Trump's Foreign Policy

Conservatives' report card

If you are a liberal judging US President Donald Trump's foreign policy record at the six-month mark, it is not hard to guess the grade you would give him. An F is too generous for your taste. An F-minus? How about a negative F?

What if you are a conservative? Here, your grade will depend on what kind of conservative you are.

(1) You are a Trumpkin.

What is not to like? Was it not Machiavelli - or some other Italian with a similar-sounding name - who said: "It is much safer to be feared than loved"?

Is it not about time that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fears us? Is it not about time we have a US president who could not care less whether he is loved in Paris or Brussels - capitals our soldiers once liberated only so that they could repay us with freeloading and condescension?

And is it not about time we throw our weight around the world on our own behalf and not for the sake of some make-believe "international community"?

Grade: The easiest A since you took "rocks for jocks" in college.

(2) You are not a Trumpkin, but you are happy Hillary Clinton is not president.

Well, what did you expect? We all knew he was a policy neophyte, with some bad ideas but reasonably decent instincts. And, on the whole, his instincts are serving us well.

What, you have an objection to Jim Mattis at Defence, John Kelly at Homeland Security, Mike Pompeo at CIA and H.R. McMaster as security adviser? The Clinton team would have consisted of Brookings Institution types trying to extend the Obama administration's legacy of US retreat - of appeasing adversaries, alienating allies and turning us into a country whose enemies did not fear us and whose friends did not trust us.

It has been only six months, and Mr Trump still has a lot to learn. But he has jettisoned some of his worst ideas - on Nato being obsolete, for instance - while taking a more muscular approach against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Iran and North Korea.

Grade: B.

(3) You are the sort of conservative who does not believe we should grade college students on a curve, much less our commander-in-chief.

Yes, Machiavelli did say it was better to be feared than loved. But the great Florentine also said: "A prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred."

The United States has had unpopular presidents. But not one - not Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis, not George W. Bush at the worst moments of the Iraq war - inspires the sort of hatred Mr Trump does.

Much of this is self-inflicted. Mr Trump did not need to start his presidency by infuriating the President of Mexico on the eve of a planned visit to Washington, or by comparing the US intelligence community to Nazi Germany, or by throwing a tantrum with the Prime Minister of Australia.

He did not need to demand that Seoul pay for missile defences that would protect US troops in the event of war with North Korea or toy with our Nato allies as he mulled over whether to reaffirm our mutual defence obligations.

Mr Trump could have avoided all of this. He did not, either because his personality is defective or because he thinks humiliation is an appropriate tool of presidential power. Character is destiny, conservatives used to think. We are living this destiny.

Conservatives must also wonder what happened to the "conservative" foreign policy they were promised in his campaign. The administration certified this month that Iran was complying fully with the 2015 nuclear deal; according to the Institute for Science and International Security, it is not.

We were supposed to support our allies in Syria fighting both ISIS and Mr Assad; we ditched them.

We were supposed to get serious about the threat from Russia. In Hamburg, Germany, this month, Mr Trump again showed how eager he was to oblige his man-crush in the Kremlin, this time at the expense of Israel.

But the deeper flaw of Mr Trump's foreign policy is not psychological. It is philosophical. The Trump administration is the first to make an open break with the anti-isolationist post-war consensus of Harry Truman, Arthur Vandenberg and Dean Acheson.

"The world is not a 'global community' but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage," Mr McMaster and Mr Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Mark this as the shift from internationalism to transactionalism; from a values-based foreign policy rooted in Alexis de Tocqueville's notion of "self-interest, rightly understood", to an approach that might be called neo-Maguirism, after the movie Jerry Maguire. To wit: "Show me the money!"

It is not that the administration has done everything wrong, at least by conservative lights: It is always possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

But if serious conservatives believe in anything, it is that we really are, as former president Abraham Lincoln said, "the last best hope of earth", and that our foreign policy should be equal to that hope.

That is "hope", Donald, not "joke".

Grade: OMG.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2017, with the headline 'Conservatives' report card'. Print Edition | Subscribe