In the past few days, it seems like Donald Trump has accelerated his violation of political norms. His speech to the Boy Scouts was about as unpresidential as one could get. The Russia scandal hampering his White House is clearly driving him crazy. He has spent the past few days publicly abusing his attorney general in myriad ways. He continues to not know anything about the world and not staff his administration properly. It seems like the perfect time for the secretary of energy to get punked and the secretary of state to take a vacation.
Last month, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis asked the world to “bear with us,” promising that, “once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.” It would seem that the Trump administration is still very busy exhausting the alternatives.
In light of the insanity of this week, GOP operative Rick Wilson asks the question that international relations experts like me have been asking since January:
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been worrying about this for the past six months. But it is worth noting that this dog has not barked. So far there really hasn’t been a major foreign policy crisis. Oh, sure, North Korea has been North Korea. That is also the area of policy where the Trump administration has been the most conventional. The Qatar situation has been handled very poorly, but — with sincere apologies to the Qataris — this does not yet rise to the level of major foreign policy crisis.
Do not get me wrong. The Trump administration has created a lot of its own crises, but the truth is that it has not had to handle any crisis instigated by a foreign adversary.
I am beginning to wonder if this is intentional.
This column falls under the category of “ideas that I am not even sure I totally buy but are worth pondering.” It certainly seems that adversaries should be eager to trigger a crisis when the United States is in as much turmoil as it is right now.
But there is another way to think about this. If the United States is busy tearing itself apart and weakening its long-term foundations of power, why strike now when striking later improves the odds? With every passing day, the hegemon manages to self-destruct just a little bit more. With this dynamic, patience is a virtue.
For U.S. adversaries, triggering a foreign policy crisis risks doing the one thing that the Trump administration has abjectly failed to do in its first six months: rally Americans around the flag. The United States retains formidable resources. The last thing any rival wants is to renew America’s focus and purpose. Doing nothing is easier. If the United States continues on its current trajectory, then a future conflict looks far more promising than a current conflict.
To be sure, an enervated United States will not encourage all foreign actors to not start a crisis. Smaller, more threatened actors such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda or North Korea couldn’t care less about America’s internal divisions. And neither natural disasters nor asset markets will be deterred by the current dysfunction of the executive branch. A crisis could be instigated any day now.
For great or middle powers, however, the calculus might be different. There is no evidence that the Trump administration is getting its act together. Indeed, Trump’s disenchantment with his secretary of state, national security adviser and attorney general suggests even more discord to come. An American rival in world politics who has a decent shadow of the future might look at what Trump is doing and prefer acting later to acting now. Let the chaos muppet continue to wreak his carnage.
If you are a foreign actor looking to take advantage of the United States, you will want to take action to aggressively advance your interests at some point. But maybe not right now. Why start a fight with someone who is too preoccupied with punching themselves?