October 18, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads: The Empty Throne


My new book with James M. Lindsay, The Empty Throne: America's Abdication of Global Leadership, was published earlier this week. To give you a taste, here’s the introduction:

The Empty Throne

Room 2E924 on the outermost ring of the Pentagon was packed. Better known as “the Tank,” it is one of the most secure facilities in the US government and the meeting place for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On the morning of July 20, 2017, though, it hosted a special guest—the president of the United States. Gathered with Donald Trump in the small, windowless room was virtually everyone who was anyone dealing with foreign and national security policy: the vice president, cabinet secretaries, assorted White House advisers, and the chair and vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were there to provide Trump with a crash course on American global leadership.

The long-scheduled visit was on the face of things unremarkable. Many presidents had traveled to the Tank to receive briefings and show their appreciation for America’s service men and women. But Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had an ulterior motive in arranging Trump’s trip that day. They believed that six months into his presidency he still had much to learn about the world and America’s role in it. On the campaign trail he had repeatedly shown his ignorance about basic foreign policy issues, even as he castigated past administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, for what he called their catastrophic choices. Reaching the Oval Office hadn’t miraculously given him a deeper grasp of global politics or a greater appreciation for the “lousy” deals and “stupid” commitments his predecessors had made. Instead, he resisted inconvenient facts, repeated urban legends, and contested the counsel his advisers offered. Perhaps a tutorial in the Tank on how and why the United States had pursued an outsized role around the world since World War II might persuade him that it was worth continuing to do so.

Mattis set the context for the meeting at the start. “The greatest thing the ‘greatest generation’ left us,” the retired Marine four-star general said to open the briefing, “was the rules-based postwar international order.” The briefers then took Trump on a tour around the globe. Using maps, charts, and photos, they laid out America’s far-flung overseas commitments. They reviewed alliances and trade deals, carefully explaining what challenges and opportunities the United States faced beyond its borders. To make their brief more compelling to a president who had made his fortune in real estate and who had committed his administration to bringing jobs back home, they stressed how America’s global leadership benefitted US businesses and created jobs for Americans back home.

The student, though, eventually challenged his tutors. He wasn’t impressed with the alliances and agreements they were praising. “This is exactly what I don’t want,” he objected. He peppered them with questions. Why were US troops in South Korea? Why didn’t America’s free-trade agreements generate surpluses for the United States? Why didn’t Europe pay its fair share for NATO? Why shouldn’t the United States build up its nuclear stockpile? Some of the exchanges grew testy as the experts tried to persuade a president who thought he knew more than he did to adopt a worldview utterly foreign to his thinking. At several points Trump rebuked his briefers with a simple and direct rebuttal: “I don’t agree!”

When the meeting ended after two hours, Trump praised his briefers to the reporters waiting outside the Tank. The discussion had been “great” and the people at the Pentagon “tremendous,” he said. “The job they do—absolutely incredible.” That didn’t mean, however, that they had dented his deep skepticism about the value of America’s military alliances and the benefits of its many trade agreements, let alone persuaded him to lead what he saw as ungrateful friends who laughed at America while stealing its jobs and wealth.

The July 20 meeting later gained fame for the pithy assessment Tillerson made of Trump’s intelligence after the president left the Tank to return to the White House. He’s a “fucking moron,” the former Eagle Scout told a few colleagues. Tillerson’s blunt assessment dominated Washington conversation when it leaked months later. But the more consequential assessment, even though it drew almost no attention, was the one Trump made in the Tank as the meeting ended: the rules-based world order that so captivated his briefers was “not working at all.”

The overriding question for America and the rest of the world was, would Trump try to fix it or walk away from it?

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. If you haven't already, click here to subscribe to This Week's Reads.

After Khashoggi, US Arms Sales to the Saudis Are Essential Leverage

Bruce Riedel / Brookings

“The Saudis have not concluded a single major arms deal with Washington on Trump’s watch,” writes Brookings’ Bruce Riedel, correcting a widespread misperception. Yet after the apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, and with President Trump reluctant to act, the US Congress could step forward to send a strong message to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has already spent great sums of money on its war in Yemen, which Mohammed bin Salman has championed. “Shaking the arms relationship is by far the most important way to clip his wings,” Riedel explains.

Saudi Arabia’s Ruler Should Understand That the Ends Don’t Justify the Means

Dennis Ross / The Washington Post

Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Project, which seeks to grow new industries, develop the private sector, and increase the role of women in the workforce, reflects a stark reality that the country is on an unsustainable path. The large, young, and often idle population is prone to extremism unless it can find productive avenues to direct its energies. Nonetheless, if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a champion of the National Transformation Project, felt falsely emboldened to orchestrate the apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, then he will have crossed a line, resulting in far-reaching consequences for the US-Saudi relationship.

America’s Exit from the World Stage

Gideon Rachman / The Financial Times

The chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times reviews three new books about President Trump’s foreign policy, including my new book with James M. Lindsay. The Empty Throne, Rachman writes, “is a lively and authoritative account of the Trump administration’s turbulent encounter with the outside world since the president took office in early 2017.” Together with new books by Robert Kagan (who spoke at the Council earlier this month) and Jeffrey Sachs, an analysis of the current administration emerges that is independent of the daily, even hourly, changing news cycle.

Trump and the End of Smugness

Devin Stewart / War on the Rocks

Irked by a sense that his initial and critical view of President Trump was distorted, Devin Stewart, a Democrat, sought in this essay in War on the Rocks to reassess Trump’s foreign policy. Stewart set aside the president’s sometimes coarse humor and behavior, as well as his critics’ sometimes hyperbolic interpretations, to narrow in on what Trump has actually done. What emerges is a clearer picture of Trump’s potential policy achievements to date—for example, a new direction with North Korea—if not exactly a clearer picture of Trump’s thinking that underlies the policies.

How Saving the Liberal World Order Became Harder

Wolfgang Münchau / The Financial Times

“If you really care about the liberal multilateral order, free trade and the EU, the least helpful thing you can do is to defend the status quo and hyperventilate about populists,” writes Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times. Too many core components of the liberal, multilateral economic order have become complacent and unstable, Münchau explains. Haranguing about the rise of populist politicians does little to remedy the underlying problems, which, Münchau adds, will become even more difficult to fix over time.

Angela Merkel Could Save Europe. Why Won’t She?

Julianne Smith / The New York Times

There is a gaping divide between what German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been saying and what she has been doing, writes Julianne Smith in the New York Times. What Merkel has been saying is promising—for example, that it is time for Europe to “take its destiny into its own hands.” In fact, she has given no shortage of lofty speeches about maintaining EU unity. However, explains Smith, Merkel has so far failed to turn these sentiments into substance, even as her French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron, stands ready with an outstretched hand to help with these endeavors.

Theresa May Digs in Her Heels as Brexit Wobble Turns into Stampede

Tim Shipman / The Times (UK)

Prime Minister Theresa May appears embattled over Brexit. As Tim Shipman writes in The Times (UK), May “is fighting against her cabinet, Brexiteers and remainers on her back benches, the DUP whose 10 MPs prop up her government, the civil service, and the rest of the EU.” While the palace intrigue over Britain’s exit from the European Union features a large cast of characters, each jockeying to have their say and to wield more political power, Shipman nonetheless provides a clear and detailed analysis of which ministers make up May’s loyalists, which her resistance, and which are still on the fence.

US Edges toward New Cold-War Era with China

Michael C. Bender, Gordon Lubold, Kate O’Keeffe, and Jeremy Page / Wall Street Journal

The first eighteen months of Trump’s presidency saw an often mercurial stance toward China. The White House would praise Beijing one moment to increase leverage on North Korea, for instance, only to criticize China the next moment for its trade imbalance with the United States. No more, write a quartet of reporters in the Wall Street Journal. The harsh tone used by Vice President Mike Pence during his recent speech at the Hudson Institute is now the committed administration-wide approach signed off on by President Trump. 

How to Fix the Great American Growth Machine

Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge / Wall Street Journal

In an essay adapted from their new book Capitalism in America, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and the current political editor of The Economist set out to answer two important questions: Why has the United States became the world’s greatest economy,  and why has its economic dynamism slowed in recent years? The essay is not only a brilliant and brief history of the American economy from 1776 to today, in it Greenspan and Wooldridge also offer concrete recommendations to get the US economy going again, including strengthening the financial system by increasing capital requirements.

US Spycraft and Stealthy Diplomacy Expose Russian Subversion in a Key Balkans Vote

Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt / The New York Times

There is a dicey game afoot in the Balkans as American spies work to uncover covert Russian operations in the Balkans. As this report in the New York Times details, a Greek-Russian billionaire was recently revealed to be working for the Kremlin to undermine a pending agreement between Macedonia and Greece over the former’s name, which would move Skopje closer to joining NATO. Cooper and Schmitt present an account of the operation to uncover the Russian operator that is as thrilling as it is unsettling about the long shadow Moscow casts over the Balkans.


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