I realize that the contemporary American political scene is now, and will be for the coming months, focused on two story streams: the Mueller report and the reactions to the Democratic debates.
Domestic politics dominates the attention of Americans yes, but we must not lose sight of the fundamental importance of foreign affairs. The world is a dangerous place and America is crucial to maintaining peace and security in our world.
To this end, the key figure in American policy making is, of course, the president. America’s problem has always been that we elect our presidents on domestic politics and therefore find ourselves with presidents who often, if not usually, have little or no experience in foreign affairs. And often, little knowledge in the area.
President Trump has been no exception. His international experience has been in the business world, an area that operates differently since self interests dominate.
I wrote in my last article about the president’s propensity to shine up to authoritarian figures. He relishes the forays into big-nation politics. Trouble is he knows little of history or policy considerations and, we are told, does not read his daily briefings on current world affairs.
Trump uses powers given originally to the presidency to punish the world’s worst global actors to manipulate peaceful trade relationships instead. Thus his reckless use of tariffs against friends and foes alike. Tariffs on European allies combined with his disdain for security arrangements like NATO undermine key American friendships.
He met this week with the Prime Minister of Pakistan trying to smooth over bad relationships that go back to his canceling of $1 billion in aide to that country.
Pakistan has been fighting with India since the splitting of India into two countries when it received independence. Both claim a piece of territory called Kashmir and have fought two wars over it. It is a touchy issue with both India and Pakistan. Trump took the visit as an opportunity to claim he was asked to mediate the dispute by the Prime Minister of India. He promptly and flatly denied that happened. Zap goes American influence.
Then Trump talked of the border issues with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan has supported Islamic terrorists on its border and was a supporter of the Taliban when it took control of Afghanistan. Now they have helped bring the Taliban to peace talks.
Pakistan has played both sides. Trump took the occasion to say he could end the war there in 10 days, with 10 million casualties, a veiled threat of nuclear attacks. But then said he wouldn’t do it. What is the world to take from this?
Is Trump willing to use nuclear weapons on Afghanistan if need be? Or on Iran? Or on North Korea? All of which, his hints or even threats, disrupt world diplomacy.
This top-of-your-head tweeting and expounding scares the wits out of most of the world. He does not know about diplomacy. He uses his son in law, who has no experience in the area, to negotiate Middle East peace. He uses a “take your daughter to work” experience at a major conference that leaves world leaders in a quandary.
Our top diplomates seem to be isolated.
Trump is up and down in our relations with Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Headlines in American paper warn of “War with Iran.” Meanwhile Europe is trying to put together a group of nations, pointedly without America, to patrol oil shipment lanes.
While most presidents come into office with little foreign affairs experience, they learn quickly and lean on the experts. Trump shoots from the hip and refuses to learn about the nations of the world and their tendencies.
Domestic politics may be traumatic; foreign affairs can be very dangerous.
Richard Fulton is an emeritus professor of political science.