposefully to wreck the pact. He has, after all, called NAFTA “the worst trade deal ever signed,” on numerous occasions.

American foreign policy under Donald Trump is a mess, all right. It is full of contradictions. It is self-defeating, given that it works against American interests, the rest of the planet’s interests and what America purports to stand for in one instance after another. But I will avoid the phrase “Trump’s foreign policy.” It is far from clear to me Trump has a foreign policy, for one thing. For another, everything just noted about our conduct abroad under Trump — messy, contradictory, destructive, self-defeating — applies with no qualification to U.S. foreign policy since . . . since who can say when? The Truman Doctrine of 1947? The escalation in Vietnam, circa 1965? Bill Clinton’s triumphalist 1990s? Bush II’s us-or-them “war on terror”? Obama’s empires-can-be-nice thesis and the rise of the liberal interventionists?

Take your pick. Your answer does not matter. These are all chapters in the same story. The story never changes.

Trump, as I have argued for many months, is not the cause of anything. He is consequence — a symptom, not the malady itself. The only other commentator to take this position vis-à-vis Trump, so far as I know, is the honorable Andrew Bacevich. “The unspoken assumption of those most determined to banish him from public life appears to be this: Once he’s gone, history will be returned to its intended path, humankind will breathe a collective sigh of relief, and all will be well again,” the dissident colonel wrote in the Nation a couple of months ago. “Such an assumption strikes me as remarkably wrongheaded. . . . Those who imagine that Trump’s removal will put things right are deluding themselves.”

Remember when George W. Bush conjured those flimsy justifications for the Iraq invasion in 2003, and that snowy March evening we watched our brand-new war live on CNN? Many hearts sank. Then people righteously personalized the problem: It was Bush and that dirty-rotten Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal. Well, it was, but theirs was merely a radical reinterpretation of policy as long established. Personalizing America’s shameful conduct abroad is faulty analysis — unproductive in that it obscures what we truly face. Bush II was a clear example of this error. In Trump’s case, popular contempt in liberal quarters is compulsive such that people cannot see straight. It is not the best way at our present conundrums.

*  *  *

Trump as consequence: I am inclined now to extend the thought. One can work back from Obama to Truman and make the same point. Each of these presidents was responding to his times, it is common to think, and times are ever changing. Presidents are better or worse at this, one to the next. But that is not precisely right. All American leaders since 1945 have sought to hold the postwar order still, no matter how conditions were evolving and what aspirations were abroad among others. The object was no change amid great change. Stability was taken to require prevention of the dynamism common to all politics and all human relations, at all times. It was a loser by definition from the moment this error was made. Generations of incoherent policy were bound to result, as they have.

Trump’s sins are two, in the context just outlined. One is his critique of the ever-to-be-defended order — “the postwar order,” “the post-1945 order” or simply the chiseled-in-granite “international system.” The other is that he brings to the surface the contradictions and delusions latent in postwar American policy from its inception. Trump came out during his campaign last year to wonder what NATO was for. He asked why we could not find a more cooperative relationship with Russia. He did not think wars of adventure served anyone’s interests. Even recently he announced that the U.S. “does not seek to tell others how to live.” Our problem should be evident: Trump is a dummkopf who sometimes poses good questions. He is a mess-maker for whom we must all accept some responsibility.

Let us briefly consider these latest messes.

The Trump administration announced its withdrawal from UNESCO to protest its allegedly anti-Israel biases. This is wrong, but it is not a new wrong. Various administrations, not least Obama’s, have heckled UNESCO for years on this flimsy basis — increasingly so, as international awareness of and support for the Palestinian cause mounts. When the organization admitted Palestine as a member six Octobers ago, the Obama White House took less than a day to cut off the U.S. share of funding for the UNESCO budget.

The Iran accord: The Obama administration negotiated it, only to set about sabotaging it. Within months it was complaining about Iran’s missile program — at first trying to put it over that missile development was a breach of the agreement. By the time that fallacy collapsed in Security Council deliberations, Treasury officials were roaming European capitals threatening banks with sanctions should they do dollar-denominated business with the Iranians.

NAFTA is roughly in the same file with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the difference being the former was put into practice while the latter died a death no one dares mourn out loud. Free trade is not the issue in either case. These are deregulation pacts. If they served human beings more effectively and corporate interests less, NAFTA might not now face the fate the TPP has already met.

This is what I mean by incoherence. Trump’s is not the only name on it. As for his good questions, they are not to be asked again. Defenders of the established order have domesticated Trump over the past six months or so, to use the mildest term for what we have watched.

*  *  *

Some years ago, The New York Times ran two stories that in combination made a truly excellent point. In the business section, if memory serves, it had a piece on Royal Dutch Shell’s quarterly performance. (Good stuff.) In the foreign section it had a piece on said company’s desecration of the Niger Delta. This was after the arrest and before the execution, as near as I can recall, of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmentalist and activist who acted in behalf of the Ogoni people, whose land Shell had putrefied. (Bad stuff.)

The Times will rarely choose to connect the dots for its readers, for they might then come to understand things a touch too well. You always have to do this for yourself. Ever eager to put the best face on things, I take this as healthy intellectual calisthenics: On a good day it can make reading the newspaper of record more fun than the crossword puzzle.

I mention this because we have just had an exceptional week in this regard. In three consecutive editions, the Times told us all we need to know about the international order we must all honor -- except that it told us not a damn thing about it, unless one kept track of what it obscured as it told us all we needed to know.

Last Tuesday the paper offered an editorial headlined, “Under Mr. Trump, America Surrenders.” The piece began like a line of brass trumpets. Every president since 1945 had served the cause, the cause being “an international system grounded in democratic values and free-market principles.” Yes, “there have been plenty of mistakes and unforeseen developments that have tested the United States,” we read (as we always do in these kind of presentations). “But, on the whole, the world has benefited greatly,” and so on. We are now ready to consider the egregious misdeeds of Donald Trump in the proper way. He is ruining everything. If you happen to be among the countless millions deprived of democratic rights in the name of American democracy since 1945, or if you question the supremacy of “free-market principles,” you are not part of the story. There is a place for you in the footnotes.

Next day none other than columnist Thomas L. Friedman weighed in. Where would we be without our Tom in times such as these? Trump is pulling the order of things apart, Friedman observes with customary bravery. “It’s Trump’s willingness to unravel so many longstanding policies and institutions at once,” he frets, italics his. He goes on to note the collapsed and collapsing “trade” deals, the climate crisis, global waves of immigrants and the aspiration driving them: “to get out of their world of disorder and into America and Europe and the world order.” Hmm. How did all this come to be? Our Tom has so much order and disorder running around in his columns lately one cannot quite figure how it all works, given our orderly postwar order, everywhere plain to see.

Curiously, Friedman did not mention U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO, a step toward disorder the equal of any other. Hmm again. But the Times took care of this matter in an opinion piece, arguing that withdrawal was quite right given “the organization’s shameful record” and its “obsession with Israel.” The headline on this piece — which the paper confined to its internet edition, wisely — is immortal: “Unesco Shmunesco.” A head more cleverly expressive of the underlying reality I have not read in ages.

Thursday’s paper completes this picture. It fronted a piece datelined Portland, Oregon, recounting the tale of a combat veteran run amok in a local restaurant run by an Iraqi family. Hate crime (a problematic notion, given the hatred implicit in it and how much in our orderly world there is to hate) or post-traumatic stress? This is a sad story either way. But Damien Rodriguez, a decorated Marine, had a couple of piercing things to say. Of his conduct in Iraq: “I’m a bad person now, I went against all I had ever been taught.” Of his current predicament: “I’m sorry about what happened, but no one tries to understand what we went through.”

Think about this. What is this person telling us about the justice, the meaning, of the wars that now substitute for foreign policy in the Middle East? What is he telling us about our tendency to shield our eyes from wars we pay the disaffected working class to fight? About, in the end, our postwar order and how it is maintained? About what we are doing to ourselves, not to mention others, in the cause of this order?

The last piece on my list is especially welcome: It lends historic ballast to the rest of the presentation. “U.S. Allowed Blood Bath In Indonesia” appeared Thursday. It concerns newly declassified State Department documents revealing the extent of American complicity in the anti-Communist bloodbath that took roughly 500,000 Indonesian lives in 1965-66. We knew the story, in more than outline, but now we have the granular detail — the diplomatic traffic from acquiescent diplomats in Jakarta, Washington’s silence, the tacit support required to depose Sukarno and install Suharto. The byline on this piece, parenthetically, is Hannah Beech; Keyes Beech, her father, was among the outstanding Southeast Asia correspondents of his generation. Hannah left out one thing Keyes would have noted: Mid-1960s events in Indonesia were not isolated; they were and remain standard procedure in the cause of the postwar order.

The order that required disorder — where to begin or end? — in Greece and Italy, Iran and Guatemala, Congo, Indonesia, and Vietnam, Chile, Argentina and Central America, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Ukraine and (pending) Venezuela.

The order Donald Trump tried to put into play, even if he is the worst president in the nation’s history.

The order many have long questioned, but never anybody holding national office.

The order that most of us can scarcely detect, it is so well obscured as our press sprays us with details left disparate, as if all events arise out of nowhere — have no past and no connection to anything else.

The order that deserves our study, our understanding, our thoughtful contempt quite beyond the compulsive, blinding preoccupations of many, and, finally, our response.

By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at Patreon.com. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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