President Donald Trump is now embarked on two ambitious foreign policy initiatives — redrawing the rules of international trade and defanging a nuclear-armed North Korea — that represent significant personal gambles. The question is, can he gain something politically from these efforts in the absence of demonstrable accomplishments?
The twin meetings of the past week, beginning with the Group of 7 gathering in Canada and followed immediately by the summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, highlighted a president always willing to shake the traditional order in defiance of norms and procedures. This was how he got elected, and it is how he has operated from the start — governing by breaking crockery.
The G-7 gathering and the Singapore summit taken together highlighted the president’s willingness to go against the grain, to offend his friends when they get under his skin and butter up adversaries in a calculated effort to get his way. His petulant reaction to relatively mild criticism from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (who said he would stand up for his country’s interests) and his praise for one of the world’s most brutal leaders produced head-spinning on all fronts.
What has been on display over the past five days are hallmarks of the Trumpian style: policy initiatives and processes that trample across political and establishment lines, great swings in rhetoric, promises and threats, anger and flattery. But then what? Trump is betting that it adds up to more than constant motion, that it is a winning political strategy in the end. It continues to bind him closely to his base. It infuriates his opponents but often keeps them off balance at the same time.
Trump’s reaction to Trudeau’s post-G-7 news conference — he withdrew U.S. support for the member nations’ joint statement — generated widespread criticism and condemnation (though most elected Republicans remained silent).
And Trump’s approach to North Korea may be even more unconventional. Earlier threats of “fire and fury” may have contributed to Kim’s decision to seek a summit, although successful tests of weapons and ballistic missiles no doubt did as much. But by elevating a ruthless dictator onto the international stage, he handed the North Korean leader a propaganda victory that other presidents were unwilling to grant.
Initial reactions to the public scenes and photo-ops from Singapore were cautiously positive, a reflection of the desire to lower temperatures on the Korean Peninsula. But as Tuesday wore on and more people examined a joint communiqué that was longer on talk of peace and prosperity than on commitments by North Korea to get rid of its weapons, skepticism rose, and judgments of the summit’s value grew harsher.
Many politicians or former government officials see nothing but trouble in the president’s approach. They assert that his economic policies threaten destructive trade wars that would hurt all parties involved, including the U.S. economy and the well-being of American workers and consumers. If he were to focus more singularly on China’s trade policies, he might enjoy broader support.
By squabbling with allies over tariffs, and by invoking national security as the rationale, Trump has weakened relations and perhaps elongated the time it will take to resolve differences. Allies needed on the North Korea negotiations may be warier about working with him. He talks about an expeditious timetable for negotiations for the verifiable and irreversible elimination of the North’s nuclear weapons, yet after almost a year, his administration has not completed renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Republicans hope that in November, the public will set aside questions of presidential behavior, controversial policies and the Russia investigation writ large and look only at the state of the economy, as well as the negotiations with a dangerous adversary to give up its weapons, and see a president standing up for the interests of ordinary Americans, no matter who might be offended around the world.
Trump’s biggest gamble could be his confidence that his unorthodox approach, regardless of the outcomes, will produce tangible political dividends for 2018 and especially 2020. That is an important part of what is at stake now.