On the eve of completing 100 days in office, Trump lamented that he missed his old life. “I loved my previous life,” he told a reporter wistfully. “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”
Yes, Donald Trump believed that being a reality TV host who occasionally slapped his name on a building or a failed steak venture would be tougher and more work than the hardest job on the planet.
And that’s why the first 100 days of his foreign policy has played out basically as you’d expect from the most unqualified and unprepared President in modern history who is clearly out of his league.
That doesn’t mean that the Trump administration’s debut on the world stage has been a complete train wreck — it hasn’t and there have been some positives. But it does mean that Trump’s unpreparedness, recklessness and lack of a strategy are a menace to the world.
Given the way we tend to analyze Presidents, and defer to their judgment on matters of national security, it’s easy to paper over the problem.
Pundits have a natural impulse to assess Trump in a seemingly even-handed way. To appear fair-minded, they look at his recent actions and then weigh up the positives next to the negatives.
But with Trump’s foreign policy, that’s an absurd and naïve way of analyzing him.
Yes, his airstrike on Syria sent an important message that chemical weapons have no place in a civilized world. And yes, the realities of the presidency have constrained him in important ways that led Trump to a much more conventional foreign policy. Those are undoubtedly significant positives worth noting.
But then you remember that he is taking advice during a nuclear standoff with North Korea from his son-in-law, a 36-year-old real estate developer, and his daughter, an equally unqualified jewelry seller.
Next, you recall that there is an active FBI investigation into whether the President and his team actively colluded with America’s main foreign policy adversary, Russia, to undermine the integrity of American elections.
Then, with a jolt, you remember that Trump threatened North Korea with an “armada” that was, in fact, steaming in the opposite direction 3,300 miles from Seoul — misleading the American public and key American allies for days afterward.
And finally, you remember that there is not a single check or balance to stop Trump, an impulsive conspiracy theorist who often appears to live in an alternate reality, from nuking anything he likes.
In other words, trying to judge Trump’s foreign policy through the first 100 days by comparing his actions to the 100 days of Obama or Bush or Clinton or Reagan is a silly mistake. He’s not like them.
Trump is a mercurial and almost proudly ignorant President who has publicly acknowledged that he didn’t really understand North Korea until China’s President briefly gave him a 10 minute Wikipedia-style overview at Mar-a-Lago.
He reversed course on NATO, acknowledging that his earlier view was mistaken because he didn’t know much about the subject.
“People don’t go around asking about NATO if I’m building a building in Manhattan, right?” he recently said in his defense. No, Mr. President, they don’t, but you’re required to seek out knowledge about the United States’ most important alliance and understand basics about North Korea before you enter the Oval Office.
This startling and self-aware lack of preparedness casts a shadow over every other foreign policy move, making even accomplishments seem like accidents.
Tracking the daily news cycle of this administration’s foreign policy misses the point because the point is that the United States is now led by someone who is uniquely unprepared for the role of diplomat to the world and commander-in-chief.
That new reality is the single most important shift in the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency.
But for a moment let’s indulge Trump, play the pundit’s game and try to see how his first 100 days measures up to his predecessors’ in foreign policy.
A disturbing picture emerges. So far, the Trump Doctrine can be summarized as: a flashy mirage of strength with no strategy. And without a strategy, American interests will suffer while an already dangerous world becomes more volatile.
Let’s start with Syria, where the Obama administration’s policy was painfully hesitant if not incoherent.
To his credit, Trump rightly bombed Syria when the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its civilian population.
This is a genuine and important achievement; even if it accomplished nothing else, it put the world on notice that America would not stand idly by against the use of chemical munitions. Inaction on this front is easily the darkest stain on Obama’s presidency, which had its share of foreign policy mistakes.
But after Trump ended his victory lap and pundits stopped swooning over images of “beautiful” cruise missiles exploding into patriotic fire, we were left with a few hard-to-swallow truths.
First, the airstrike achieved no strategic goals beyond, potentially, chemical weapons deterrence. Syria’s butcher was back to barrel-bombing civilians — from the same airfield no less — just hours later.
That’s a problem. Without a shift in U.S. tactics or consistent follow-through, the most likely outcome will be Assad staying in power — or an equally brutal successor also allied with Russia taking his place.
Second, Trump didn’t have a plan for what came next, or any coordinated follow-through with Russia, Turkey or others. That was inevitable, because his administration chose to bomb Syria after stressing that they would not as recently as 24 hours earlier.
The sudden shift was driven by Trump’s whiplash temperament, influenced by images on television — not by any sort of strategic or ideological thought process.
Trump, it turned out, had never really thought about what should trigger U.S. military intervention.
So when he saw images that upset him, that’s what it took.
Not exactly high-level analysis.
We know just how muddled Trump’s thinking is because he repeatedly condemned any airstrikes on Syria under Obama, even when Assad had killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and used chemical weapons multiple times, killing countless “beautiful babies.”
Being reactive to television images does not make a successful foreign policy, and it does not bode well for the future.
Third, Trump inadvertently showed Assad precisely where his “red line” would be: massacring hundreds of thousands of civilians would provoke no response from Washington, so long as Assad murdered his own people with conventional weapons.
You can be sure that harrowing lesson was not lost on the dictators, despots and thugs who brutalize their citizens in dozens of countries far afield from Syria.
Next, there’s North Korea. While Trump is appropriately treating this unstable nuclear regime with the seriousness it warrants, Armadagate — wherein the President and his administration outright lied about the direction that aircraft carrier group was headed — was catastrophically counterproductive.
It did nothing to deter Kim Jong-un, and made the U.S. look like it was bluffing.
Worse, a key presidential contender in South Korea, Hong Joonpyo, said that the deception about the ships had cost the White House one of its most important diplomatic assets: its credibility.
“What Mr. Trump said was very important for the national security of South Korea,” he said. “If that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says.”
The loss of credibility in diplomatic signaling doesn’t make headlines, but America is less safe if governments around the world don’t generally believe what the White House says. Trump has already given allies and adversaries alike plenty of reason to distrust him.
More to the point, though, it’s impossible to separate Trump’s North Korea foreign policy with the enhanced risk of nuclear war that comes with an impetuous leader who tweets threats at nuclear rivals and won’t back down when his ego is challenged.
During the campaign, Trump reportedly asked advisers, about nuclear weapons: “If we have them, why can’t we use them?” During the transition, he tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” He also used Twitter to threaten Kim Jong-un’s regime, seemingly with military strikes.
That’s something to worry about — and worry about a lot — because Twitter diplomacy, which Trump uses frequently, greatly enhances the risk of miscalculation.
In December, the world didn’t take much notice, but Pakistan’s foreign minister threatened to attack Israel with nuclear weapons because he had seen a fake news article suggesting that Israel had threatened Pakistan.
That hits a bit too close to home in America, as Trump has repeatedly tweeted out fake articles and false claims. Still, even as he’s threatening nuclear rivals, nobody is proofreading his tweets.
(We know that because of the routine typos and bizarre stream-of-consciousness outbursts that we now accept as normal presidential communication.)
Diplomacy on the brink of conflict is always prone to miscommunication and miscalculation — even with carefully worded communiqués designed to send clear signals abroad. With Trump’s Twitter outbursts, the risk of catastrophic miscalculation increases dramatically.
That makes us less safe, because we must rely on Kim Jong-un accurately interpreting the same Trump tweets that many Americans struggle to understand. Watch!
Finally, Trump, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest dealmaker, has made it politically impossible for many governments to make deals with him.
Trump is a politically toxic figure in, to name just a few: Mexico, Germany and the UK, where he sparked a diplomatic row by falsely claiming that Britain’s digital intelligence service wiretapped Trump Tower.
Any Mexican politician who wanted to work with the United States to achieve mutually beneficial goals would now be committing political suicide in doing so. The costs of that alienation amongst allies will continue to accrue throughout the remaining years of Trump’s presidency.
And Trump’s easily exposed bluffs (most recently on withdrawing from NAFTA) has meant that foreign powers simply don’t find threats from him to be credible. That matters because the United States can’t get what it wants if nobody believes what its President says.
Trump is right about one thing. The first 100 days benchmark is an arbitrary one. We can focus on the day-to-day shifts in his foreign policy, which flips and flops with a lot of bluster but without a guiding strategy. Doing so, however, may lead us to lose focus on the biggest shift in American foreign policy since World War II: from a series of qualified, measured and well-informed Presidents to a man who is none of the above. And that’s the story that will continue to be most relevant for the next 1,360 days.
Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy.”