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Stephen Walt on the Coming Trump Train Wreck

Will other self-described advocates of realism and restraint listen to one of their own?

Stephen Walt pulls no punches in his assessment of Trump’s behavior as President-elect and President, and how it will affect America’s international position.

First of all, he’s alienated himself from the people he’d need to execute his policies:

Government bureaucrats have been held in low regard for a long time, which makes them an easy target. But you also can’t do anything in public policy without their assistance, and my guess is that Americans will be mighty unhappy when budget cuts, firings, resignations, and the like reduce government performance even more. Get ready for a steady drip, drip, drip of leaks and stories emanating from dedicated civil servants who are committed to advancing the public interest and aren’t going to like being treated with contempt and disdain by a bunch of hedge fund managers, wealthy Wall Streeters, or empty suits like Energy Secretary Rick Perry, all led by President Pinocchio.

Cue the resignation of the entire State Department management team. These are by and large not policy people — they’re the people who make the building (and its global outposts) run. We still don’t know why the mass exodus happened, whether it was a political decision by Trump, a gesture of protest, or a response to the treatment of one particular individual. But I have no doubt we’ll learn more soon enough, both from the people who resigned and from the voluminous leakers at the White House.

Then, there are the problems with his foreign policy outlook:

As I’ve noted repeatedly, a few elements of Trump’s worldview make sense, such as his aversion to nation-building in the greater Middle East. But as Jessica Mathews points out in an important essay in the New York Review of Books, Trump and key advisors like Michael Flynn also believe Islamic extremism is a mortal danger and have promised to get rid of the Islamic State right away. But how do you do that, and how do you make sure the Islamic State doesn’t come back, if you aren’t busy invading, occupying, and nation-building in the areas where it and other extremist movements live and recruit? In fact, Islamic extremism is a problem but not an existential threat, which is why the United States does not need to try to transform the whole region. But Trump doesn’t seem to see things this way.

Cue Trump’s apparent intention to intervene more aggressively in Syria than the Obama Administration did. Personally, I don’t think he intends to do anything of the sort — I think the announcement merely proves that nobody in the White House knows what they are advocating. But that’s if anything even worse.

Walt goes on to point out that Trump’s approach to China so far (picking fights over the South China Sea while withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-lateral trade pact designed to counter China economically), seems destined to weaken America’s position and strengthen China’s, while his failure to articulate a clear strategy towards Russia has kept alive suspicions that his overtures are driven by a corrupt bargain rather than a view of the national interest. His conclusion:

So where does this leave us? Way too soon to tell, but I’ll hazard two guesses. First, foreign and defense policies are going to be a train wreck, because they don’t have enough good people in place, the people they have appointed don’t agree on some pretty big issues (e.g., NATO), the foreign-policy “blob” will undercut them at every turn, and Trump himself lacks the discipline or strategic vision to manage this process and may not care to try. Even if you agree with his broad approach, his team is going to make a lot more rookie mistakes before they figure out what they are doing.

Second, get ready for a lot of unexpected developments and unintended consequences. If the United States is giving up its self-appointed role as the “indispensable nation” and opting instead for “America First,” a lot of other countries will have to rethink their policies, alignments, and commitments. Unraveling a long-standing order is rarely a pretty process, especially when it happens quickly and is driven not by optimism but by anger, fear, and resentment. I’ve long favored a more restrained U.S. grand strategy, but I also believed that that process had to be done carefully and above all strategically. That doesn’t appear to be President Trump’s approach to anything, which means we are in for a very bumpy ride to an unknown destination.

I wholeheartedly agree. And I’m listening closely to see whether other self-described advocates of realism and restraint join the chorus of opposition, or continue to delude themselves that Trump is a useful vehicle for their perspective.

UPDATE: A friend sends me this Diplopundit blog post to suggest that things aren’t nearly as bad as the coverage has made it seem, at least on the State Department personnel front:

Today, WaPo reports that the “entire senior management team just resigned.” In addition to U/S Kennedy stepping down, others named includes A/Barr, CA/Bond, DS/Gentry, all career diplomats, and presumably are retiring from the Foreign Service. Previous departures include OBO’s non-career appointee, Lydia Muniz o/a January 20, and Diplomatic Security’s Greg Starr who retired a week before inauguration.

As we have noted before in this blog, U/S Kennedy has been the Under Secretary for Management since 2007. He is the longest serving “M in the history of the State Department, and only the second career diplomat to encumber this position. U/S Kennedy’s departure is a major change, however, it is not unexpected.

The “M” family of offices is the train that runs the State Department, it also affects every part of employees lives in the agency. But there are 13 offices under the “M” group.  Four departures this week including Kennedy, plus two previous ones do not make the “entire” senior management.  If there are other retirements we are not hearing, let us know.  But as one former senior State Department official told us  too much hyperventilation at the moment “is distracting from things that really are problematic.”  

The challenge now for Mr. Tillerson who we expect will be confirmed as the 69th Secretary of State next week, is to find the right successor to lead the “M” group.  We hope he picks one who knows the levers and switches in Foggy Bottom and not one who will get lost in the corridors.

I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job, generally, of not jumping on every story about how the sky is falling (you’ll note I’ve said nothing about Betsy DeVos), but I may have jumped the gun here. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, I don’t retract anything about my admiration for Walt’s article.