The Slatest

How Trump Creates His Own Foreign Policy Realities

Donald Trump waves as he descends the stairs down from Air Force One.
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives aboard Air Force One at Paya Lebar Air Base Sunday in Singapore. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In one of the most famous summations of the George W. Bush administration, an anonymous White House aide—widely believed to be Karl Rove, though he denied it—dismissed the administration’s critics as the “reality based community,” telling the New York Times in 2004, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.” With respect to Bush’s team, when it comes to creating new realities through ceaseless action, they were rank amateurs compared with Donald Trump.

We’ve seen the Trump administration’s skill at creating its own realities over the past few days in Trump’s interactions with two leaders, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. On Saturday, Trump, tweeting from his plane leaving the G-7 summit in Canada, blasted Trudeau for making “false statements at his news conference” after acting “meek and mild” at the summit, saying that in response, he had instructed U.S. reps not to sign the G-7 communiqué to which he had previously agreed. Trump advisers Larry Kudlow and Peter Navarro then attacked Trudeau on Sunday news shows, accusing him of having stabbed the president in the back.

What did Trudeau actually say to elicit this response? That it was “kind of insulting” for Trump to imply that trade with Canada constituted a national security threat given the long alliance between the two countries, and that Canada would apply retaliatory measures to any U.S.
tariffs. This statements did not represent a change in the Canadian position or even with rhetoric used in the past. Now, however, thanks to Trump’s thin skin and big megaphone, a long-standing dispute over tariffs—which Trump is not even entirely wrong about—has become a personal beef between two world leaders.

As for Kim, Trump has obviously shifted the dynamics of the storyline, going from taunting him as “little rocket man” and threatening “fire and fury” to Tuesday’s statements about their “terrific relationship” and what an “honor” it was to meet the dictator. Even commentators (like me) who were mostly critical of the agreement that came out of the summit breathed a sigh of relief today; good relations between these two nations are preferable to the alternative, which is catastrophic war. But as others have noted, the war scenario was mostly on the table because Trump put it there. Obviously, it’s not Trump’s fault that Kim now has an operational nuclear deterrent. He was well on his way to acquiring one before Trump came into office. But he also still has one today. And judging from the vague commitments in Tuesday’s agreement, he’s not giving it up any time soon. The U.S. was living with the alarming reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea before, and still is. The difference is that Trump leapt at the opportunity to ratchet up the tension, then released it. No doubt the comparatively low-stakes drama with Trudeau will get a similar, if short-lived, resolution soon.

At the end of his press conference Tuesday, Trump admitted that in six months he may find out he was wrong about Kim. “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that,” he said. “I’ll find some kind of excuse.” By then, after all, he’ll have created a brand-new storyline for us to study.