Like all populists, Trump’s U.S.centric foreign policy approach is failing
The Trump administration is flailing. Increasingly, signs have emerged the U.S. president’s promise of transforming America, making it great again, is instead leaving it less secure and more prone to failure. From de-nuclearization in North Korea to regime change in Venezuela to containing Iran, U.S. foreign policy under Donald Trump has not only failed to produce results but is threatening to undo the very structures that have sustained the international order for more than seventy years. What do these failures tell us about Trump’s leadership style?
►Adnan R. Khan: Trump came into office as this disrupter, claiming a new way of leading and a new way of doing foreign policy. But that way seems to be failing. Why?
Ilter Turan: When we examine how Trump conducted his election campaign, how he won office and then how he has exercised his powers, what we see is a rather typical manifestation of populist leadership. So the question is: What are the features of this populist leadership? First, it tends to be anti-establishment; it rejects existing state structures. It assumes that those structures have failed to address problems because they are simply incompetent and dominated by self-serving elites. But then, when you examine how these populist leaders themselves operate, you observe that they tend to be rather elitist themselves. They think they can handle everything because they are so good, so brilliant. They think they know how to get things done.
When they approach the art of policy making and implementation in this frame of mind, inevitably the institutions through which policy debate takes place, the information on which policy is based and the way policy is formulated is forgotten; and the populist leader makes decisions irrespective of what the establishment says. Many populist leaders also have a penchant for getting rid of those people, including close advisers, who tell them things they don’t like.
►Adnan R. Khan: Surrounding themselves with ‘yes men’.
Ilter Turan: Exactly. In fact, in literature the extreme case of such leadership has sometimes been referred to as a ‘Sultanistic Regime’. The leader gathers all power in his person, surrounds himself with yes men, and these men try to push their own agendas by gaining the favor with the leader. In Trump’s case, he has a trusted friend or ally one moment and the next, that person falls out of favor. Others may, in fact, conspire to make that person fall out of favor so they can position themselves more favorably, until of course they are thrown out, too.
This is how the populist “court,” operates. When we examine how populists conduct policy, we see that they tend to rely a lot on personal relationships and they think their powers of developing friendships and persuasion are so extensive that they can actually get many things which institutions failed to do, done. This often results in unfulfilled expectations. For instance, take North Korea: Trump seemed to think that he could establish a good rapport with Kim Jong Un and convince him to terminate his nuclear activities. He failed to see the reality that the nuclear system in North Korea is the only insurance that will allow the system to survive. It’s not a point on which Kim is ready to compromise.
►Adnan R. Khan: These kinds of individual relationships, in the way that they replace institutional relationships, lead to countries misreading complex issues. Even in North Korea, Kim is not the sum total of power; and if you base your interpretation of what’s happening based on his perspective alone, you’re bound to get things wrong.
Ilter Turan: Yes. This is a mistake many populist leaders make. One can also take the example of Turkey where the Turkish leadership appears to feel that they can take care of their problem with the U.S. by negotiating with Mr. Trump, not recognizing that there are other institutions that are neither fully under his control nor subject to his wishes. This seems to be a general proclivity on the part of populist leaders: They see the institutions of government as an impediment rather than any ally in formulating and implementing policy.
►Adnan R. Khan: So now we’re seeing the first signs of this way of doing international relations failing. But at the same time, we’re seeing a populist club developing. They all seem to want to meet each other and talk about “whatever it is populist leaders talk about” when they’re alone together.
Ilter Turan: This is extremely problematic. The traditional way of conducting international relations and diplomacy is a delicate exercise - trying to prevent disagreements from developing into major conflicts, finding creative solutions to conflicts that seem insolvable. When it is left to one person’s judgment, who may not always be particularly well-informed, inevitably complications occur. And the belief that personal relationships will alone bring solutions to problems implies that individuals by themselves are more skilled at resolving disagreements than institutional frameworks. But as the recent example of Mr. Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods shows, this is not the case. Trump is still of the opinion that if he meets Xi Jinping, they can just talk it over and fix things. Now, Trump may consider himself an expert in making deals and selling apartments but international politics is a much more complicated process. A number of conflicting interests have to be accommodated. Decision makers have to play to both the international and the domestic arenas, relating the two so that their international actions do not cost them dearly domestically or their domestic actions do not generate insurmountable international problems.
When we look at populist leaders as exemplified by Trump, you get the worst of both worlds. He develops false expectations in his own public as to what is possible; he also creates false expectations among international circle sand he sometimes miscommunicate sh is intentions. Moreover, because one person-who may not have a firm grasp of the issues - tries to develop and implement policy in a non-institutionalized way, what happens is that there are constant shifts in policy or political positions. We have experienced this in Turkey with regard to the U.S. presence in Syria. Trump announced that he was withdrawing troops, it is not happening and in fact, the reverse may happen.
►Adnan R. Khan: Predictability is important. How can you have any sort of functioning international system when there isn’t a framework that helps people predict what the possible outcomes might be? It just creates more chaos and uncertainty.
Ilter Turan: This used to be a characteristic generally associated with non-institutionalized, dictatorial regimes but now the disease is now spreading to democratic societies.