This column spends a lot of time looking into the latest disagreements of the Foreign Policy Establishment: Council on Foreign Relations and the Wilson Center and the Brookings Institution and the alphabet soup of AEI, CSIS, SAIS, IISS, FPRI, ECSS, ECFR, PIEE, ISIS (the “good one”); RAND; CEIP; GMF; EUIS and countless others. Here’s a rare treat: Nearly all these think-tanks and educational institutions and grant-providers and assortments of cranky old foreign-service employees have finally united on a common opinion: Donald Trump is the greatest blow to U.S. foreign relations, allied unity and just plain manners in the history of the Republic.
So, who disagrees? Robert Blackwill, for one. Blackwill, former ambassador to India and deputy national security adviser for strategic planning, current senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and distinguished scholar at the Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, author of “War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft,” and all around Scowcroftian straight shooter, has written a new study for the Council on Foreign relations titled: “Trump’s Foreign Policies Are Better Than They Seem.” That headline isn’t exactly a rabid endorsement, but it’s still enough to set the fore-mentioned Establishment on its ear. Blackwill and I discussed it this week; here is a lightly edited version of our interview:
Tobin Harshaw: Let’s start with this special report. What prompted you to do this? At an event the other day at the Council on Foreign Relations you talked about your disappointment with the press, and how it had piled on Trump reflexively rather than look at what you see as some global achievements.
Robert Blackwill: I had a growing feeling that the pundits and the news media, even the reputable outlets, were looking primarily at his character and his lack of process, without examining the policies in a detailed, objective way. So last November, I decided to write something about this. I ended up with 35,000 words.
TH: So you gave him letter grades at the end of every analysis of the major issues. Why?
RW: The notion of grading him came pretty late in the process. But I chose to do so especially since he has graded himself – with an A-plus of course. TH: The title of the essay includes the “better than they seem” caveat, so it seems like a bit of a backhanded compliment. Explain how you went about grading him on a curve.
RB: I compare it to his policies – not his tweets – and how I thought they registered with respect to the U.S. national interest. That was my only criterion. I think on the issue of American values, he gets an F pretty easily, if you look at what he has said – his assault on democratic institutions and alliances.
TH: Let’s talk about what I think are going to be some of the most controversial grades. You give China policy a B-plus. So given the near-universal condemnation in the West of the trade war, and how friendly personally he has been with Xi Jinping, what do you think has done right?
RB: Well, he has departed dramatically from the policies of his three immediate predecessors. As China has risen in the world, all of them talked about partnership, even strategic partnership, with China. But China was stealing billions in intellectual property from the United States, threatening Taiwan, undermining our alliances, and so forth. Trump has portrayed a different picture of China, which is that it seeks to replace the U.S. as the primary power in Asia. And it’s attempting to develop a grand strategy to accomplish that. That’s an enormously important change. The crucial point is using his bully pulpit to educate the American people and Congress on what the rise of Chinese power means for the United States.
TH: Saudi Arabia. Given the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the brutal war in Yemen, the movement in Congress to shut off arms sales, you give Saudi policy of very high grade: B-plus. Can you explain that?
RW: I do because I think that the president has a longer timeline than his critics. The crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, is likely to be king of Saudi Arabia for five decades. I am heavily influenced by the way George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft dealt with Tiananmen Square, which was to try to salvage the U.S.-China relationship in the midst of this horrible massacre. Likewise, the murder of the Washington Post columnist is tragic and brutal and horrific and all the rest. But I believe that it is not a justification for rupturing the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
TH: Nearest and dearest to my heart is NATO. You give him a D on NATO policy. But you also note that spending on the European Deterrence Initiative has vastly increased. The Europeans are slowly spending more on defense, maybe because Trump pilloried them. Trump wants to put a permanent presence in Poland, and Poland wants to pay for a new base. On the other side, obviously, he dissed Merkel, Macron, Trudeau, etc. He questioned whether any American should die for Montenegro. So where does that balance out?
RW: It balances out in the long term versus the short term. NATO is now better able to defend itself than any time the last 15 years. But as you also say, unfortunately, at the same time he’s called into question whether U.S. will live by its treaty commitments, and whether he regards NATO as an important element of American power projection. I’m afraid this question about NATO is going to last beyond his presidency.
TH: There’s a thought in the foreign-policy community that the Europeans can endure four years of Trump, but not eight years of Trump. Do you think that if he is re-elected it will have a very long-term effect in terms of America withdrawing from the world?
RW: I don’t join those who beat the drum of America withdrawing from the world. We are involved in every diplomatic challenge around the world. We have military forces around the world, and are in two combat situations. President Obama was conflicted about using American force. This president talks about wishing to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan and Syria. But in my view that’s not a withdrawal from the world. Those would be sensible decisions on an analytical basis.
TH: In the introduction to your study you cite my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Hal Brands and his definition of grand strategy as “the conceptual architecture that lends structure and formed to foreign policy.” This administration has at least two more years. Is there a chance to achieve that? Have the odds lessened as the so-called Adults in the Room such as Secretary of Defense Mattis have departed, and Trump apparently is getting Trumpier?
RW: Well, hope springs eternal. But I see no evidence of that, because I think the president does not have a stable enough view of the world and America’s place in it for the administration to reach derivative policies coming from that grand view of the world. He changes his mind all the time. There are the countervailing policies on NATO. He says he wants to stop these little wars, and then he threatens to use military force in Venezuela.
TH: At the event at the CFR the other day, you were asked if there is an actual “Trump Doctrine.” You gave what I thought was a pretty interesting answer, to the effect that we often only know a president’s foreign policy doctrine after he leaves office.
RW: It’s after they’ve acted – not after they leave office. So they take actions and then smart people around them say, oh, that’s the Carter Doctrine. But it wasn’t as if the president had this doctrine before there was a series of events that led him to act. That’s mostly the American presidential experience.
TH: Is there a predecessor for Trump, who has no doctrine obviously at this point, who came around to it in the second half of the first term and can give us some hope?
RW: None come to your mind. But there are several examples of presidents who got a lot better after the first couple of years than they were at the outset. And that’s because in our system we often elect presidents who don’t have much experience in foreign policy. Jack Kennedy is a really good example, in that he had a disastrous first year. But he learned. And what makes me melancholy is that I don’t see any learning going on with this president.
– – –
Harshaw writes editorials on national security and the military for Bloomberg Opinion.