Most children learn early on the art of connecting the dots. Draw a line from one dot to another in a logical pattern and an image begins to emerge. The art of foreign policy has similar characteristics. Policy makers try to connect the dots, attempting to imagine the ways their decision will effect the larger picture as it currently exists.
President Trump seems to have a particular problem connecting the dots, and his willingness to ignore advice from a bureaucracy he viscerally mistrusts only makes his decision making process more dangerous for two reasons. First, he has no intrinsic knowledge of foreign policy to fall back on. Second, that lack of knowledge leaves him especially dependent on his inner circle of advisors, such as Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, who have little policymaking experience of their own and seem to have agendas that at times conflict with, not only the President’s, but with one another.
The result has been a chaotic hodgepodge of policy statements, leaving the administration open to allegations of ineptitude. The consequence has been a series of backtracks and embarrassing climb downs as the administration tries to defuse the blow back from its poor judgement.
The list grows longer by the day. He’s been forced to walk back comments on using Washington’s ties to Taiwan as a bargaining chip in America’s relationship with Beijing; NATO’s usefulness; a requirement Mexico foot the bill for a boarder wall; moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and advocating nuclear weapons for Japan and South Korea. In each case he’s been unable to connect the dots to create a picture of what may happen if his ideas were translated into policy.
More worrying, Trump doesn’t seem to connect the dots between America’s global position and its use of soft power, economic integration — through international organizations and free trade agreements — and alliances to maintain that unique position. His ignorance threatens to do permanent damage to the international system that has underpinned US security since 1945.
The president’s request for a $54 billion increase in defense spending accompanied by a 28% decrease in the budgets of U.S. AID and the State Department suggests he doesn’t understand the strong correlation between a robust diplomatic corp, international aid and US global influence. But his lack of vision goes beyond dollars and cents.
He questions the viability of the European Union, unable to connect the dots between its continued vitality and the West’s ability to counter challenges to the international system posed by Russia, China and Iran.
He alienates American allies, unable to connect the dots between US global leadership and the system of alliances it has painstakingly nurtured over the decades.
And he threatens to withdraw America from the Paris Agreement, unable to connect the dots between US withdrawal and China’s aspiration to global leadership.
When policymakers are able to connect the dots successfully, Nixon normalizing relations with China to balance the Soviet Union, for instance, the result is a new landscape that seems as if it should have been that way all along. Failure to connect the dots properly can lead to years of chaos and instability as seen most recently in the Bush administration’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein.
Every administration, at times, has failed to properly connect the dots and even the most well thought out plan may have to contend with the law of unintended consequences. What is most worrying about Trump, however, is the sheer number of times he has failed to connect the dots in the short period of time he’s been in office — the consequences, though perhaps unintended, were obvious, if only Trump had the intellectual curiosity to see beyond the immediate.
The recent US missile attack on a Syrian airbase in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons suggests three things that offer a glimmer of hope in what has, thus far, been an inept administration. First, Trump appears to have abandoned his unrealistic position of supporting Assad’s fight against terrorists while, at the same time, working to diminish Iranian influence regionally. Second, Steve Bannon seems to have been further marginalized — a process that first became apparent when he lost his position on the NSC. It is unlikely Bannon would have approved of the attack and suggests H. R. McMaster’s influence is growing. And finally, the limited nature of the strike suggests the administration did understand the ramifications of its action, and struck a well thought out line between escalating the confrontation in a way that wouldn’t precipitate a direct Russian response, and defending the international communities long-held belief that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. Only time will tell if Trump is finally learning the difference between running for office and holding office. Unfortunately his past words and actions leave many doubting his true motivations for launching the air strikes.
One can only hope that as the administration matures so too will its ability to
formulate a coherent operating principle. Given the rise of China, the renewed challenge of Russia and the uncertainty in Europe, the Post WW II international order seems more vulnerable than at any time since the late 1940’s. How Trump chooses to connect the dots, the picture his policies ultimately produce, may have permanent repercussions on the liberal democratic order and America’s place in the international system.
Rick LaVere is a graduate student at New York University and has previously been published in Combat Aircraft Magazine and International Politics Reviews.