Other than the Democratic Party, no group came together as unified in opposition to Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy than conservative foreign policy experts. And perhaps because those experts have been systematically excluded from its ranks, there are few areas where the Trump administration has been so incoherent. There can be no disputing that what this president says and what his administration does are often two very different things when it comes to Russia, China, North Korea, and many other challenges. And that creates a unique vulnerability for Trump as he waltzes, confusingly, into the 2020 election.
After a respite from foreign policy crises—because everything has been eclipsed by the coronavirus, Trump dove back in recently in response to a question about the health of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, rumored to be in bad shape after heart surgery. “I just have to say to Kim Jong-un, good luck,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I’ve had a very good relationship with him. I can only say this, I wish him well.” Well, isn’t that nice.
Remember, this is the head of the last Stalinist state in the world—a dictator who has executed officials with a rocket propelled grenade launcher and reportedly put members of his own family before a firing squad; a man who has illegal nuclear weapons and missile programs; and a leader who, with his family, has imprisoned, starved, and murdered millions. Indeed, Donald Trump may be the only person on earth who actually does wish Kim well.
But the Trump administration has been far less sympathetic to “Dear Respected” Kim (his chosen sobriquet). Despite some serious White House wavering on the imposition of sanctions (in service to his desperate desire to forge an Iran-like deal with Pyongyang), the Treasury Department has imposed an array of additional sanctions on North Korea, and the State Department has blocked Chinese and Russian efforts in the United Nations to ease international strictures on the hermit kingdom.
A similar dissonance affects our Russia policy. Trump has been famously fond of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, a fondness that has caused him no end of woe (see, e.g., Mueller, Robert) but appears not to have diminished his early ardor:
Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only “stupid” people, or fools, would think that it is bad! We have enough problems around the world without yet another one. When I am President, Russia will respect us far more than they do now and both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!
Recently, he mused that Russia should rejoin the G-7, the group of the world’s seven most economically influential nations (Russia was ousted from what had been the G-8 over its annexation of Crimea), and he questioned the notion that Putin interfered in U.S. elections.
But, as I wrote in an earlier piece for The Dispatch (comparing Trump to Bernie Sanders), the president’s mawkish affection for Putin has not kept his administration from its relentless punishment of Russia: Sanctions on Russian entities, Russian oil and gas business, and Russian individuals and lethal arms to Ukraine, support for the forward deployment of NATO troops to the Baltics, and more. Barely a month goes by without additional steps to smack team Putin. And even more ironically, notwithstanding Trump’s protestations of Russia’s innocence, the United States launched a major cyber-attack against Russia in retaliation for interference in the U.S. midterm elections in 2018.
Ditto with China, and there’s no better place to start than with the coronavirus. Here’s Trump:
Yet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apparently disagrees, noting recently that “there’s been some discussion about China and what they knew and when they knew it. The world is entitled to know.”
Despite the quasi-schizophrenic nature of the president’s pronouncements about the “Wuhan” or “Chinese virus,” the bottom line is that once again, the majority of Donald Trump’s encomia for Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping belie the first significant shift in U.S.-China policy since Henry Kissinger coaxed Beijing into joining the world. Whether pushing back militarily in the South China Sea, slamming Xi and friends for rampant intellectual property theft, hitting Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei for their service to the CCP, or sanctioning individuals and companies for Chinese brutality in Hong Kong and Xinjiang (against the Uighur Muslims), the Trump administration has been tough as nails. Even the trade war, whose mindless omni-direction has too often rebounded back to harm Americans, has woken the world to the perils of allowing the People’s Republic free rein.
This Janus-like foreign policy extends to NATO, to Europe, and beyond. Indeed, the only area where rhetoric matches reality is on Iran, where the president has talked tough—despite evincing a strong desire to pull a Kim Jong-un—and been tougher. And it has opened up the president to accusations that his own administration is flouting him and pursuing hard-nosed policies of which he is blissfully unaware. In short, say his critics, he is at once soft on dictators and so incompetent that he doesn’t realize his own employees are defying him. This, it should go without saying, is a huge liability.
Much like Trump’s Twitter feed, which offers historical evidence of his own hypocrisy on almost every matter from taxes to immigration to use of force, Trump’s national security muddle promises to be a liability as he faces up to former Vice President Joe Biden, who believes his foreign policy cred is one of his greatest assets. The two are already trading accusations that the other is soft on China. Democrats have also slammed Trump’s efforts at engagement with North Korea—despite previous administrations playing exactly the same game and earlier expressions of alarm that Trump seemed determined to get into a war with North Korea.
The script for the Democratic campaign writes itself: Soft on Russia, soft on China, soft on North Korea, and—in the only instance where he should have accepted being soft—too tough on Iran, which has now restarted its nuclear weapons program “thanks to” Donald Trump.
Three and a half years in, the prospect of Trump maturing in office is slim. But if he is successfully to pursue what are arguably important changes in policy, he’s going to need at least to own up to his doctrine of speaking lovingly and carrying a big stick. Otherwise he’s likely to discover that his administration’s genuine achievements in isolating powers like Russia and China will be buried beneath the tales of his dictator-fawning. And that actually would be a shame.
Photograph by Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.