Over the past few months, Donald Trump has seemingly felt like he was getting a handle on this foreign policy thing. The president made a number of dramatic and unprecedented moves, often defying the consensus of experts, including his own advisers. And in his mind, they’ve been major wins. There was his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move of the U.S. embassy there; his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal; his threat of tariffs against Chinese-made goods as well as European and North American metal products; and, of course, his Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Along the way, Trump has shed many of his more establishment-minded advisers—national security adviser H.R. McMaster, economic adviser Gary Cohn, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—and appears to have marginalized Secretary of Defense James Mattis. After all, why does he have to listen to those guys? He’s defied their advice again and again, and it has always turned out fine. “Events have transpired in a way that has given the president heightened confidence in his instinct on all three of these topics,” one official told the Washington Post in May.
But it probably won’t work out that way forever. Trump favors dramatic gestures that please his supporters, defy his critics, and show up his predecessors. He’s less interested in sweating the details or considering unintended consequences. In recent days, some of those consequences have started to emerge, and the president is not handling them well.
Trump has launched Twitter fusillades against both Harley-Davidson and the countries of OPEC because the laws of market economics are not bending to his will. In Harley’s case, the company provoked Trump’s ire by announcing that it would move some production for Europe-bound motorcycles to avoid tariffs the EU imposed (in reaction to measures imposed by Trump)—an entirely predictable business decision for Harley-Davidson, given the current market climate.
As for OPEC, Trump is upset that the organization, and its de facto leader Saudi Arabia, won’t boost output to counter rising oil prices. There are several reasons for rising prices, including instability in Libya and sanctions on Venezuela, but a big factor is U.S. efforts since the withdrawal from the nuclear deal to dramatically curb Iran’s oil exports—which currently account for about 2 percent of the global supply. The Trump administration wants to compel buyers to zero out their purchases of Iranian oil by November, which is predictably affecting markets.
In both cases, Trump seems to have been banking on his personal relationships to protect him against any blowback from his decisions. At a White House meeting shortly after the beginning of his presidency, he praised Harley-Davidson executives for helping to deliver Wisconsin for him during the election and called the company a “true American icon, one of the greats.” And his close relationship with Saudi Arabia’s royal family has been widely covered and discussed. In a tweet on June 30, he seem to imply that King Salman had agreed in a private conversation to increase production. This, apparently, was not the case.
Trump also put a lot of faith in his “excellent relationship” with Kim, developed during their one-day meeting last month. Trump has stated since the meeting that Kim had agreed to “a total denuclearization of North Korea.” Today, however, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading to North Korea to firm up the details amid increasing indications that North Korea is not, in fact, taking steps to denuclearize.* This should come as no surprise given that North Korea did not actually agree to take any such steps and merely committed itself to the eventual goal of the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a nebulous concept with a number of interpretations. Trump has not yet lashed out at Kim, but it’s hard to believe he will just sit quietly if evidence of North Korea’s noncompliance continues to grow.
Pompeo isn’t the only Trump official on a damage-control mission. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt visited Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia to gauge reactions to a proposed Middle East peace plan, which will apparently be released soon. One small problem: Palestinian leaders have been unwilling to even meet with Kushner or anyone senior from the Trump administration since the Jerusalem decision. Chances of Trump and Kusher forging the “ultimate deal” on Mideast peace always have been slim, but again, the president traded the potential for long-term diplomatic progress for a short-term domestic political win.
The coming weeks will offer more opportunities for high-stakes gambits. There’s an impending trade war with China, which will kick off with the introduction of tariffs on Friday. There’s next week’s NATO meeting, which is bound to be another contentious encounter between Trump and U.S. allies. And of course, there’s the grand summit with Vladimir Putin on July 16 in Helsinki. Trump already has diminished expectations for this meeting by both endorsing Putin’s view of the annexation of Crimea and making clear he wants to meet one-on-one with Putin, with no aides present.
The pattern of Trump’s foreign policy is that he seeks grand moments in the spotlight of the world stage and blames others when his actions bring unwanted, but entirely predictable, consequences. It apparently could have been much worse: According to a disturbing new Associated Press report, top aides including McMaster and Tillerson talked Trump down from a desire to invade Venezuela last summer. Who’s going to be around to talk him down the next time he has an idea like this?
*Correction, July 5, 2018: This post initially misidentified Mike Pompeo as the secretary of defense. He is the secretary of state.