And then consequences began to arrive.
When a president speaks, others hear. When he acts, he sets in motion a chain of reactions. When he selects one option, he precludes others.
This is why presidents are surrounded by elaborate staff systems to help them—and oblige them—to think through their words and actions.
If we impose tariffs on Chinese products, how might they retaliate? What’s our next move after that?
If we want to pressure Iran more tightly than our predecessors, what buy-in will we need from other countries? What will they want in return?
What do we want from North Korea that we can realistically get?
Team Trump does not engage in exercises like this.
Team Trump does not do it because the president does not do it. His idea of foreign policy is to bark orders like an emperor, without thinking very hard about how to enforce compliance or what to do if compliance is not forthcoming.
The administration canceled the Iran deal without first gaining European, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian cooperation for new sanctions.
Trump started a trade war with China without any plan for response to the inevitable Chinese counter-moves.
He enthusiastically pounced on a possible U.S.-North Korea summit in the false belief that such a summit represented a huge concession to the United States rather than—correctly—a huge concession by the United States.
The result: China pushed back on trade, and Trump blinked and retreated. The whole world saw him blink and retreat. Having yielded to powerful China, Trump is now salving his ego with a plan for new tariffs on cars from Japan, Mexico, and Canada.
The result: The U.S. has abjured its right to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities without any workable plan to impose global sanctions instead. India and China each trade more with Iran than with the entirety of the European Union—and neither is very vulnerable to U.S. pressure.
The result: Having ridiculously inflated hopes of North Korean denuclearization, Trump is now engaged in another ridiculously undignified name-calling match with the North Korean dictator, alienating South Korean opinion by bellicose threats of war.
The “bark orders, impose punishments, and bully friends and enemies into surrender to the mighty, imperial me” approach to foreign policy is unlikely enough to work even when applied to relatively weak states like North Korea and Iran. When simultaneously applied to the entire planet, allies and adversaries alike, it produces only rapidly accelerating failure.
In Trump’s case, the reckoning came especially fast, and for three reasons.
First, because he talked so much and tweeted so much, he revealed much more of himself much earlier than other presidents. His ego, his neediness, his impulsiveness, and the strange irregular cycles of his working day—those were all noted and analyzed before any formal action of his presidency. They were noted not only by leaders, but by electorates—with the result that long before he had decided on what cooperation he wanted from, for example, Australia, his offensive words had limited the ability of Australia’s democratically accountable leaders to cooperate with him.