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Donald Trump desperately needs a foreign policy doctrine.
He does have his views on global politics. Witness his speech at the United Nations in mid-September, where he called for a world where states do nothing more than jealously guard their sovereignty. (He used the word almost two dozen times.)
But slogans aren’t strategy. On North Korea or Syria, for instance, he offers bluster but little else.
And he doesn’t listen to those who know better. In the one case where he did listen to the advice of his generals —Afghanistan — he still ended up pledging more force but fell short of anything resembling a more mature strategy of diplomacy, aid and regional cooperation that might have helped end the conflict.
Why is that? Why is it that Donald Trump cannot arrive at some eureka moment in his foreign policy, and get help in devising an overarching longer-term strategy for the US that acknowledges the realities of global leadership?
It’s because experts, academics and opinion-makers are dangerous creatures in the world according to Trump. The op-eds they write, the classes they teach, the questions they raise, are all suspect in Trump’s world view.
If you assume that global politics is nothing more than the constant shifting of power between sovereign states devoid of any sense of community or shared values, your only choice is to constantly adapt to what others do and how it affects your own power.
Deeper expertise is irrelevant because it’s based on precedents and generalizations, when in fact all that counts is the current moment, and that can never be captured by all-purpose rules.
Also, expertise is based on the assumption that you can know others, what they think and how they will behave, when the first rule of global politics for some is that you should not assume anything about your adversaries except that they will fear you if you demonstrate the superiority of your power.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11, for example, serve as the best demonstration of that argument for those who possess that sort of world view.
That’s why Donald Trump does not listen to the experts. For him, it’s not a matter of hubris or anti-intellectualism — it’s a matter of logic.
How to influence Trump on foreign policy?
So how can experts and specialists have any sway over Trump’s foreign policy?
First, they should certainly do what they do best: Produce ideas. The clearest area where this is needed is economic policy. Both Democrats and Republicans in Washington have argued repeatedly that the president’s protectionism completely undermines a long-held agreement on the advantages of free trade for the US and the world.
What neither side has done so far, though, is put forward a cogent alternative to Trump — one that still extols the benefits of open trade, but does not gloss over how deeply its adverse consequences affect all those who voted for Trump’s economic nationalism.
This calls for a reflection only specialists can set in motion. Basically, if not NAFTA, then what?
A reasonable path out of the difficulties entailed by shifts in job patterns and regional trajectories of development within the US must now be mapped out by those with scholarly expertise who study these realities. If so, a convincing, and thus politically viable, alternative to Trump could be put forward.
Another area where Trump will need help is the use of force.
In his mind, force makes sense, but the drawn-out politics of reconciliation and reconstruction that must follow military force remain hazy. This means that in two crucial cases where Trump could resort to force — North Korea and Syria — he will be confronted with a question he will not address fully: Then what?
Here also, experts will need to fill in the blanks.
Consult with states instead of Washington
Second, experts can also do foreign policy themselves. For instance, who is now defending the principles of the Paris climate accord the most forcefully on the global stage? California and other like-minded states.
This goes well beyond the usual push-and-pull of American politics: What Donald Trump has actually managed to set in motion is not a new foreign policy, but rather a marked devolution to other actors at the state and local levels in the pursuit of America’s more traditional foreign policy objectives.
Experts can do foreign policy in that context simply by investing their efforts in the initiatives produced at these other levels of government.
Third, and most importantly, foreign policy experts must also participate in the great debate of ideas emerging in the US in parallel with the unravelling of the Trump presidency. There is a new ambiguity about core Republican ideas, core Democratic ideas — and indeed about the very idea of a post-Trump America.
This is where those with a broader sense of foreign policy can help. They look at the United States from the outside. They see what America can still represent for the world. Networks of academics or journalists are most often transnational, and the dialogues they foster (for instance through a forum like The Conversation Canada) cut across borders.
In that sense, they directly challenge Trump’s view of a world of self-centred states unable to look beyond their own interests.
Speaking loudly, then, matters a lot. It spurs discussion about the future of US foreign policy, but also about the future of the country itself.
And this is sorely needed now. The problem with Donald Trump is not so much that he sees a world of self-motivated states and individuals, but that he only sees the world that way. Enlarging the discussion can only help as Trump fumbles for that elusive eureka moment in which he finally finds his foreign policy doctrine.