In July 2017, the Washington Post reported that the new leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were planning on updating the agency’s museum in the Ronald Reagan building in the nation’s capital. Given that the museum had opened just three days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the move was transparently based on political motivations rather than on needed maintenance. That the most significant reported change was the replacing of an exhibit about President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) with a display of coal came as no surprise to anyone who had been following the Trump Administration’s approach to regulating the environment. In particular, the EPA has been at the center of the administration’s position that climate change is probably not a threat and certainly not one that humans can control anyway.
The American political class has been working itself into a lather over the hacking of a number of email accounts, evidently by Russian intelligence, and the subsequent leaking of information from those emails during the recent presidential election campaign. Those leaks, it is said, hurt Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and might well have cost her the election.
During the Age of Trump, Year One, a single word has emerged to capture the essence of the prevailing cultural mood: resistance. Words matter, and the prominence of this particular term illuminates the moment in which we find ourselves.
On 6 June 2017, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, addressed the Canadian House of Commons on foreign policy priorities in a speech that was widely interpreted as establishing a new direction in Canada’s international policies–a more independent course involving less reliance on the United States and more support for international forums. The speech was immediately followed by the release of two other government policy statements on defence and foreign aid. The first was a policy review by the Department of National Defence, and it called, among other things, for a $62 billion (CDN) boost in military spending over twenty years. In the second, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced that Ottawa was remodeling its foreign aid policy in a “feminist” direction and that it would now be focused on the promotion of gender equality. Freeland’s speech and the defence and foreign aid pronouncements were quickly linked to the 2016 American election and, although he was not actually mentioned by name in Freeland’s speech, to President Donald Trump. One observer was prompted to announce that Canada was “now entering a post-American phase.”
Slightly more than six months have elapsed since Donald Trump won the 2017 presidential election, and almost five since he took office. For all the Asia-Pacific nations—and virtually every other state—the ensuing days, weeks, and months have brought continuing revelations as to just how surreal United States politics might become. “Mr. Trump Goes to Washington” has become a never-ending reality saga, far surpassing any scenario the most enterprising Hollywood or television scriptwriter would dare to dream up. For sheer entertainment value, as a spectacle the Trump White House is hard to beat.
On 10 June 2017 newspapers record that President Donald J. Trump went out of his way during a press appearance with the president of Romania to declare that, “I’m committing the United States to Article 5,” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) treaty. Sighs of relief could be heard on both sides of The Pond. But as we recover from that diplomatic shock we can learn from the parallel idiocy going on the Middle East, as well as the way both sets of errors have been abetted by the administration’s foreign policy structure. The present foreign policy can be viewed usefully as a mixture of stability and flexibility. For the purposes of this discussion ‘stability’ refers to the degree of continuity between present and past American foreign policy, and ‘flexibility’ denotes the extent to which the president is able to forge an independent course in foreign policy.
With a nihilistic wild man in the White House, it is time for America’s diplomats to embrace their historic rebelliousness.
Donald Trump has only been president for a few months, but he has already done more to debase United States foreign policy than any chief executive in memory. He has gutted the State Department, purging its senior leadership and vowing to slash its budget by over one-third. He has scuttled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, condemned the North American Free Trade Agreement, called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ‘obsolete,’ and threatened to defund the United Nations. He has harangued or otherwise insulted U.S. allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while cozying up to dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. He has flip-flopped on such crucial matters as the ‘one China policy’ and the ‘two-state formula’ for Israeli-Palestinian peace. He has ratcheted up tensions with North Korea, approved an ill-thought-out mission to Yemen, and launched massive but ultimately meaningless assaults in Afghanistan and Syria. Worst of all, he has issued two executive orders banning refugees and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, a move that has gravely damaged America’s image abroad and inflamed anti-American sentiment across wide swaths of the globe. When almost one thousand U.S. diplomats signed a “dissent memo” protesting the travel ban, White House spokesman Sean Spicer responded with an ultimatum redolent of his boss’s petulance, intolerance, and authoritarianism: “Either get with the program or get out.”
Richard Hofstadter’s famous catch phrase, the “paranoid style in American politics,” should be buried with a stake in its heart. As someone who has tried to hammer in the stake for several decades, I can’t help noticing that the term has again risen from the grave as in a horror movie populated, not by vampires, zombies, and terrified teenagers, but by Donald Trump, superficial pundits, and terrified liberals and radicals. Application of the ‘paranoid style’ to Trump and his followers began in 2015 and has continued unabated. Some of Trump’s conservative defenders have retaliated by calling his critics the true paranoid stylists.
NATO is a unique alliance in world history, outlasting its original purpose of deterring the Soviet Union and, in so doing, demonstrating the persistence of the shared values and interests among its members. Donald Trump is a unique president, rejecting past practice, procedures and principles. The interaction between NATO and this president in just a few months has upended decades-old assumptions about the transatlantic alliance and the presidency.
What does the election of Donald Trump mean for the making of foreign policy? On the campaign trail, candidate Trump said that experts were terrible—he was talking about China policy at that moment—and he asked if it would be so bad if he didn’t bother with them. As President, Trump seems determined to test that challenge in real time, leaving behind a string of foreign gaffes and reversals from Taiwan to NATO in less than 100 days in office. Americans who voted for Trump are so far not inclined to hold him responsible for these blunders, in part (one must assume) out of sheer stubbornness. But there is a more disturbing possibility at work: voters in the United States refuse to hold Trump accountable for his errors because they do not know enough to realize they are, in fact, errors.