At the heart of Donald Trump’s foreign policy team lies a glaring contradiction.
On the one hand, it is composed of men of experience, judgment and traditionalism. Meaning, they are all very much within the parameters of mainstream American internationalism as practiced since 1945. Practically every member of the foreign policy team could fit in a Cabinet put together by, say, Hillary Clinton.
The commander in chief, on the other hand, is quite the opposite – inexperienced, untraditional, unbounded. His pronouncements on everything from the “one China” policy to the two-state (Arab-Israeli) solution, from NATO obsolescence to the ravages of free trade, continue to confound and, as we say today, disrupt.
Can this arrangement possibly work? The answer thus far, surprisingly, is: perhaps.
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The sample size is tiny but take, for example, the German excursion. Trump dispatched his grown-ups – Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – to various international confabs in Germany to reassure allies with the usual pieties about America’s commitment to European security. They did drop a few hints to Trump’s loud complaints about allied parasitism, in particular shirking their share of the defense burden.
Within days, Germany announced a 20,000-man expansion of its military. Smaller European countries are likely to take note of the new setup. It’s classic good-cop, bad-cop: The secretaries represent foreign policy continuity but their boss preaches America First. Message: Shape up.
This suggests that the peculiar and discordant makeup of the U.S. national security team – traditionalist lieutenants, disruptive boss – might reproduce the old Nixonian “Madman Theory.” That’s when adversaries tread carefully because they suspect the U.S. president of being unpredictable, occasionally reckless and potentially crazy dangerous. Henry Kissinger, with Nixon’s collaboration, tried more than once to exploit this perception to pressure adversaries.
Sometimes an off-center comment can have its uses. Take Trump’s casual dismissal of a U.S. commitment to a two-state solution in the Middle East. The next day, U.S. policy was brought back in line by his own U.N. ambassador. But this diversion might prove salutary. It’s a message to the Palestinians that their decades of rejectionism may not continue to pay off with an inexorable march toward statehood.
To be sure, a two-track, two-policy, two-reality foreign policy is risky, unsettling and has the potential to go totally off the rails. It’s unstable and confusing. But the experience of the first month suggests that, with prudence and luck, it can yield the occasional benefit – that the combination of radical rhetoric and conventional policy may induce better behavior both in friend and foe.
Alas, there is also a worst-case scenario. It needs no elaboration.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.