Mike Pence revealed more in what he didn’t say than what he did say during the very brief foreign policy section in Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate. Pence praised the administration’s record on moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, leaning more on NATO allies to raise defense spending, strengthening “alliances across the Asia Pacific” to counter China, destroying ISIS’s “caliphate,” and launching the strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. He did not mention the president’s nuclear diplomacy with Kim Jong-un—the most high-profile initiative of the first two years of Trump’s term. Nor did he talk about Trump’s trade deal with China or “keeping the oil” in Syria. Most notably, he did not talk about stopping “endless wars,” or bringing home U.S. troops, one of Donald Trump’s signature messages. In fact, Trump announced that same evening on Twitter that remaining troops in Afghanistan would be “home by Christmas.”
The debate was a good reminder that there are actually two Trump administration foreign policies, one led by Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the other by Trump himself, and they only sometimes align. Pence did not mention these policies because he doesn’t agree with them.
For all the talk of how erratic he is, Trump’s foreign policy views are actually very consistent and predictable. He likes one-off transactional deals—preferably including a direct monetary benefit for the U.S.—but puts little value on long-term alliances, which he thinks result in the U.S. getting ripped off. He likes quick, violent displays of U.S. military might like the Soleimani strike but not long-term U.S. troop deployments. He has little regard for multilateral institutions, international law, or human rights principles, and he prefers dealing with the autocratic leaders who feel the same way. He does not see global security as America’s problem and thinks the best way to respond to most crises is to build a wall to keep out the victims.
The reason the Trump administration’s foreign policy often seems incoherent is that, whether through laziness or ignorance, he hasn’t found people who share his views to implement his foreign policy. Instead, he relies on “central casting” generals like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster or Fox News hawks like John Bolton. While he may like their superficial toughness, these men tend to hold the traditional view of Republican (and many Democratic) policymakers that the U.S. should play a role as global leader to counteract autocratic adversaries, by force if necessary. Most of these relationships haven’t lasted. But Pompeo, who appears to have mastered the art of flattering his boss while pursuing his own agenda, has stuck around.
This has resulted in a situation in which, as Micah Zenko and Rebecca Lissner recently put it in Foreign Policy, Trump’s clear preferences “have been explicitly at odds with the administration’s stated goals.” These are the goals laid out in the administration’s own National Security Strategy, which Pompeo is articulating as he travels around Asia seeking allies against China, and which Pence delivered onstage on Wednesday night. Pence didn’t say anything in Salt Lake City that would have been out of place had Paul Ryan said it in 2012 or Dick Cheney in 2004, but he did not sound like a man working for Donald Trump. (Try to imagine Trump using the phrase “we’ve strengthened our alliances across the Asia Pacific.”)
There are areas where the two approaches intersect, but even on those, the points of emphasis are different. Trump clearly relished the opportunity to tear up Barack Obama’s Iran deal and kill Soleimani, but there’s little evidence he shares the regime change goals of hawks in his administration. He wants to remove the troops from Iraq and Syria that the hawks see as necessary to contain Iranian influence and has suggested on numerous occasions that he’s open to holding talks with Iran’s president—likely in pursuit of another Kim Jong-un–style photo-op. While his officials talk about Israel and the Gulf Arab states as key allies for regional security, Trump is more likely to emphasize the former’s electoral utility and the latter as customers for American weaponry.
Pence, during the debate, denigrated Joe Biden as a “cheerleader for communist China” and stated that “China is to blame for the coronavirus.” This is consistent with Trump’s current message but ignores the period earlier this year when Trump was defending Xi Jinping’s handling of the virus while trying to negotiate a new trade deal. Unlike his team, Trump has shown little interest in the security of Taiwan or other U.S. allies in the region, and even less in human rights. He sees China not as a long-term ideological foe but as a country that’s been ripping America off because previous presidents were dumb enough to let them.
The most obvious divide between Trump and the Trump administration is over Russia. Biden referred to Trump as “Putin’s puppy” during their first debate and Kamala Harris said Wednesday night that Trump “prefers to take the word of Vladimir Putin over the word of the American intelligence community.” This is a fair critique based on Trump’s own statements about Russia and Putin, but it’s also true that in many ways this administration has been “tougher” on Russia than its predecessors, imposing strict new sanctions on senior Russian officials and supplying the anti-tank weapons to Ukraine that the Obama administration declined to provide. The U.S. military and Russian mercenaries have even engaged in open combat in Syria under this administration. There’s been extensive reporting that Trump was angered by some of his own administration’s aggressive Russia moves.
The Trump administration’s two-faced foreign policy puts the Democrats running against him in a bit of a quandary. Harris, on Wednesday night, articulated what could be called “the blob” critique of Trump, accusing him of a “unilateral approach to foreign policy, coupled with … isolationism” and having “betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world.” But the attack felt a little flat given that it was not Trump sitting on stage with her, but Pence, mouthing 20-year-old GOP talking points about strength and assertiveness. It also ignores that many of Trump’s stated foreign policy views—if not their implementation or the man stating them—are a lot more popular in the country at large than they are in Washington. In an alternate universe where a Democrat from the party’s progressive wing—say Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders—were onstage, they might choose instead to attack the Trump administration as warmongers. After all, they could point out, for all Trump’s talk of “endless wars,” there are almost as many troops deployed abroad today as when he took office, covert operations in places like Somalia have expanded, the administration has flouted international law with the unilateral strikes on Soleimani and on Bashar al-Assad’s military, and his strategy against ISIS was basically the same as Obama’s except with fewer protections against civilian casualties. Trump could counter, with some justification, that all the “wars” his administration is engaged in were started by his predecessors, and that unlike them he has not started any new ones.
It’s hard to attack the Trump administration’s foreign policy goals, since those change depending on which member of the administration you’re talking to and at which moment. Ultimately, the better approach may be to attack their implementation. This administration claims at times to be trying to reduce America’s global footprint to focus on domestic priorities, and at other times to be acting as a global leader to counter America’s adversaries. It’s doing an extremely bad job of both.
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