Americans are, typically, somewhat provincial in our interests. From the Cold War on, the world has watched us while we mostly watch ourselves — a narcissistic myopia that comes with being the world’s only remaining superpower. But for some portion of the American public, Donald Trump’s presidency has made foreign policy suddenly relevant and even urgent again.
Thousands of people, for instance, have become amateur investigators into the administration’s connections to Russia. While some of these sleuths have come up with comically conspiratorial webs of connection, others have made important revelations, such as the Brooklyn neighborhood website that dove into Paul Manafort’s hinky real estate dealings. Even more of us have looked on with alarm as Trump has taken his bluster to the world stage, apparently ready to lob weaponry as freely as he hurls insults: His brash, even rash decision to bomb Syria, his approval of an ill-fated raid in Yemen, that “mother of all bombs,” and, perhaps most startlingly, dancing on the edge of an armed confrontation with North Korea.
This was all on my mind recently when I ran into an old friend who is a long-time Washington foreign policy wonk on the Democratic side. “You must be terrified lately,” I said (it’s surprising how many conversations begin that way these days).
It took a while before he could answer me — first we had to narrow down the field of terrifying possibilities to which I could be referring, but I finally boiled it down to, “Are you terrified about Trump running off half-cocked and accidentally starting a war?”
His answer surprised me: “Not really.” He allowed that there were other things to be worried about in the international sphere, from terrorist attacks on U.S. targets to North Korea just doing something freaky all by itself, but Trump’s itchy Twitter finger? The least of our worries, my friend said. His lack of concern isn’t based on Trump being more responsible than he appears, though. Ironically, it’s exactly because he’s so erratic: Trump’s administration lacks the internal cohesion and external gravitas to do the kind of big, radical initiatives that would truly disrupt diplomatic relations.
The ship of state is difficult to steer in the best of times. Just ask Barack Obama, who oversaw a unified and disciplined diplomatic corps, but saw his foreign policy efforts wash up against resistance both at home and abroad. Trump, by contrast, doesn’t even have a unified State Department. He barely has a State Department — hundreds of staff jobs remain empty, and the department head has an almost imperceptible presence. He doesn’t have a coherent message on foreign policy, either: His secretary of state, national security advisers, vice-president, and U.N. ambassador have all delivered their own (and not altogether synchronized) takes on our international priorities. Trump’s haphazard and lurching foreign policy philosophy appears to be based on whomever he talked to last.
And while that seems alarming to U.S. citizens, that’s only because we haven’t seen it before. We’re used to presidents who at least put effort into the appearance of ideological coherence. The rest of the world has lived through bigger charlatans and oafs than Trump — my friend mentioned Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy — and the international community tends to deal with them the same way: Tune them out as much as possible.
Such benign indifference makes the world a little safer (because it’s less reactive), but it comes at a cost. We might not have the kind of influence we’d need to start a new war, but we’ll also be losing the kind of influence it takes to do anything big. Essentially, Trump is frittering away America’s global diplomatic capital by engaging in pointless domestic flame wars on the one hand and treating international affairs like a goddamn key party on the other — he’s happy to make kissy-faces with whoever pays attention to him. Angela Merkel is a noted exception, but I imagine she doesn’t mind. Someone has to run the world, and it isn’t Trump.