The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of 1886, tells the story of the seemingly virtuous Dr. Henry Jekyll who drinks a serum that transforms him into Mr. Edward Hyde so he is free to indulge his vices without fear of discovery. Donald Trump was elected as the Mr. Hyde of American foreign policy, and perhaps much else, with a promise to tear down the international order the United States built and led for 70 years. But, occasionally, over the course of his seven weeks in office, there have been glimpses of Dr. Jekyll.
Mr. Hyde appears in Trump’s unscripted, prideful and angry phone calls with foreign leaders; the signing of the executive order “travel ban”’ without due process; his hostility toward Germany and the European Union; his demands that Mexico pay for a border wall; his backing for a trade war with China; his comment that Taiwan may be a bargaining chip in talks with Beijing; and his elevation of Stephen Bannon to a position of great influence over national security.
Dr. Jekyll has emerged in sensible cabinet picks for the departments of state, defense, and homeland security; good meetings with the prime ministers of Japan and Britain; the stalling of the effort to move the U.S. embassy to Israel to Jerusalem; the cleaning up of his comments on Taiwan in a scripted call with Chinese President Xi Jinping; a statement opposing additional Israeli settlements; maintaining the nuclear agreement with Iran while pushing back against Tehran’s destabilizing moves with sanctions; some positive words about NATO, albeit qualified; and the replacement of Michael Flynn with Lt Gen. H.R. McMaster for the position of national security adviser.
Sometimes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have struggled publicly. President Trump clearly toyed with lifting sanctions on Russia but his ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said they would stay in place until Russia withdraws from Ukraine. In Stevenson’s tale, Mr. Hyde came to dominate Dr. Jekyll, leading him to commit suicide to avoid a permanent transformation. But, the question everyone is asking, or hoping, about Trump is the opposite: Will he be able to permanently transform into a more normal foreign policy president? And, if not, when will Trump’s Mr. Hyde appear?
Many people hope the Trump administration will become more normal over time, even if the president does not. They believe he is slowly being boxed in. As Sen. John McCain told the Munich Security Conference, perhaps, “it is better to look at what the president does rather than what he says.” Unfortunately, Mr. Hyde is not going away. Dr. Jekyll may well be the everyday persona of the Trump administration’s foreign policy if the Cabinet can exert its influence, but ultimately Mr. Hyde will define it. He will not appear every day. He may be suppressed. But he will occasionally burst back into public view and when he does, he will wreak havoc.
Home Alone with America First
The Jekyll and Hyde character of the Trump administration is the result of a deep structure at its heart that stems from two dynamics that are in tension with each other.
The first is that Donald Trump has deeply rooted, visceral, and consistent ideas about American foreign policy that date back over 35 years. Since 1980, Trump has lambasted America’s allies and denounced free trade deals. He has been very sympathetic to Russia since 1986, when he first visited Moscow. He views national security primarily through an economic lens and wants to know how the United States benefits in the short term from each and every action. He rejects notions of a liberal international order to proactively shape the world. He acknowledged to the New York Times in March 2016 that his views harken back to the turn of the 20th century, before World War I. Trump expressed these views on dozens and dozens of occasions in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. There is much that the president does not know about the world, but he has been remarkably consistent on a small number of very important things, often at a high political cost—which suggests he truly believes them.
Trump also has a clear sense of his role in world affairs. As he told the Washington Post in 1984, he believes that he was born with the necessary deal-making skills to manage America’s role in the world, a gift he is convinced no other postwar leader has had. In the absence of skilled dealmakers, he believes that successive presidents, dating back to the early 20th century, have been taken advantage of by other nations. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, has spent considerable time with Trump and endorsed him in the primary. Corker recently told POLITICO that the president thinks of himself as a “wrecking ball” against traditional American foreign policy and he remains determined to “just destroy everything about” the U.S. establishment’s view of the world, even as he compromises on NATO, Jerusalem and a handful of other issues. And, as Hal Brands and Colin Kahl have written, in the first few weeks of the Trump administration, there is ample evidence that Trump and his closest aides have a strategy they would like to implement.
The second thing we know is that Trump’s worldview is in a tiny minority within his own administration. His national security team is primarily composed of people who want to maintain U.S. alliances, an open global economy and support for universal values. The reason why Trump ended up with such a team is, in part, because there are no think tanks or academic cabals that are working out how to translate his visceral beliefs into policy. Those who one might expect to be sympathetic—the CATO institute and academic isolationists—are not. The Heritage Foundation foreign policy team spends most of its time denying he really believes what he clearly believes. With no lieutenants of his own, he had to turn to outsiders. With a penchant for the finest military officers the country has produced and one billionaire, he chose a Cabinet of mainstreamers. Whether it was by intent or design, the effect of his choice was to voluntarily surrender the bureaucracy to ideological opponents of his America First worldview.
Trump does have a small coterie of true believers around him in the Oval Office. The person closes to Trump’s worldview is his chief strategist Stephen Bannon. In a speech in the Vatican in 2014, Bannon outlined his belief that the “Judeo-Christian West” was under pressure from three forces—market capitalism, which unlike earlier iterations of capitalism was void of a national or moral purpose; secularism; and “Islamic fascism,” which is waging a global war against the west. Trump does not share the religious foundation of Bannon’s worldview, but there is considerable overlap on economic nationalism and hostility to Islam. And Bannon has succeeded in bringing Trump around to his skepticism of the European Union and other viewpoints.
However, even if one counts Bannon in Trump’s camp, they are still massively outnumbered. They lost a fellow traveler with Flynn’s firing, but even when ousted national security adviser was in place he was uniquely deficient at using the interagency process to further the president’s agenda. Bannon has managed to place a handful of people in various departments and agencies, but only at low levels. Collectively, they are no match for their opponents when it comes to turning around the ship of state. Neither Trump or Bannon is Dick Cheney, who combined radical views with great bureaucratic skill and a small army of protégés.
Now, the interagency process is in the hands of McMaster, a mainstreamer. Yes, the Strategic Initiatives Group (SIG) with Bannon, Jared Kushner, Sebastian Gorka and others still exists but they are now devoid of all authority over the bureaucracy. They remain powerful because they whisper in the ear of the commander in chief, but mastering the policy process takes a level of sophistication and dedication we have yet to see from this crew thus far.
The bottom line is that the president is an ideological radical who would like to revolutionize U.S. foreign policy but he is largely alone in his intention. He faces opposition from almost all quarters. His Cabinet will continue to work quietly to repackage his orders as small modifications to America’s traditional foreign policy. In such circumstances, a coherent strategy is impossible. Incoherence is inevitable. And, for many people, it is benign incoherence, certainly relative to the alternative of a coherent and radical America First foreign policy.
But, recognizing incoherence only gets one so far. The real question that unlocks the puzzle of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is which element—the president’s radical vision or the moderation of his Cabinet—will win out and when.
The Trump Paradox
Trump’s radicalism will manifest itself less in his attempts to proactively remake American foreign policy and more in the things he will choose not to do, particularly at a moment of crisis. This is the paradox of Trump’s foreign policy.
We have already seen several examples of Trump’s failure to translate his worldview into policy. The most striking case is Russia. Trump and Flynn, as we all now know, wanted to build a partnership with Moscow. They intended to lift sanctions quickly but pursued it incompetently. Flynn spoke over an open line with the Russian ambassador, guaranteeing it would leak. He then lied about it to the vice president, which cost him his job once it made its way to the press. Republicans in Congress promised to re-impose sanctions if Trump went ahead.
If the Trump team struggled to lift sanctions, imagine how hard they will find it to strike a grand bargain with Russia to remake European security architecture—what the Russians sometimes call Yalta II. Who would prepare such a summit? How would the White House pull it off over the objections of Defense Secretary James Mattis, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and others, not to mention Congress. Yes, Richard Nixon opened up China in secret but this is precisely the point—it requires people with the technical brilliance of Nixon and Henry Kissinger to do such a thing.
Trump, Flynn and Bannon were so ill prepared for dealing with Russia that they may well have inadvertently rejected an overture from Putin during the president’s call with him in February. According to press reports, Putin offered to negotiate a successor agreement to the New START nuclear weapons deal of 2010. Trump was unaware what New START was, and when his advisers informed him, he then told Putin that it was a bad deal negotiated by his predecessor and he wanted nothing to do with it.
As a good intelligence operative, Putin will have been aware that as early as 1984, Trump said his dream job was to negotiate a nuclear agreement with the then Soviet Union. He repeated it several times since. Putin was a skeptic of New START at the time and played hard to get with Obama, but he likely saw an opportunity to allow Trump to successfully negotiate a fresh deal to get points on the board as a way to give the new American president a quick win, only to be spurned.
Trump has also been boxed in on alliances. Upon taking office, he realized that dealing with the North Korean threat meant expressing support for the alliance with South Korea. His longstanding hostility to Japan was muted by adroit Japanese diplomacy and by Bannon, who reportedly fancies himself as a Asia strategist and sees Japan as a bulwark against China. Bannon also succeeded in manipulating Trump into taking a hardline stance against the European Union—as late as the summer of 2016, Trump really had no opinion on European integration. But even there, it is hard to see what the Trump administration can do to actively weaken the EU. American support for nationalist and populist parties seems likely to backfire.
The two areas where Trump may be able to execute his vision are fighting political Islam and waging trade wars. There are a significant number of people, scattered throughout the government, who are open to a more aggressive approach to political Islam. Even mainstreamers, like Secretary Mattis, are open to a much tougher policy toward Iran, albeit for different reasons. Even here, however, Trump’s response is less on the foreign policy side, where his team lacks clear ideas of what to do, and more domestically, where the White House is pushing harsh treatment of Muslim immigrants and refugees and is talking in menacing tones about American Muslims. McMaster will also have no tolerance for religious warriors like Gorka, who practically blames Islam itself for terrorism—an approach that would put the United States at war with a billion Muslims, just as terrorist groups have always wanted.
The other exception is economic nationalism, where Trump and Bannon have recruited a trade team—in Peter Navarro, Wilbur Ross and the yet to be confirmed Robert Lighthizer—who largely share their protectionist views. A tougher approach on trade may also win Trump support among some Democrats on the Hill. And yet, there are signs of a counterbalancing coalition, led by White House senior economic adviser Gary Cohn, late of Goldman Sachs. However, the strength of the protectionists, and the president’s own hard-line views, mean that trade wars remain a real possibility.
President Trump may now be unable to impose his America First worldview on the infrastructure of U.S. foreign policy but he will not go gently into the night. He has not changed his worldview. He will not change. Not at 70, when he feels he was vindicated after a lifetime of howling at the moon. Not when he is finally in charge. He may try to embark on a few solo runs or even give his Cabinet secretaries direct orders that they disagree with. He will say controversial things and walk out of summit meetings. His SIG group may try to open its own diplomatic channels with selected foreign actors. He may try to throw Hail Mary passes but they will generally be intercepted, especially since there’s hardly anyone to catch them.
Trump’s influence will be felt less in his proactive effort to remake U.S. foreign policy and more in what he will not do. The American system of checks and balances can prevent a president from ratifying a trade deal or even starting a war (by denying appropriations). But it is next to useless in compelling a president to do something on national security he does not want to do. Congress or the Cabinet cannot make a president uphold Article V of NATO or proactively support U.S. alliances more generally. It cannot make him act responsibly in an international financial crisis, nor can it make it speak out in favor of democracy and human rights.
This is particularly important at a moment of crisis, when an American president is expected to act in a way that upholds the liberal international order. It is at such a time that you find out who a president really is. Take Barack Obama. When his own words compelled him to retaliate against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons, President Obama reneged on his promise. Why? Because there was something more fundamental at play—his reluctance to launch a new war in the Middle East. In 2008, President George W. Bush decided to bail out the financial industry, despite the perception that it violated free-market principles. Those choices were each revealing in their own way.
When the crises of Trump’s administration arrives, Trump will be the key decision maker. How the United States reacts will depend on him and almost no one else. He is the person who has to give the go-ahead, not Mattis, not McMaster, not Tillerson, not Kelly. Even if his government is ineffective and incoherent, what he does then will be enormously consequential. And it is at that moment that Trump’s entire worldview—his America Firstism, his hostility to alliances and an open global economy, and his sympathy to Russia will come into play. It is also when his temperament—particularly his thin skin and tendency to view everything through a personal lens—will come to the fore.
Bannon’s proximity to the president will ensure that radical voices have his ear at these key moments. Over time, the America Firsters may come to distrust and resent the mainstreamers, correctly believing that they have deliberately frustrated and stymied them at every turn. One already hears the rumblings of this in reports of Bannon bending Trump’s ear with conspiratorial whispering about the “Deep State” undermining his presidency. Bannon and his allies may see a crisis as a moment to exact vengeance on a national security adviser, McMaster, who is likely to marginalize them. But the incontrovertible reality is that the president is a true believer in Bannonism himself.
President Trump believes in his gut that other countries are taking advantage of the United States. His doctrine is “what’s in it for America right now.” He is not concerned about the long term. He is unlikely to spend an ounce of political capital to uphold the liberal international order, because he does not believe in it.
Russia, China and others will very likely put unprecedented pressure on the United States because they recognize that a crisis is the only way to weaken the hold of the mainstreamers on the president’s foreign policy. Putin, in particular, will likely give up on his hopes of a partnership with the United States. Instead, he may try to take advantage of Trump to accomplish something that cannot be reversed by a future president, such as discrediting Article V. What will Trump do if, for instance, Putin invades a NATO member? What will he do if China seizes islands belonging to Vietnam or the Philippines? A crisis of this nature would require any president to make a major effort and incur considerable political risk to uphold the liberal international order. Trump is unlikely to meet the challenge.
After a tumultuous start, America foreign policy may begin to appear normal again, but it will only appear that way. With the serum of a crisis, Mr. Hyde will be back.