“Sometimes it’s important to watch what the president does rather than what he says.” That was Senator John McCain’s advice to America’s allies in a recent interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, in which he attempted to explain the White House’s mixed foreign policy messages. McCain’s advice seems to reflect the popular idea that President Trump’s words should be taken with a heavy dose of salt—that he should be taken “seriously, but not literally,” as Peter Thiel famously said during the election.
I can appreciate the sentiment, but I think it's mistaken. A president’s words matter. Whether he is truthful, accurate, and consistent in his statements determines his credibility in the eyes of America’s allies and adversaries. His office, moreover, lends him the ability to alter the public’s perception of America and its role in the world.
Consider President Trump’s statements toward Europe. He recently put his thumb on the scale in the French elections, for example, by praising far-right candidate Marine Le Pen as “the strongest on what’s been going on in France.” This has the potential to carry serious consequences for US-French relations, regardless of the election results. On NATO, he recently—and rightly—walked back his former criticism of the alliance, saying “it’s no longer obsolete.” Still, the abrupt about-face, combined with his unsatisfactory explanation for the shift, was hardly reassuring.
Trump’s praise of some of the world’s dictators and strongmen is equally worrisome. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, he says, is a “pretty smart cookie,” while authoritarian presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are both “strong leaders.” Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is doing “a fantastic job,” and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte was just officially invited to the White House.
What should be made of comments like these? For one thing, they signal to the world that authoritarians can ignore the rule of law and human rights and still be praised by the leader of the free world. They offer a degree of status and legitimacy to authoritarianism and demonstrate a willingness to compromise on American principles. Whatever their intent, these words carry profound symbolism and meaning. Actions may often speak louder than words. But words matter, especially when spoken by the president of the United States of America.
This Week’s Reads help to explain President Trump’s foreign policy messages, and highlight some of the global issues that will continue to shape them.
R.R. Reno/The New York Times
As a self-proclaimed member of the ousted conservative elite, R.R. Reno describes the realignment of the Republican Party’s focus from government spending to anti-globalism. Citing increasingly elitist practices among both conservatives and liberals as the cause of a rift between voters and the upper political echelons, Mr. Reno concedes that it will be from “Mr. Trump’s playbook” that future Republican leaders will draw their rhetoric. In the face of this paradigm shift, he challenges the assumption that globalism is to be taken for granted, calling for skepticism towards an ideology that “…disenfranchises the vast majority and empowers a technocratic elite.”
Henry A. Kissinger/Wall Street Journal
Adapted from a speech about the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, by former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, this article focuses on both the period that lead to the foundation of a united European Union and the character of the man that Kissinger credits with delivering Germany to it. As the title implies, Kissinger sees the same “fractured world” threatening to return, questioning whether or not existing structures will be able to recapture the “conviction and creativity” that people like Mr. Adenauer built it with.
While many are celebrating as Marine Le Pen’s polling numbers look grimmer, author Yascha Mounk cautions against viewing this outcome as a huge victory for globalism. Merely fifteen years ago, Le Pen’s father was rejected by a margin of 60 percent of the vote after unexpectedly making it to the runoffs. Now, Ms. Le Pen has gotten closer with much less resistance. Warning against complacency, Mounk advises fellow liberals to “harness the power of globalization” for the majority of the population, rather than for its own sake as a moral imperative.
Jonathan Taplin/The New York Times
With the advent of the digital age, it is not terribly surprising that tech companies have become the most successful on the market. Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook are ascendant, dominating their industries and leaving little room for competition. The characteristic signs of burgeoning monopolies have begun to surface and the question now stands: “What do we do about it?” Several options for curbing the control that these corporations have garnered are presented in this article: Prevent them from buying their competitors, regulate them as public utilities, or remove the “safe harbor” clause that allows these sites organizations to host content at low cost and with little accountability.
Edward Luce/The Atlantic
With unprecedented speed, China and the United States have seemingly traded places on the world’s economic stage. China’s ascendency to the role of international trade steward also signals a growing partnership with the big players at the World Economic Forum in Davos, as well as the increasing popularity of authoritarianism. However, there are concerns that the globalist economy China and these elites strive for is precisely what has caused the widespread populism that they are now struggling to halt. The difficult balance between democracy, national identity, and economic globalism is strained, calling into question whether all three ideologies can truly coexist.
Hal Brands/Foreign Policy
Uncertainty abounds as to what direction the Trump administration is taking the United States. This article, however, claims a few simple certainties we can draw from the past 100 days of his presidency. We can be sure that when he said “America first” he meant it, but also that it will be a difficult ideology to enact. We can also be sure that Mr. Trump likes to be tough, gives his generals a long leash, and lacks rhetorical discipline. What we can be most sure of, however, seems to be that there is very little to be sure of at all.
Josh Dawsey, Shane Goldmacher and Alex Isenstadt/POLITICO
Recently, President Trump invited a pair of reporters from POLITICO to personally interview both him and his staff. Despite protests, the president insisted that the comments remain on the record. What resulted was a surprisingly candid view into the work environment within the White House. The interviews with aides provide intimate details on the nature of their task and their concerns going forward. Their accounts are somewhat grim, recounting many internal hiccups, from jockeying for position and power to the particular stressors that most aggravate Mr. Trump. The picture they paint is of an administration “gripped by paranoia and insecurity.”
Simon Nixon/The Wall Street Journal
This article presents an optimistic look at Emmanuel Macron’s chances of seriously improving France. Contrary to doubts on Macron’s relative inexperience; his political track record, from staffer to Economic Minister, is fairly promising. His relatively light policy plans may reflect a more reserved stance against making promises that may prove difficult to keep. While potential opposition from parliament will certainly prove challenging, there is hope that the state of France’s economy, as well as a consensus among experts on clear solutions to these issues, will spur bipartisan agreement. With a predicted upturn in the French economy imminent, odds may be favoring a successful Macron presidency.
Stephen Sestanovich/The Atlantic
Since the 1950s a debate on the role America is meant to play on an international stage has occurred in 20 year intervals: Following a costly war and with concerns mounting at home, voters and politicians reignite the debate on America’s place in the world. This cycle has been interrupted by Donald Trump’s presidency, purports Stephen Sestanovich. Trump was able to outplay all of his opponents and now they are uniting to curb the advance of his agenda. These people, argues Sestanovich, were supposed to be pitted against one another to determine America’s future course. Now, distracted, the questions we should theoretically be answering remain unanswered.
Bill Lane/Wall Street Journal
Bill Lane presents Colombia as an exemplar of what American soft and hard power together, or “smart power,” can accomplish. A combination of military and civil action costing the United States $10 billion dollars, a drop in the national bucket, has resulted in a stronger Colombia, able to better combat the country’s historic drug trade. With an administration touting a radical rebalancing in favor of hard power, Colombia serves as a perfect case study for how using every tool America has at its disposal, in unison, can yield fantastic results.