I was interested to read Rod Dreher’s interview with William Reno. Professor Reno recounts some of what he has heard from diplomats and officials in Africa regarding their reactions to U.S. foreign policy under Trump:
The exchange was with a former foreign minister of an East African country. We spoke several months ago while I was in his country to meet with army officers for my research on civil–military relations. Well read and well informed, he expressed distress over what he saw as the Trump Administration’s attack on the foundations of American power in the world. He compared Trump to Gorbachev. I was curious about this comparison, given that most Americans generally view Gorbachev in a positive light.
He explained that Russians know Gorbachev as the man who destroyed a superpower. He said that “Trump is your Gorbachev” because he is also destroying his country’s global power.
The Gorbachev comparison is notable because more than a few people made a similar claim about Obama during his presidency. This was always intended as an insult based on the assumption that Obama was presiding over and/or bringing about American decline. I suppose we could have two Gorbachev-like presidents in a row despite their having almost nothing in common with each other, but it makes me wonder if we shouldn’t look for a different comparison that matches Trump a little better.
Trump is widely perceived to be doing harm to “the foundations of American power,” and I don’t think the perception is wrong, but the manner in which he’s doing it makes the comparison with Gorbachev a little strange. If Trump is weakening the U.S., he is doing it mostly through sheer ineptitude, dangerous bluster, and an obsession with “strength.” In that respect, he risks sapping American power in much the same way that George W. Bush did starting back in 2002-03: battering and abusing alliances, threatening to start at least one war, and abandoning international agreements made under previous administrations. Bush did all of that while claiming that he was embracing America’s global “leadership” role, but the deleterious effects on American power and influence were far greater in Bush’s first term than anything Trump has done so far.
The key difference between Bush and Trump is that Trump is content to let his administration drift aimlessly on most foreign policy issues while dwelling on terrorism, Iran, and North Korea almost to the exclusion of everything else. That is one reason why Trump doesn’t value the State Department, and it helps explain why he doesn’t care that there are no appointees for most confirmable positions there. Reno describes the effect this is having abroad:
That’s fine in some respects, but combined with the weakening of the State Department and the failure to fill appointment positions, we’re left with a strategy of tactics, and that’s actually not a strategy at all. Left to its devices, the military keeps chasing bad guys and the mission creeps. There’s no guidance, no strategic thinking [bold mine-DL]. It’s bad enough that a Norwegian diplomat with whom I had lunch in an East African capital lamented that he doesn’t know who to talk to in the US embassy. Most of the experts left and no one is in charge, he said.
Based on what he has done so far, Trump appears to think that conducting foreign policy is limited to making speeches, issuing threats, ordering attacks, and escalating wars. The routine work of maintaining relationships with other governments is allowed to fall by the wayside. That doesn’t remind me of Gorbachev so much as it reminds me of an absentee landlord who can’t be bothered with the work required of him.