War Stories

Demolition Donald

It’s undeniable that the president is wrecking the U.S.-led international order. The only question left is whether he’s doing it on purpose.

Donald Trump walks by a sign that says 2018 with a red maple leaf.
President Donald Trump walks to the official G-7 welcoming ceremony in La Malbaie, Quebec, on Friday. Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images

After the events of the past week in Quebec and Singapore, the question must be asked: Is President Donald Trump trying to wreck the rules-based world order and its network of U.S.-led alliances, or is he just indulging in self-aggrandizing theatrics that happen to have that effect?

Either way, the effect is undeniable. Few could contend with a straight face or a sound mind that Trump’s actions at the recent G-7 meeting and his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have advanced U.S. security interests, as that term has been understood by presidents since the end of World War II.

Trump or his supporters might respond that he is rejecting the old concepts of national security. But if that’s so, let him spell out what new concepts would tout Kim Jong-un and the authoritarian leaders of Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia as America’s most trustworthy friends, while downgrading the democratic leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and Canada as dishonest swindlers barely worthy of our mutual defense pacts.

It is appalling (there is no gentler word) for an American president to blast Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in those terms for simply (and mildly) speaking up in response to Trump’s threat of a trade war—and then, two days later, to laud Kim, the world’s most brutal and insular tyrant, as a man who loves his country and to say it’s an “honor” to be in his presence.

In the wake of this double battering, the Europeans—long nervous about Trump’s waverings—are loading their wagons for the road of self-reliance they detect ahead. In a speech on Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas put “Donald Trump’s egotistical politics of America First” in the same category as “Russia’s attacks on international law” and “the expansion of gigantic China”—all contributing in equal measure to the demise of “the world order we were used to” and that “no longer exists.”

Trump also betrayed America’s Asian allies in Singapore, despite repeated entreaties from South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to give away the store. At a press conference after his summit with Kim, Trump announced that he was suspending joint U.S.–South Korean military exercises, saying that they’re “provocative” and that they cost “a fortune”—a statement that alarmed allies (and caught many back home by surprise) for three reasons.

First, Trump issued this new policy without consulting South Korea or any of his own officials, including in the Pentagon. Second, the description of exercises that the U.S.
military routinely conducts with its allies as “war games” and “provocative” endorsed North Korea’s own dark characterization of them. Third, his whistling over the cost of these drills revived anxieties that Trump might cut ties with those allies altogether. Training exercises, in the scheme of things, are fairly cheap. John Pike, head of the research firm GlobalSecurity.org, estimates that the exercises with South Korea cost “tens of millions of dollars”—barely a ripple in a U.S. military budget of $716 billion.

It is expensive, as Trump said, to fuel B-1 bombers for the six-hour flight to South Korea from their bases in Guam—about $720,000 for a round trip, Pike calculates. But, first, that’s one one-millionth the cost of the annual defense budget. Second, why did Trump boost defense spending to such skyrocketing levels if he’s so reluctant to let the troops train with their weapons? It’s hard not to conclude that he views the armed forces in the same way that he views summits—as a platform for spectacles. Hence his penchant for big military parades.

The point is if Trump is weary of spending money for South Korean training exercises, it won’t be much longer before he tires of paying troop deployments (he has said he’d like to withdraw them at some point), and that realization sparks uncertainties about his commitments to other allies, including those in Europe.

It was strange, even by his standards, when, just before his flight to Quebec, Trump said that Russia should be let back in to the G-7, making it the G-8 again. He raised the issue again at the actual meeting, shortly after which he threatened his fellow members with a trade war for specious reasons. (For instance, according to U.S. government figures, the U.S. has a slight trade surplus with Canada, the latest object of his attacks.) Russia was booted out of the club after President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and invaded Eastern Ukraine. Trump later said that he’s heard most people in those parts of Ukraine would rather live under Russian governance anyway—a dubious claim but one that isn’t his to make in any case.

In a more revealing statement, he explained why Putin should be let back in: “If Vladimir Putin were sitting next to me at a table … I could say, ‘Would you do me a favor and get out of Syria? Would you do me a favor, would you get out of Ukraine?’ ”

This may be the most alarming sign yet of Trump’s complete misunderstanding of the way diplomacy works: his tendency to mistake calculated pats on the back for friendship—and, more to the point, his belief that personal relationships outweigh national interests. The notion that Putin would consider retreating from Crimea or abandoning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his sole ally in the Middle East, out of some fondness for Donald Trump, is breathtaking.

This is the other big lesson from Trump’s travels this past week: He’s a lousy negotiator. It’s now old news that, in Singapore, he granted Kim several concessions in exchange for nothing—meeting with him as an equal in the first place, suspending military exercises with South Korea, and dropping all previous demands on what Kim needs to do before talks proceed. The more startling bit of news, revealed over the next few days, is that Trump genuinely seems to think he came away with a good deal—when, in fact, the joint statement that he and Kim signed isn’t a deal of any sort.

At the post-summit press conference, Trump insisted that the two had signed a “very, very comprehensive document,” perhaps because it commits North Korea “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The phrase work toward was unencumbered by any timetable; the word denuclearization was undefined. Trump later said that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat,” as if saying so might make it true.

For a week before the summit, midlevel U.S. officials—led by Sung Kim, ambassador to the Philippines and an experienced hand on North Korea affairs—negotiated with their Pyongyang counterparts to hammer out a joint statement that might mean something. Sources familiar with the talks say that the U.S team sought support from the White House in pushing back against the North Koreans’ resistance but that the message from the White House was clear: Just produce something. Don’t worry about the details.

Trump had given away his hand. He was desperate for a summit, and he was desperate to have it take place on June 12. So the North Koreans could bide their time. On May 24, Trump announced he was canceling the summit, and if he’d played that gambit shrewdly, he might have gained some leverage, as Kim wanted a summit too. But the next day Trump canceled the cancellation after Kim issued a politely worded statement. In other words, Trump put the summit back on tracks without demanding anything of substance in return. That reassured the North Korean team—the same officials who have been negotiating with foreign powers for the past 20 years—that they could get what they wanted with no penalty or sacrifice. Trump had said, ahead of time, that he would walk out of the summit if things didn’t go well. The North Koreans now knew this wasn’t so.

Similarly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent statement to reporters that North Korea will probably dismantle all its nuclear weapons by the end of Trump’s first term tells Kim and his negotiators that they can twiddle their thumbs for the next 2½ years, waiting for the Americans to make the big concessions. The fact that Pompeo linked the timetable explicitly to Trump’s re-election bid heightens Kim’s leverage even more.

Meanwhile, Trump’s (and America’s) control over world events slips steadily out of his (and our) hands. Again, the question is whether he’s letting it go deliberately, whether he fully understands that his vision of America First leads inexorably to America Alone and, if so, whether he’s fine with that—whether his inattention to global supply chains and his indifference to geopolitical interests run so deep that he doesn’t mind the panic that he’s provoked among leaders who have long viewed their alliance with Washington as a source of calm.

Trump is hardly responsible for the fracturing of world order, which has been in process to some degree since the end of the Cold War. But Trump is unique among modern presidents in accelerating the unraveling as a matter of policy and absorbing the aftershocks with glee.

It’s not entirely clear why. Is he in severe debt to Russian banks with ties to Putin? (Robert Mueller may soon shed light on that theory.) In any event, he seems more comfortable in the company of brutal autocrats than with democratically elected leaders. He seems to admire, and possibly envy, their absolute control over their domains. His most astonishing, and perhaps telling, comment of recent days was his excuse for Kim’s rampant executions of critics. Kim, he said, is a “tough guy. Hey, when you take over a country, tough country, with tough people, and you take it over from your father, I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have—if you can do that at 27 years old, that’s 1 in 10,000 could do that.”

When his Fox News interlocutor noted that Kim has “still done some really bad things,” Trump replied, “Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”

With that attitude, it’s not surprising that Trump puts so little stock in the values that the United States has traditionally shared with its allies and that have undergirded even fairly Realpolitik notions of U.S. interests in world affairs.

This is the biggest worry that Trump has fomented—a worry that’s been stirring since he took office but that his behavior this past week has sharpened to full focus: the possibility that the greatest danger to everything worth valuing about America is Trump himself.