Summing up the Trump Summits
Traditionally, one-on-one meetings between government leaders are scheduled only after months, or even years, of careful preparation by lower-ranking officials have narrowed or eliminated disagreements. By turning this sequence around, Donald Trump is fueling, rather than mitigating, global uncertainty.
NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump’s summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki are history, as is the G7 summit in Quebec and the NATO summit in Brussels. But already there is talk of another Trump-Putin summit in Washington, DC, sometime later this year. Some 30 years after the end of the Cold War, a four-decade era often punctuated by high-stakes, high-level encounters between American presidents and their Soviet counterparts, summits are back in fashion.
It should be noted that the word “summit” is imprecise. It can be used for high-level meetings of friends as well as foes. Summits can be bilateral or multilateral. And there is no widely accepted rule about when a meeting becomes a summit. More than anything, the term conveys a sense of significance that exceeds that of a run-of-the-mill meeting.
The principal reason summits are back is that they constitute Trump’s favored approach to diplomacy. It is not hard to explain why. Trump views diplomacy in personal terms. He is a great believer in the idea (however debatable) that relationships between individuals can meaningfully shape the relationship between the countries they lead, even transcending sharp policy differences. He is of the world of stagecraft more than statecraft, of pageantry more than policy.
Trump embraces summitry for a number of related reasons. He is confident that he can control, or at least succeed in, such a format. Much of his professional career before entering the White House was in real estate, where he apparently got what he wanted in small meetings with partners or rivals.
Trump has also introduced several innovations into the summit formula. Traditionally, summits are scheduled only after months, or even years, of careful preparation by lower-ranking officials have narrowed or eliminated disagreements. The summit itself tends to be a tightly scripted affair. Agreements and communiqués have been mostly or entirely negotiated, and are ready to be signed. There is room for some give and take, but the potential for surprise is kept to a minimum. Summits have mostly been occasions to formalize what has already been largely agreed.
But Trump has turned this sequence around. Summits for him are more engine than caboose. The summits with both Kim and Putin took place with minimal preparation. Trump prefers free-flowing sessions in which the written outcome can be vague, as it was in Singapore, or non-existent, as it was in Helsinki.
This approach holds many risks. The summit could blow up and end in recrimination and no agreement. This has been a consistent characteristic of Trump’s meetings with America’s European allies, gatherings that have been dominated by US criticism of what Europe is doing on trade or not doing in the way of defense spending.
Moreover, a summit that ends without a detailed written accord may initially seem successful, but with the passage of time proves to be anything but. Singapore falls under this category: claims that the summit achieved North Korea’s commitment to denuclearize are increasingly at odds with a reality that suggests Kim has no intention of giving up his country’s nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. Helsinki has the potential to be even worse, as there is no written record of what, if anything, was discussed, much less agreed, during Putin and Trump’s two-hour, one-on-one discussion.
A third risk of summits that produce vague or no agreements is that they breed mistrust with allies and at home. South Korea and Japan saw their interests compromised in Singapore, and NATO allies fear theirs were set aside in Helsinki. With members of Congress and even the executive branch in the dark about what was discussed, effective follow-up is all but impossible. Future administrations will feel less bound by agreements they knew nothing about, making the United States less consistent and reliable over time.
This last set of risks is exacerbated by Trump’s penchant for one-on-one sessions without note takers. This was the case in both Singapore and Helsinki. Interpreters in such meetings are no substitute. Interpreters must translate not only words, but also nuances of tone, to communicate what is said. But they are not diplomats who know when an error requires correction or an exchange calls for clarification. The absence of any authoritative, mutually agreed record of what was said and agreed to is a recipe for future friction between the parties and mistrust among those not present.
To be clear, the problem is not with summits per se. History shows they can defuse crises and produce agreements that increase cooperation and reduce the risk of confrontation. There is a danger, though, in expecting too much from summits, especially in the absence of sufficient preparation or follow-up. In such cases, summits merely increase the odds that diplomacy will fail, in the process contributing to geopolitical instability and uncertainty rather than mitigating it. At a time when the risks to global peace and prosperity are numerous enough, such outcomes are the last thing we need.
Trump’s Grand Strategy
Not only can US President Donald Trump not be blamed for America’s relative decline; he may actually be set to arrest it. As unpredictable as Trump can be, several of his key foreign-policy decisions suggest that his administration is pursuing a coherent vision aimed at reviving America’s global standing.
BERLIN – US President Donald Trump’s inability to think strategically is undermining longstanding relationships, upending the global order, and accelerating the decline of his country’s global influence – or so the increasingly popular wisdom goes. But this assessment is not nearly as obvious as its proponents – especially political adversaries and critics in the mainstream US media – claim.
America’s relative decline was a hot topic long before Trump took office. The process began when the United States, emboldened by its emergence from the Cold War as the world’s sole superpower, started to overextend itself significantly by enlarging its military footprint and ramping up its global economic and security commitments.
America’s “imperial overreach” was first identified during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, which oversaw a frenetic expansion of military spending. It reached crisis levels with the 2003 US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq under President George W. Bush – a watershed moment that caused irreparable damage to America’s international standing.
On President Barack Obama’s watch, China rapidly expanded its global influence, including by forcibly changing the status quo in the South China Sea (without incurring any international costs). By that point, it was unmistakable: the era of US hegemony was over.
It is not just that Trump cannot be blamed for America’s relative decline; he may actually be set to arrest it. As unpredictable as Trump can be, several of his key foreign-policy moves suggest that his administration is pursuing a grand strategy aimed at reviving America’s global power.
For starters, the Trump administration seems eager to roll back America’s imperial overreach, including by avoiding intervention in faraway wars and demanding that allies pay their fair share for defense. The fact is that many NATO members do not fulfill their spending commitments, effectively leaving American taxpayers to subsidize their security.
These are not new ideas. Before Trump even decided to run for office, pundits were arguing that the US needed to pursue a policy of retrenchment, drastically reducing its international commitments and transferring more of its defense burden onto its allies. But it was not until Trump, who views running a country much like running a business, that the US had a leader who was willing to pursue that path, even if it undermined the values that have long underpinned US foreign policy.
Trump’s focus on containing China – which FBI Director Christopher Wray recently labeled a far bigger challenge than Russia, even in the area of espionage – fits nicely into this strategy. Successive US presidents, from Richard Nixon to Obama, aided China’s economic rise. Trump, however, regards China not as America’s economic partner, but as “a foe economically” and even, as the official mouthpiece China Daily recently put it, America’s “main strategic rival.”
In general, Trump’s tariffs aim to put the US back in control of its economic relationships by constraining its ballooning trade deficits, with both friends and foes, and bringing economic activity (and the accompanying jobs) back home. But it is no secret that, above all, Trump’s tariffs target China – a country that has long defied international trade rules and engaged in predatory practices.
Meanwhile, Trump is also working to ensure that China does not catch up with the US technologically. In particular, his administration seeks to thwart China’s “Made in China 2025” program, the blueprint unveiled by the Chinese government in 2015 for securing global dominance over ten strategic high-tech industries, from robotics to alternative-energy vehicles.
Trump’s diplomatic activities seem intended to advance this larger strategic vision of reversing America’s relative decline. He has tried to sweet-talk autocratic leaders, from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, into making concessions – an approach that has garnered its share of criticism. But Trump’s compliments have not translated into kowtowing.
For example, despite all the controversy over Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the fact is that, since Trump took office, the US has expelled Russian diplomats, closed a Russian consulate, and imposed three rounds of sanctions on the country. His administration is now threatening to apply extraterritorial sanctions to stop other countries from making “significant” defense deals with Russia, a leading arms exporter.
Trump has not flattered any foreign leader more than Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he called “terrific” and “a great gentleman.” Yet, again, when Xi refused to yield to Trump’s demands, the US president did not hesitate to hit back “using Chinese tactics,” including suddenly changing negotiating positions and unpredictably escalating trade tensions.
Even Trump’s direct approach with North Korea undermines China’s position by bypassing it. Trump is right that transforming the US-North Korea relationship matters more than securing complete denuclearization. If he can co-opt North Korea, China’s only formal military ally, northeast Asian geopolitics will be reshaped and China’s lonely rise will be more apparent than ever.
There are plenty of problems with Trump’s methods. His brassy, theatrical, and unpredictable negotiating style, together with his China-like disregard for international norms, are destabilizing international relations. Domestic troubles like political polarization and legislative gridlock – both of which Trump has actively exacerbated – also weaken America’s hand internationally.
But there is no denying that Trump’s muscular “America First” approach – which includes one of the most significant military buildups since World War II – reflects a strategic vision that is focused squarely on ensuring that the US remains more powerful than any rival in the foreseeable future.
Perhaps more important, the transactional approach to international relations on which Trump’s strategy relies is likely to persist long after he leaves office. Friends and foes alike must get used to a more self-seeking America doing everything in its power, no matter the cost, to forestall its precipitous decline.
Trumpism and the Philosophy of World Order
Many liberals have been tempted to condemn Donald Trump’s behavior in personal terms, accusing him of incompetence and speculating about his mental stability. But there is a deeper – and even more troubling – explanation of the US president’s behavior.
HAMDEN, CONNECTICUT – In the wake of the NATO and Helsinki summits, many liberals have been tempted to condemn US President Donald Trump’s behavior in personal terms. His embrace of Vladimir Putin, and his snubbing of his own intelligence services and of America’s traditional allies, seem to reveal that he is out of his depth. Or that he was played. Or that he is mentally unstable. Or that he is Russia’s ultimate made man – a “traitor.”
Any or all of these judgments may well be true. But there is a deeper – and even more troubling – explanation of Trump’s behavior: it arises from his ideas, especially his implicit philosophical commitments concerning world order. These commitments will be much more difficult to combat.
Of course, Trump is no philosopher. Yet he does channel certain concepts instinctively, thanks to his mastery of popular storytelling and his deep sensitivity to how his supporters respond to him emotionally. With every rally, he is encouraged by mass audiences to refine his ideas to meet their self-perceived emotional needs, which he in turn politicizes through social media.
If there is one thinker whom Trump seems to channel most – and who can help make sense of his behavior, especially his widely-condemned moral equivocation toward Russia – it is the German legal philosopher Carl Schmitt.
Although Schmitt is notorious for joining the Nazi Party in 1933, it would be a mistake to dismiss him for that reason alone. Among scholars today, on both the left and right, Schmitt is known for his incisive critique of modern liberalism.
At the heart of Schmitt’s critique is his disdain for liberalism’s universal aspirations. Liberals do indeed place individual rights at the core of their political communities and believe that, in principle, those rights should extend to everyone. America, as the saying goes, is an idea.
For Schmitt, this view leads to disaster, both at home and abroad. On the domestic front, because the liberal conception of “the people” is non-exclusive, it is also indistinct. Who are we if “we” can include anyone? Schmitt believed that this way of thinking makes liberal states vulnerable to capture by private interest groups from within and by foreigners from without – a claim that Trump made the centerpiece of his election campaign.
Schmitt’s critique of liberal foreign policy is based on a similar analysis. As defenders of a non-exclusive, rights-based creed, liberals are compelled to meddle in the affairs of other countries whose policies don’t accord with liberal values. And when liberals engage in international military conflict, their worldview is a recipe for total and perpetual war, because their commitment to abstract norms encourages them to view their opponents not merely as competitors but rather as “absolute enemies.” Unlike a “real enemy,” with which a rival can achieve a modus vivendi, an absolute enemy must in time be either destroyed or transformed – for example, through the “nation building” that Trump vociferously rejects.
In place of normativity and universalism, Schmitt offers a theory of political identity based on a principle that Trump doubtless appreciates deeply from his pre-political career: land.
For Schmitt, a political community forms when a group of people recognizes that they share some distinctive cultural trait that they believe is worth defending with their lives. This cultural basis of sovereignty is ultimately rooted in the distinctive geography – say, land-locked and oriented internally, or coastal and outward-looking – that a people inhabit.
At stake here are opposing positions about the relation between national identity and law. According to Schmitt, the community’s “nomos,” or sense of itself that grows from its geography, is the philosophical precondition for its law. For liberals, by contrast, the nation is defined first and foremost by its legal commitments.
Trump’s presidency amounts to the working out of the policy implications of this Schmittian view for domestic and foreign affairs.
Most obviously, Schmitt’s critique of liberalism is evident in the passion of Trump and his supporters for building a wall on America’s southern border. Trump advisers like Stephen Miller tellingly describe the construction of the wall as a policy driven by “love” – that is, love of the American political community, clearly defined in space.
More consequentially, in Brussels and Helsinki, Trump’s Schmittian politics were apparent in his behavior toward America’s traditional allies and foes. Schmitt advocates a global order that universalizes the Monroe doctrine: great nations stake out inviolable zones of geographic influence, or Grossraum, from which they afford each other mutual respect. Trump advocates an international order of normative pluralism, non-intervention, and deal-making.
In this anti-liberal view, there is no reason to view Russia as an absolute enemy. And there is every reason to undermine international institutions and to cut loose America’s traditional allies. For anti-liberals, the true enemies of peace today are those nation-states and institutions that seek to place external limits on sovereignty and conceive of political community in normative rather than territorial and cultural terms. By contrast, the friends of peace are those nations that are strong enough to establish political homogeneity within their borders and to uphold a global order of important sovereign players.
When Trump stood next to Putin and sided with him over America’s intelligence services, he was acting out the logical culmination of Schmitt’s ideas. And those ideas will be with us long after Trump is gone.
Trump’s Immigration Trap
The Trump administration's harsh crackdown on migrants illegally crossing the US-Mexico border has drawn rebukes from across the political spectrum. And yet, if Americans were forced to pick between Trump's cruelty and something that looks like uncontrolled immigration, they would side with Trump in the end.
DENVER – Donald Trump’s presidency reminds me of nothing so much as the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. At the height of the violence, a Serb friend said to me that, “I don’t like [Slobodan] Milošević. I don’t like his methods, his cruelty, his crudeness, and his sadism. But at least someone is doing something.”
That last clause captured the essence of the entire conflict. My friend was willing to look past all of Milošević’s abuses and brutality if it meant that Serbia wouldn’t be a victim anymore. According to this nationalist narrative, Serbia had been forced to accept that it was just one republic among six, even though Serbs, who were spread out across Yugoslavia, comprised almost half of the country’s total population.
Of course, the idea of Serbia as a victim ran counter to the views of the other republics. To them, Yugoslavia, far from being a conspiracy to hold down Serbia, was actually a conspiracy to enshrine Serbia’s position as primus inter pares. After all, Serbia controlled the army, the secret police, and the ruling party.
In many ways, a similar pattern has emerged in the United States since Trump took office. Trump is rude and often cruel, and even many of his supporters seem to realize that they wouldn’t want their own children to emulate him. Still, he speaks to their grievances and anxieties. And in 2016, he reached enough swing-state voters to clinch a victory – a scenario that could well happen again in 2020.
Trump and his followers have homed in on issues that were not really on most other Americans’ radars, but which force voters to pick a side. Such inherently divisive “wedge issues” often provoke an equal and opposite reaction from the other side of the political divide. As each side digs its trenches, the complexities and nuances of the issue tend to be overlooked.
Immigration is Trump’s key wedge issue. While many Americans would simply be amused by the fact that it is more useful to speak Amharic than English in a Washington, DC, taxi, Trump has turned immigration into a referendum on America’s soul. Hence, during his recent trip to Europe, Trump issued an ominous warning about immigration “changing the culture” of Western societies.
In the eyes of his supporters, Trump is winning on immigration, simply because he is “doing something.” Under his watch, distinctions between legal and illegal immigration have been cast aside, along with wonky debates about the need for skilled workers in certain sectors or locales. And if you think that Trump will acknowledge that immigrants built the country, you can think again. The entire issue has been reduced to a question of American identity, filtered through the prism of race.
By weaponizing the immigration issue, Trump has convinced his supporters that they could lose their country to people with vastly different identities and tribal loyalties, owing to what he portrays as a kind of ethno-racial spoils system. In doing so, he has marshaled those who oppose immigration behind the banner of their own group identity. And, at least for now, he has the numbers to win.
But wedge issues, by definition, tend to galvanize both sides. The new slogan for Trump’s opponents is “Abolish ICE” – that is, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency charged with implementing many of the administration’s immigration policies. And, among proponents of immigration, even “illegal” has come to be regarded as an offensive, pejorative qualifier for any living, breathing person. Of course, the term refers not to one’s person, but to one’s immigration status within a given jurisdiction, in this case that of the United States.
Similarly, pro-immigration forces have increasingly denounced those who stress the need for border controls, even though they are simply advocating legal immigration. Rather than debate regulations that could stanch the flow of undocumented migrants into the country, pro-immigration radicals seem to doubt that there should be any laws restricting the movement of people at all.
Needless to say, this plays directly into Trump’s hands. Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans want border controls.To be sure, the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents went further than most Americans were willing to accept. But if voters think the alternative is no border controls, or a wave of dubious asylum claims, they will side with Trump in the end.
The immigration debate underscores the fact that the political center in America is quickly disappearing. But Trump’s radicalism should not be met with more radicalism. Trump and his supporters have selected their winning issues carefully. The best response is not to play their cynical game, but rather to appeal to a broader segment of Americans. It can be done.