How to Fail in Foreign Affairs

Upon his arrival at the presidency, any individual disposes of a considerable array of tools to influence foreign policy. The most important national security apparatus in the world is loyally at his disposal.

Since the title of President of the United States has been bestowed upon him, Donald Trump has taken great pains to devalue the work and impact of the men and women who give their best – and sometimes their lives – to protect their country.

In a brilliant and insightful exposé, CNN’s chief national security correspondent and former diplomat Jim Sciutto provides ample munitions to those who, like me, think that the 45th president is a threat for the future of the United States as a world leader. And the title of his book, The Madman Theory: Trump Takes on the World is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s reckless tactics trying to bully his way to end the Vietnam War. As history recalls, his gambit failed.

One doesn’t need to spend an inordinate amount of time following international politics to understand how much Trump is in a league of his own. I was shocked to read the details about how the standard bearer of American values abandoned his Kurdish allies in the space of 2 phones calls with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – hardly the best ally of the US.

Lots of ink was spent during the current presidential campaign about Ukraine, the dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and the intervention of Trump towards the Ukrainians to seek an investigation – a move Richard Nixon probably would have approved when he was in the Oval Office. Doing so, the president tossed aside the duty of reserve any normal statesman would respect and functioned outside the established channels and methods. Jim Sciutto writes that this “[…] shadow foreign policy was so far outside the normal process that it ran contradictory to it—and that appeared to be the intention.”

Donald Trump does not respect his diplomats, his machinery of government, his allies and his counterparts.

And, to the chagrin of any James Bond enthusiast (RIP Sean Connery, who passed away just a few hours ago), Donald Trump hates spies.

Let me quote the author at length:

“In his view, foreign spies do more harm than good, in particular to his personal relationships with foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin. […]” He ““believes we shouldn’t be doing that to each other,” one former Trump administration official told me. In private conversations, President Trump has repeatedly expressed opposition to the use of foreign intelligence from covert sources, including overseas spies who provide the US government with crucial information about hostile countries.”

Let’s just say I’m happy Trump was not the leader of the free world during the Cold War. We probably would be living in a much different world, and probably not the best. I think Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush would agree with me.

Disliking spies who often helped prevent doomsday scenarios – as it often happened during history, but Trump doesn’t read, so how could he care – and lacking trust in his national security are alarming enough. But Trump goes even further in blindly accepting the rationale of Vladimir Putin (about Russia’s interference in US elections), not holding Kim Jong-un responsible for the death of American citizen Otto Warmbier (after his release from North Korea) or mentioning that Iran’s shooting of a US drone was probably a mistake made by a general. You can’t invent that. I could also mention how Trump capitulated to China in his trade deal with Beijing, highlighting the fact that this man is ill-equipped to occupy the function he does. But I think you get the point.

To his credit, Trump has brought NATO countries to invest more of their budget on defence, which is no small feat given the manifest abhorrence of Western countries to spend more in that domain. I would also be very curious to know what’s the author’s analysis about the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries in the Persian Gulf like the UAE and Bahrain. This major development will have lasting consequences in global geopolitics and the 45th president will have played a determining role at that level. It is still unclear why and how he did it, but I’m sure this would be an excellent sequel book for Jim Sciutto.

I have been devouring books about US presidents since childhood. My understanding is that each of them had a sense of history. That was until Donald Trump came to Washington. He seems consumed with the tyranny of short-term impact, a notion that is reflected in his anti-intellectualism.

Every president who took office at the White House became a consumer of intelligence reports and information. This is a vital aspect of commanding the number 1 power on the surface of the planet. But, once again, Donald Trump defies the norm. His national security can’t get him to even read “[…] the day’s topics into three simple bullet points on a single note card”, therefore generating the need to restrict the information submitted to the man sitting in the Oval Office and making him less aware of vital threats to the country – and there are not a few.

All of this would be entertaining if the consequences were not potentially tragic.

Apart from the troubling rationale documented by Jim Sciutto, The Madman Theory is an insightful and fast-paced book that should be mandatory reading for any student of international relations.

_______________

Jim Sciutto, The Madman Theory: Trump Takes On the World, New York, Harper, 2020, 320 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Jonathan Jao and Leslie Cohen of HarperCollins for providing me with a version of this book.

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