Trump's foreign policy is confused — but it isn't really Trump's

Trump had one consequential moment during his Asia trip — and everyone in the rudderless American media missed it

Published November 19, 2017 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump drinks during a special gala celebration dinner for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. (Getty/Athit Perawongmetha)
Donald Trump drinks during a special gala celebration dinner for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. (Getty/Athit Perawongmetha)

No sooner did Donald Trump return a week ago from his 12-day escapade in Asia than the bickering began. Did the president succeed or fail during his first travels across the Pacific? Assessments are bound to vary on any such occasion, but Trump’s journey was an exception even by this rule. It instantly turned into wet clay that assumed any shape anyone wanted it to. Why was this? What lies beneath these eye-of-the-beholder differences?

“Very epic,” Trump boasted. “Red carpet like nobody, I think, has ever received.” Sebastian Gorka, who served briefly as a counselor in the Trump White House, gushed even more effervescently. “Look, the whole trip is just one success after another,” he asserted. The Chinese, for reasons of their own, took roughly the same view. “Major consensus reached between China and the U.S.,” Xinhua announced in a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal.

The high priests of the Washington orthodoxy politely differed. “If this trip were a high-wire act, President Trump managed to get to the other side,” said Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary for East Asia during Barack Obama’s first term. Joshua Kurlantzick over at the Council on Foreign Relations put it this way: “Unfortunately, despite Trump’s boasting, the trip did not deliver many substantial accomplishments.” Down-market from the silk-robed mandarins, nobody has any gloves to take off when it comes to this president. “Trump’s ‘America First’ looks more and more like ‘America Alone,’” the Washington Post asserted. The Democratic National Committee sent a “Fact Check” to various inboxes, including mine: Abject failure, it declared. Not a damn thing good to say about it.

I always consult the DNC when I need the facts, of course. But I read more into last week’s consistent inconsistencies than the usual politics-in-the-age-of-Trump. I see confusion. I see a vacuum of ideas. And I do not refer only to Trump. I see a nation adrift, unable to think clearly, and with little idea how to confront what the 21st century has on offer.

What I heard last week was a hollowed-out conversation. Nobody wants to take responsibility for the cul-de-sac our policy cliques have led us into. The result is a discourse more or less devoid of reality. Trump does not want to take the blame for this — and should not — so he boasts of success, just as all other postwar occupants of the White House have done. This is nothing more than par. The policy elite and the media insist that it is Trump’s fault, not theirs, that we find ourselves in this twilight interim.  

It does not wash.

Readers will know I judge what we call “Trump’s foreign policy” a collection of incoherent feints, quite independent of his adventures across either ocean. But I seriously doubt anyone else would have done any better at this juncture. Obama certainly did not; the Bush II administration speaks for itself. Trump’s trip to Asia was primarily “pageantry,” as CNN termed it. But there was one exception neither CNN nor anyone else took the time to note, and it is not to be missed: Trump attempted something very good when he met Vladimir Putin and discussed Syria. This is a point I will revisit.

Let us parse the question of success or failure a little more closely than our press invites us to.

*  *  *

The New York Times published a curious editorial last Tuesday, part of its own quite extensive assessment of Trump’s trans–Pacific doings. “President Trump’s Thing for Thugs,” the headline read. This is a good place to begin. It crystallizes a couple of matters we must be very clear about.

“Authoritarian leaders exercise a strange and powerful attraction for President Trump,” the editorial began. “Whatever the reason, there’s been nothing quite like Mr. Trump’s love affair with one-man rule since Spiro Agnew returned from a world tour in 1971 singing the praises of thuggish dictators like Lee Kuan Yew, Haile Selassie, Jomo Kenyatta, Mobutu Sese Seko, and General Francisco Franco.” A lot of waffling, wandering and patriotic pablum follows, but it is of little account, per usual. We can stop here.

I described this editorial as curious, and the above quotations hold all the curiosity we need.

Point 1: Comparing Trump with Richard Nixon’s vice president is dead-on, though I suspect unintentionally so. The great “Seen-one-ghetto-seen-’em-all” Agnew committed many sins, but among his gravest was to say and praise what almost everybody else thought and admired but would never dare articulate in public. This is high among Trump’s many offenses, too. As Trump rose to political prominence a year and a half ago I called him “the id of the Republican Party” in these pages. It remains exactly the point. When Trump gets into trouble with the guardians of the orthodoxy, it is either because he departs from it or describes it too honestly, so revealing it for what it is as against what it pretends to be.

Point 2: I love the list of dictatorial figures the Times kindly provided. What do you see when you read it? Even at his funeral two years ago, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was Washington’s ever-hailed darling. Now he is on a list of dreadful thugs. Mobutu, who took power in Zaire after he assassinated Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961, with the CIA’s dispensation, ranks among the most grotesque of our Cold War creations. Now that Mobutu is gone and Zaire is Congo (again), Mobutu can go down as a thug.

Franco was America’s friend ever since FDR, with unseemly haste, declared U.S. “neutrality” in the Spanish Civil War, and I insist on the quotation marks. Kenyatta and Selassie, of Kenya and Ethiopia respectively, declared themselves nonaligned in the politically correct mode of their time, but they minded their Cold War manners to Washington’s satisfaction — a simple matter of political survival.

Now we are invited to listen while the government-supervised Times lays into Trump for keeping company with Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte — “some of the world’s most unsavory leaders.” When are this nation’s Puritan-descended mythologists going to succumb to the historicists, those of us who prefer thinking with history instead of hollowed-out fables of who we are and what we do?  

The history of America’s support for cooperative, corruptible dictators  is so long and familiar it would be tedious to rehearse it here. By the time the just-elected Ronald Reagan named Jeane Kirkpatrick his ambassador to the United Nations in 1981, the hypocrisy of U.S. policy was gross enough to warrant some kind of codification to dress it up. We then got “the Kirkpatrick Doctrine,” wherein the feverishly anti-Communist professor-turned-diplomat explained that dictators came in two varieties, authoritarian and totalitarian. The former — your Mobutus and Pinochets and Somozas — wore white hats and made good friends; the latter wore black and made excellent enemies.  

A variant of this policy, we must not forget, remains a consistent feature of Washington’s strategic thinking. Laying this off on Trump, as the Times attempts to do, is a form of fraud.

Trump failed to mention human rights when in conference with the Chinese president. Bad. He did not take the Filipino president to task for the violence of his anti-drug campaign. Bad again: American leaders must always righteously and gaudily intrude upon the internal affairs of other nations. This is important: Once that chore is out of the way, it is all right to do billions in business, structure strategic alliances, sell weaponry and other such things. Trump had the temerity to meet Putin and agree to cooperate in ending the Syrian crisis. Beyond bad: Putin’s hat, we all know, is as black as a mortician’s.

There are a couple of things to take home here. One concerns history and I have already suggested the lesson. We are never going to understand (1) our foreign policy and (2) what the rest of the world thinks of our foreign policy until we think ourselves past our inherited mythologies. At the moment we continue to tell ourselves too many stories and are too often bamboozled as a result. I have long marveled as many of us get riled over a figure such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to take but one example, but have nothing to say about Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt. This is what I mean by “bamboozled.” Human rights and democratic process have rarely figured in more than marginal fashion in U.S. policy. I note this without qualification. If we want such things to shape policy we need a new policy, one that reflects a new purpose.  

There is also something to note about the intersection of personification and humanization in our political discourse. What does the Times — along with many other media, fair enough — accomplish when it reviews “Trump’s foreign policy,” so bringing it down to the man? This is easily answered. It erases the very history necessary to achieve genuine understanding and push past the false consciousness that besets us. To personalize policy in Trump serves to humanize the American foreign policy tradition: It was all dandy until Trump came along.  

Nonsense. In truth there is no such thing as “Trump’s foreign policy” or the foreign policy of any other president since Truman. There is only “postwar policy,” with merely tactical variations on the consensus Washington often boasts of.

“Mr. Trump’s foreign policy has so far turned out to be more conventional than his rhetoric and style would suggest,” Walter Russell Mead, once the house scribe at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in the Journal the other day. Is this a surprise, Walter? Trump’s “Make America great again” is but a slight turn from “Keep America great,” the preservation of U.S. primacy being the sole goal of all postwar policy formulations. Remember Hillary Clinton’s riposte during the campaign? “We are great already!” she exclaimed. What, I ask, is the difference between these two figures on this point? It lies only in Trump’s “again.” Agnew-like, Trump is too honest when he acknowledges that out customary claims to greatness are worn thin of all credibility.   

Just briefly, we can approach this intersection of personification and humanization from the opposite street. What is the point of the extreme personification of all Russia does in the figure of Putin? Nothing happens in Russia, our press incessantly urges us to think, that does not emanate from the Russian president. This brings us to a paradox, upside down from the above thought. In the Russian case, we personify so as to dehumanize, as propaganda departments do in wartime. If Putin is Russia and Putin is a demon, it follows that all Russia does is in one or another way demonic.

*  *  *

Easily the most interesting thing to come out of Trump’s long turn through Asia was his encounter with Putin in Danang, where 20–odd Pacific powers gathered for the annual summit of the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The American and Russian presidents issued a joint statement committing to cooperating to end the crisis in Syria and structuring a political solution in line with negotiations the UN supports. “We did it very quickly,” Trump beamed afterward.

This was unexpected. It is potentially consequential. Given what could be accomplished, there is no way to call it anything other than a success. A surprise, an imaginative turn, a move that could end a tragic conflict: You have read next to nothing about this, have you? This is because the press did nothing more than flick at the Trump–Putin statement on Syria, changing the subject — back to “Russiagate," naturally — as quickly as it could. I have seen not a single piece of analysis or comment. The DNC, in its “Fact Check,” did not even mention the joint statement.

We come to another takeaway. Trump is unlikely to pile up a record of foreign-policy successes, as mentioned. But if he is permitted no success whatsoever, if the clay is molded such that fail is all he ever does, we are talking about a condition of willful blindness. This is where unmitigated contempt lands us. Nobody among our Democrats and “progressives” has anything to say about an agreement that could produce peace in Syria? Interesting. Derisive malice is their opiate, one must conclude. There is a price for this, as I will now explain.

As things have transpired since the Trump–Putin statement of intent on Syria, it turns out to be a good example of what happens when Trump crosses the orthodoxy’s high priests — including those with West Wing offices. I can think of no better illustration of my earlier point: What we call “Trump’s foreign policy” is not Trump’s. Nor is there a better case just now of what American policy consists of, as it truly is. Washington has no idea how to reply to the 21st century. It is a regime-changer or a spoiler (or both simultaneously) and not much more. This is why we cannot talk about policy honestly. This is why it can be described however anyone wants to describe it.

The war in Syria now draws to a close. The Syrian Arab Army, Assad’s army, is about to emerge as the clear victor. This raises important questions on its own, chief among them what the U.S. intends to do now that its “regime change” project has failed. Its presence in Syria has been illegal from the first, according to international law. As Damascus completes its reconsolidation of power, now what? The Trump–Putin agreement implicitly challenges any notion that the U.S. can remain illegally on a sovereign nation’s soil. But consider what has happened since.

Three days after Trump and Putin shook hands in Danang, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis declared that the U.S. presence in Syria will continue without interruption. “We are going to make sure we set the conditions for a diplomatic solution,” Mattis announced. Two Russian officials effectively replied later the same day. Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, accused Washington of more of its usual duplicity in Syria. “The U.S. believes that the right direction in Syria is regime change," Lavrov charged. “Despite not demanding that Assad resign immediately, their claims contradict the Geneva agreements.” From Sergey Shiogu, the defense minister: The U.S. now refuses to fly airstrikes against the Islamic State, claiming the Geneva conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war now apply.

There is “indisputable evidence,” Moscow also asserted last week, that the U.S. is now giving Islamic State fighters cover as they regroup. In effect, and yet to be confirmed, the Pentagon appears to be shifting openly to the calamitous strategy the late Zbigniew Brzezinski deployed to frustrate the Soviets in Afghanistan in late 1979: Arm the jihadists, the enemy of our enemy being our friend. That reckless flyer, which gave the world al-Qaida, is not Trump’s: It belongs to the policy cliques.  

Anybody watching this time around? Not that I can make out. Nobody in the American press goes anywhere near this information. Willful blindness prevails. And this is where it gets us.

Where does success lie here? Where failure?

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 His web site is

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Asia China Donald Trump Foreign Policy Russia Syria Syrian Civil War Trump Foreign Policy Vladimir Putin