By David K. Shipler
The forces of international affairs usually drive US presidents toward the political center. Wherever they may begin, on the left or the right, presidents tend to feel pulled toward a middle ground, a place of more moderation and hesitation than they might prefer. Confronted by the complexity of crisis and the pragmatic limitations of power, most—not all—end up pursuing centrist policies. These bear marked resemblance to those of their predecessors and successors.
A question now is whether this happens to President Trump. He has staffed his key foreign affairs positions with relatively level heads whose pronouncements are more sober than his own. They often contradict Trump’s dogmatic, threatening tweets and the absolutist, sweeping pledges from his campaign. Trump himself careens from the absurd, scary, and impractical to a more reasonable zone of compromise. Where he will end up on a given issue is highly unpredictable and therefore unsettling across the globe. But his inconsistency also raises intermittent hopes that realities are penetrating policymaking.
A president has more authority in foreign policy than in domestic affairs, since he commands both military force and diplomacy, and can move more quickly than Congress ever does in picking over budget provisions on the tax code, health care, environmental issues, the social safety net, and other government programs to benefit Americans. In that domestic arena, the center has no apparent magnetism for Trump. Despite the difficulties he faces with the Republican-controlled Congress on health care, for example, he is getting win after win for corporations over individuals, and might do so on his tax proposals. Whatever happens in Congress, his regulatory agencies are in the hands of extreme radicals of the right, whom he has installed to dismantle decades of progress.
So if Trump begins to look moderate, and beguiles the American public to see him as such, it will be in the international arena, not the domestic.
“Presumably Mr. Trump will remain impulsive and even impetuous,” Peter Baker wrote in The New York Times, “but he has also been open to advice. He was talked out of lifting sanctions on Russia, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, abandoning the ‘one China’ policy, tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement, reversing the diplomatic opening to Cuba, closing the Export-Import Bank, declaring China a currency manipulator and, in recent days, terminating the North American Free Trade Agreement. He may still do some or all of these, but by waiting, he has the opportunity to lay the groundwork rather than act precipitously.”
Almost every major foreign policy issue besides North Korea is listed in that catalogue of moves toward the middle. And Trump, while doing a good deal of saber-rattling, has made a point of engaging China in efforts to restrain North Korea’s nuclear program through stricter sanctions. It could be that Trump is finding his footing in that middle ground. Or, that could be just wishful thinking about a man who needs to play the tough-guy role and has weapons at his fingertips.
The centrist territory in foreign affairs is broad enough to comprise a mixture of hard and soft policies, of military force and diplomatic initiatives, along with a frustrating inability to control events from Washington. The liberal Barack Obama sought to extricate the US from grinding wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he left entanglements and used military force, especially aggressive drone strikes against al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their offshoots in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, killing many civilians. Conservative leaders, most notably Richard Nixon in opening relations with China, and Ronald Reagan in engaging the Soviet Union under the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, have shown how susceptible presidents can be to the magnetism of the pragmatic center.
The most recent exception to this pattern was George W. Bush, whose adventurism would probably not have been unleashed were it not for the attacks of 9/11. These mobilized the right-wing hawks in his administration to pull him away from the reasonable center and into ill-conceived wars. The invasion of Iraq, based on his zealous aides’ lies about Saddam Hussein’s imaginary stock of weapons of mass destruction, opened the regional vacuum now being filled by ISIS, Iran, and Russia.
Not that Bush should be exonerated for these decisions; he was president and commander-in-chief, after all. And even without 9/11, some extremists in his administration, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, would have been gunning for Saddam. But 9/11 amplified their voices, notwithstanding Iraq’s complete innocence in those attacks. So an interesting argument can be made that without 9/11, Bush would have pursued a centrist foreign policy not unlike Clinton’s before him or Obama’s afterwards.
There has been too much wishful thinking about Trump. The optimists thought that he’d calm down after the primaries and act more presidential during a general campaign. Then, when he didn’t, they thought that if he won, the weight of the presidency would make him more presidential, meaning more considered and nuanced in his decisions. Has it? So far, he’s still more of a showman than a president.
But let’s engage in one more bit of wishful thinking: that the magnetic center in foreign affairs will overcome Trump’s blustering, bullying, narcissistic personality.