Has the world reached peak Trump yet? Doesn’t look like it
On 17 October, a reliably chaotic White House press conference produced a revelation – a moment of clear-eyed self-reflection that may be unique in the history of the Trump administration. Asked about the president’s ill-fated proposal to hold the G7 summit at Trump National Doral Miami, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted: “that’s not the craziest idea we ever heard”. Mulvaney was right – on lunacy meters calibrated to the United States’ own orange revolution, the Doral plan barely registers. So, below, we rise to the challenge and catalogue five recent foreign policy ideas that Mulvaney has heard (and implemented) that are yet crazier than hosting the G7 at your own hotel. We found five such ideas just since August.
1. Buy Green(land)
In August, President Donald Trump announced a bold idea to help the US win the race for the Arctic. The region increasingly draws the attention of global powers such as China and Russia, which seek access to strategically important sea lanes and natural resources beneath its melting ice sheets. Trump, who knows prime real estate when he sees it, decided to take a direct approach to strengthen the US presence there – he tried to buy Greenland. Yet, while off-the-cuff tweets might be good for earning the occasional refund from Pizza Hut, they are poorly suited to proposing the takeover of large parts of a sovereign state. Using the language of a mafia enforcer, Trump compounded the error by claiming that Greenland was “hurting Denmark very badly because they are losing almost $700m a year carrying it”. At a stroke, the president succeeded in alienating the Danish public, baffling the government in Copenhagen, and perhaps making it more difficult for the US to build up its military presence at Thule in northern Greenland. The art of the deal, it seems, is a combination of brutalism, abstract impressionism, and pre-school finger-painting.
2. Ship of fools
Trump is famously not bound by stuffy protocol, tired bureaucratic logic, or even the harsh tyranny of common sense. So, when US officials found themselves in late August trying to stop a tanker of Iranian oil from delivering its cargo, the old solutions would not do. Trump had an idea and reached for an innovative approach that reflects the president’s image as a dealmaker: he offered to pay off the ship’s captain. Unfortunately, the captain, not really understanding where his interests lie, did not respond to this kind offer. It seems that money can’t always buy you geopolitical love. Ideology, loyalty, and even morality all matter in the world, even if they don’t cut much ice in the White House. It is nice to see that Trump administration officials are willing to think outside the box and transcend traditional diplomatic niceties. Looking at this terrible idea, however, one is reminded of why we have the box in the first place.
Money can’t always buy you geopolitical love
3. The best offence is more offence
On 3 October, the Trump presidency was already swept up in an impeachment inquiry. The probe stemmed from an alleged effort to use US foreign aid to force the government of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. But, as Trump knows, the best offence is more offence – and so he had an idea. He marched out to the White House lawn and told the assembled fake news horde there that, beyond Ukraine, China should also investigate Biden. Given that trade negotiators from China were headed to Washington a week later for high-level talks aimed at ending US-China trade war, this move might seem to offer China some welcome leverage in a difficult negotiation. That notion gained traction when it emerged, only a few hours later, that Trump had discussed Biden and another Democratic presidential contender, Elizabeth Warren, in a June phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, while also agreeing not to bring up the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. The normally reliable Senator Lindsay Graham noted that “asking China to look into Biden, that was stupid. Nobody believes that China would be fair to Biden, Trump, me or you, or anybody. Bad idea.” Also, crazy.
4. A letter between men
On 9 October, Trump had a problem. In a phone call a few days earlier, he may have inadvertently given President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey the impression that the US wouldn’t mind if Turkey invaded northern Syria and wiped out the US-allied Kurdish forces there. The prospect of a humiliating US retreat and the resulting violence would no doubt cause various losers in Congress, and the fake news, to moan on endlessly about betrayal and incompetence. But, not to worry, Trump had an idea: a letter. It would be letter between men, using language that men could understand. It would show the manly friendship between him and Erdogan, but also demonstrate that the US is boss. A reminder of just how great America is and not to be a fool never hurt any negotiation. Make a few strokes of a pen, include a clever turn of phrase here and there, end the letter with a promise to talk later – and it’s done and dusted. But, surprisingly, the letter didn’t go down so well. Erdogan threw it in the trash, invaded Syria anyway, and promised not to forget the insult. When the White House released the letter a week later, the fake news people were so incredulous that it was real that the White House had to verify it authenticity. Even Hillary Clinton is mocking it on social media – stable genius is often misunderstood as crazy.
Erdogan threw Trump’s letter in the trash, invaded Syria anyway, and promised not to forget the insult
5. Control issues
On 18 October, Trump seemed to realise that not everyone was sold on the strategic genius of his decision to abruptly withdraw US forces from Syria – which left America’s Kurdish allies there to fend for themselves. Apparently convinced that the haters were concerned about US energy security, the president had an idea. He reassured the press that there was no cause for concern because “we’ve taken control of the oil in the Middle East … the oil that everybody was worried about”. Gliding over the confusion his comments created among even White House officials like some great orange swan, Trump reasserted the claim this month. It’s almost the definition of crazy to claim to control something you don’t, but it does at least keep your adversaries, both foreign and domestic, off balance. Next month, we expect Trump to assert ownership of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, thereby solving two particularly knotty Trump administration foreign policy problems.
All told, since the summer, Trump has set a pretty high bar for innovative but crazy foreign policy ideas. The increase in the pace of Trump-crazy no doubt reflects the fact that the bulk of his most competent and least sycophantic advisers have now left the administration. Recent weeks have witnessed Trump Unleashed. As the domestic pressure from impeachment increases, we should expect more such crazy foreign policy ideas. Hold on tight.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.