War Stories

Who Speaks for the United States?

In the era of Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo, U.S. foreign policy has become totally incoherent.

President Donald Trump and national security adviser John Bolton.
President Donald Trump and national security adviser John Bolton.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and Charly Triballeau–Pool/Getty Images.

Tuesday’s New York Times story on the serious disagreements between President Donald Trump and national security adviser John Bolton misses the bigger picture—namely, that Trump is having disagreements with his entire foreign policy team. To put it another way, it is impossible to say just what U.S. foreign policy is—or, to put it more starkly still, the United States has no foreign policy.

The Times story focuses on disputes over Iran and North Korea. Bolton has described North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s latest short-range missile tests as violations of a U.N. Security Council resolution; Trump says they’re no big deal. Bolton has called for regime change in Iran; Trump said last week in Japan that he’s fine with the current regime, as long as it stays away from nuclear weapons.

But this dispute involves more players than Trump and Bolton. State Department spokespeople, as well as National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, have said—in agreement with Bolton—that the North Korean tests violated a Security Council resolution. Trump stands utterly alone in his view that Kim is an honorable, trustworthy partner.

On Iran, in contrast with what Trump says now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently laid out 12 preconditions for holding talks. Among the demands were that Tehran stop testing ballistic missiles, stop assisting militias in the region, and make several other concessions that would amount, in effect, to a regime change.

And of course, there are his long-standing disputes, over a host of issues, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, various combatant commands, and pretty much the entire intelligence community.

Imagine if you were a world leader who wants to align, or improve relations, with the United States. What do you do? Do you agree with—and act in ways that advance the policies of—the president, the secretary of state, or the national security adviser? It’s impossible to placate all of them simultaneously. So you begin to wonder: Who speaks for the United States?

Imagine that Iran’s leadership wanted to open negotiations with the Trump administration. This would be a risky move; whoever took that step, given the thick record of Trump’s hostility, would have to be pretty certain that an overture would be embraced. But how far would the overture have to go? Would it be enough to stop and dismantle the nuclear program (essentially reasserting the Obama-era deal, perhaps under a different name), or would accepting at least some of Pompeo’s 12 points be necessary?

Or imagine you’re Pompeo. You’ve spent the past 2½ years amassing political power—first as CIA director, now as the nation’s top diplomat—by parroting the president’s views, then extrapolating them into a formal policy. This is what those 12 preconditions were all about. Pompeo saw that Trump hated the Iran nuclear deal, hated the Iranian leadership, wanted his “maximum pressure” to look like a way to get a new and better deal, but really didn’t want a deal at all. The 12 preconditions, which no leader of a sovereign nation could possibly accept, fit the bill. Now Trump says he’ll talk with Iran—he wants to talk with Iran, he even gave Swiss intermediaries his phone number so the Iranians could call him—simply if they promise no nukes (ignoring that the Obama-era nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew, ensured just that). How does Pompeo go about parroting Trump now?

This schism and confusion come at a time when the cosignatories of the original 2015 nuclear deal—including the European Union, China, and Russia, as well as other countries, such as India and Brazil—are balking at the Trump administration’s threat to impose sanctions on any entity that buys Iranian oil. What are the leaders of those countries supposed to think: that the sanctions are a new reality that they need to deal with, or that Trump is just bluffing, hoping for renewed talks on different terms? Trump acts on impulse, without planning for what happens tomorrow. But most national leaders, financiers, and businesspeople don’t act that way. They like to see a plan, or at least to know which way the road is curving. Trump is spinning the world off its axis, giving it the predictability of a magic eight ball.

The fundamental problem is this: Trump doesn’t know what he wants—or, to the extent he does, he has no idea, or a wrongheaded idea, of how to get it. His ghostwritten bestseller The Art of the Deal put it this way:

My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want.

Trump may not have written this passage, but it probably did reflect his thinking. Certainly he came into the White House believing—he said as much many times—that the United States wasn’t getting the best deals because his predecessors didn’t know how to make deals. He didn’t understand—and, it seems, still doesn’t—that dealing with the world, especially the dispersed power centers of the post–Cold War era, is a lot different from dealing with tenants, contractors, or the New York City Buildings Department.

The main difference is that, in dealing with the latter bunch of players, everyone is playing the same game in the same legal and economic framework. The quest involves getting the best terms on the margins.

In international politics, the players have widely varying laws, economic systems, and interests. (Trump’s notion that Kim might be lured to give up his nukes, as part of some deal to develop his country’s waterfront property, is risible.) Let’s stipulate for a moment that Trump pressured North Korea in 2017 in order to drive Kim to the bargaining table and that he’s doing the same now with Iran. Even if those were his motives, pressure alone won’t get the trick done. (Kim went to the bargaining table but only after completing a series of nuclear tests—and even then, he not only gave up nothing at the table, but has pressed on ahead with his nuclear program.)

Another passage in Trump’s book, in a section headlined “Know Your Market,” reads, “Some people have a sense of the market, and some people don’t. … I like to think I have that instinct. That’s why I don’t hire a lot of number crunchers and I don’t trust fancy marketing surveys. I do my own surveys and draw my own conclusions.”

Here is where Trump’s arrogance overtakes his insight. When it comes to dealing with the world, Trump does not know his market. (Given his string of bankruptcies as a businessman, he probably didn’t know the real estate market as well as he pretended either.) Just as he didn’t hire fancy marketing experts in the past, he doesn’t hire—or listen to—fancy foreign policy experts now. During the 2016 election campaign, he once said that he understood ISIS better than the generals. He has said, since taking office, that his presidency deserves an A-plus and that he knows more about technology, drones, trade, the courts—knows more just about everything—than anybody.

He is a shallow man with no book learning and little curiosity about what he doesn’t know. Worse still, he thinks he doesn’t need to know more than what he knows already—that his brain and his instinct are enough to process what’s going on—and that complex briefings and background papers just get in the way.

Trump’s presidency has demonstrated that the United States is still a powerful country. This is why many world leaders treat Trump with kid gloves; it’s why, on his recent trip to Japan, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe laughed at his jokes, shared a round of golf, and let him award a special trophy to the winner of a sumo wrestling contest. Abe knows that Japan needs things from the United States (mainly a security alliance and good trade relations), and he has seen, from interactions with other world leaders, that one way to get them, at least for the next couple of years, is to treat Trump with respect and honor.

But beneath the courtesy, behind the curtains, everyone is trembling. We’re all running with scissors—not least the man in the White House with his finger on the button who can make markets swoon or dive with a few thumb taps on his Twitter feed.