How sincere is the Donald Trump administration about chaos? For foreign policy watchers the Trump campaign was clear. NATO was dismissed as obsolete. America’s Article V commitments to the Baltics were contingent. It would be OK if South Korea and Japan developed nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Vladimir Putin? Card-carrying members of the DC foreign policy establishment reacted by working themselves into a horrified frenzy from which they have yet to recover. Critics of the status-quo machine known as American foreign policy saw opportunity. Despite joining in the general disapproval of Trump’s crude rhetoric, they appreciated his questioning of core tenets of the post-World War II foreign policy consensus and the possibility that he represented a chance to revise it. Throughout the campaign Trump’s foreign policy views remained an important reason for dissenters to vote for him, especially when the alternative was a hawkish liberal internationalist named Hillary Clinton. Peter Thiel in his now-infamous speech endorsing Donald Trump noted that his supporters are “tired of war” and observed that “the Democratic Party is more hawkish today than at any time since it began the war in Vietnam.”
Despite the persistence of establishment and mass media hysteria, however, Donald Trump’s actions since taking office belie his revolutionary campaign rhetoric. In fact the Trump administration appears to be preserving or doubling down on key policies supported by the DC foreign policy establishment even as he continues to spew rhetorical chaos from his bully pulpit. Consider the following:
- Secretary of Defense James Mattis was recently in South Korea and Japan to reassure those countries of America’s commitment to their defense and to the preservation of regional order.
- The Trump administration seems committed to preserving the military component of the Obama administration’s already over-militarized “pivot” policy. This will include a much bigger navy and a harder line on China.
- Two senior administration officials have articulated a highly confrontational policy of forcibly preventing China from accessing its illegal claims in the South China Sea.
- Nikki Haley, Donald Trump’s UN ambassador has blamed Russia for renewed tensions in Ukraine.
- The Saudis are pleased that the Trump administration is taking a hard line on Iran, seems supportive of safe-zones in Syria (one of Hillary Clinton’s campaign planks) and is continuing the Obama administration’s support of their war in Yemen.
So, how sincere is Donald Trump about chaos? His actual foreign policy record from the past two weeks suggests that, so far, the answer is “not very.” By that I mean that Donald Trump has not (yet) moved to drastically revise the rules-based international order that the DC foreign policy establishment views as America’s charge. Indeed many of his policies seem straight out of the classic foreign policy playbook of the Republican Party. Though these are still early days, I see two viable mental models of the foreign policy role of Donald Trump. The first is that many world order-altering “deals” are yet to come. In this model Trump is sincere, the White House faces a steep learning curve and we haven’t seen anything yet. There is still a lot of time for this model to assert itself, but so far it is not supported by the available evidence.
The second model is that Donald Trump will continue to propagate verbal chaos while his administration essentially defends the world order status quo, including key alliances, commitments and institutions. In this model Donald Trump is obsessed with television ratings and his ego consumes his opponents’ hysterical reactions to his verbal chaos. The process of “making America great again” will mostly consist of televised PR stunts meant to portray America as “winning” rather than “losing.” Trump is unlikely to concern himself with the boring details of the institutions of world order and his cabinet will be allowed great latitude to defend and tweak the foreign policy status quo bequeathed them by the Obama administration.
As an advocate for foreign policy restraint, I am disappointed that this second model so far seems more accurate. I am also perplexed by the overreactions of the DC foreign policy elite. This administration has not indicated by its actions so far that it is about to walk away from America’s responsibilities to the world order. Their overreactions have been almost exclusively to Donald Trump’s “chaos rhetoric.”
That raises an interesting question: Is rhetoric alone enough to destroy the world order? Does Donald Trump do appreciable damage to global law and order when he merely praises Vladimir Putin, criticizes the European Union or angrily hangs up on the Australian Prime Minister? Since we have never had as mercurial a character as Trump at the helm before, the answer is that we do not know. That said, I think there are some reasons for optimism on this question. History is clear that poorly timed verbal sloppiness can cause military tensions or even start a war, but what if international policymakers eventually internalize some version of the second model I articulated above? The governments of allies and adversaries alike may decide that Trump’s chaos rhetoric is meant for popular consumption only and instead focus their attention on his cabinet. There is already some evidence of this.
Second, the allies’ demand for world order as a public good produced by the United States is highly inelastic. Most of the allies – especially those in Europe and Asia – have constructed their entire national security strategies going back decades on the assumption of close cooperation, consultation and operation with the US military. They will not be keen to unravel this difficult institutional work just because Donald Trump criticized their head of state on television. To put it bluntly, America’s allies need America more than America needs its allies.
Finally, over the long run it is probable that the allies will seek to diversify their national security strategies away from near-complete reliance on the US. This was already happening during the Obama administration. Japan, for example, has put the development of strategic relationships with Australia and India at the core of its foreign policy. Similarly, Britain’s vote to exit the EU revived old proposals for a pan-European military force. Donald Trump’s unpredictability and fears that the American people will someday vote for a competent and knowledgeable isolationist will probably reinforce this trend. The DC establishment will view this as a failure of American leadership, but I think it could have positive consequences for the durability of the world order. The current order is fragile in part because it is over-dependent upon American guarantees and the favor of the American electorate. Perhaps a trend away from the “hub-and-spokes” model of alliances and toward one where the allies both take on more responsibilities and cooperate more with each other will make for a more durable international peace. Donald Trump’s chaos rhetoric could even help European elites contain the forces threatening to destroy the EU.
Again, these are early days. The events of this week could cause me to revise my expectations. As of now, however, events since January 20 support the conclusion that Donald Trump is not very sincere about actual, rather than verbal chaos and that his administration will mostly defend the world order status quo. If this description of the Trump White House continues to hold, how long will it be before his foreign policy critics admit that their apocalyptic predictions were wide of the mark? I’m not holding my breath.
Update: Politico is reporting that Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, is poised to recommend US support for Montenegro’s admission to NATO. That does not sound to me like the policy of an administration committed to upending the world order.