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This week on Freak Out And Carry On, Ron Suskind and Heather Cox Richardson speak with Susan Glasser, Politico's chief international affairs columnist and host of the podcast, The Global Politico. They look at President Trump on the world's stage, from his flip flop on the Iran nuclear deal, to his admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to the absence of a "Trump Doctrine." Heather compares and contrasts President Trump with Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.
Heather Cox Richardson: Well, you know we have had a long run with America as the preeminent power in the world, but that really only began in 1941. There was a famous article, a piece written in Time by Henry Luce in '41, that said this is the American century. This is the century where America is going to carry its principles forward to the world, and we have a duty — a moral duty — to do that.
But that sort of internationalism, beginning in 1941 and really playing out through the years since then, ... really was new to America. America had always been an isolationist country and had recognized that foreign affairs was really about jockeying between different powers, generally for economic advantage. This idea that somehow America had a moral role to play internationally is a very new one. ... It really began in 1941. But to me, it's very interesting because it seemed with President Obama we were going back to the idea of recognizing that America was only one country of many. It was going to need to jockey among different nations for some sort of economic, political, social, cultural advantage.
And it's interesting to see what is going to happen now with President Trump who is so deliberately shutting the door to the world since 1941, and essentially saying, "Let's go back to where we were in the 1920s," or the 1900s. or the 1890s, or even the 1870s. It's a world in which America is very isolated, and while that may have worked in those eras, now in a new era of international trade that is so dominant in our economies, it's hard to imagine it's going to fly now.
Ron Suskind: As far as you can see, six months in, is there a Trump Doctrine at this point taking shape? And if so, what are some of the features of that, as we might define them?
Susan Glasser: Well, first of all, I would say beware of foreign policy pundits bearing "Doctrines" with a capital "D." One of the reasons why it's so hard to have a Donald Trump Doctrine when it comes to foreign policy is because that implies a level of strategic thinking, a purposefulness to it and a worldview that is coherent enough to produce such a thing.
One thing that we do know about Donald Trump is he's not Henry Kissinger, and he's not [Klemens von] Metternich, and he doesn't have a foreign policy doctrine with a capital "D" in those conventional senses, right? However, he does have instincts, and he does have policy views on particular subjects. They don't necessarily add up to a coherent or consistent foreign policy worldview. But, one of the things that I've said throughout the six-month-old Trump presidency is you should pay attention to what he has to say, because those who predicted he didn't really believe anything and he would just be bossed around by the adults in the room that he appointed to his national security team were wrong.
I think that has been borne out, by-and-large, when it comes to his preference for dealing with authoritarian leaders, for example, and strong men around the world, whether it's Vladimir Putin, or Turkey's leader, President Erdogan, or the military leader of Egypt, [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi. You've seen Trump express a marked preference for personal diplomacy with authoritarian regimes. That is an aspect of the Trump doctrine.
Suskind: Susan, let's just run out a dialogue here: What do you think U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and these other longstanding foreign policy players are saying to Trump when he's doing this? I mean, are they just saying, 'we respectfully disagree, Mr. President?' Or are they backing away? I mean they have to be stunned by this behavior. It just goes against everything those men have always said.
Glasser: The real story once it ultimately comes out of the Trump administration, may well be they perceive themselves to be stopping him from doing even other things. So this week, there was a very instructive round of that, I think, here in Washington. One of Trump's campaign promises was he was going to blow up the Iran nuclear deal that Obama made. He said he would get rid of it. Now, he didn't do that. Why? Because his top advisers and his top foreign policy allies, like Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu ... have come to accept that it's not the best course of action to simply blow it up in the absence of having an alternate plan.
And so Trump faced a deadline that basically we have to re-certify every few months. The deadline was coming up, his team of adults — McMaster and the like — thought they had gotten Trump's buy-in, but at the last minute he got angry all over again, because in fact he wants to do what he said on the campaign trail he was going to do when it comes to foreign policy. He wants to blow up the Iran deal. In this particular case, they'd actually scheduled an announcement for midday, they scheduled a briefing, conference call with reporters. They had to cancel all that and spend hours in meetings frantically trying to convince the president of something he had already agreed to, but obviously doesn't really support.
So what do I take away from that? No. 1: There are instances where McMaster and Mattis can win one, but it's likely to be temporary, and Donald Trump's preferences are those that he has publicly stated, and he will keep doing what he can, whether it is trying to reset relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin, or trying to sabotage or blow up the Iran deal.
Richardson: People seem to think that we have always been this international world power, but this whole moment where America is the preeminent power is post-World War II. It's a deliberate attempt to guarantee that we would not have international nuclear war. It came from a very specific place, and it was, even at the time, contested. So you had coming out of World War II, you had a significant proportion of the Republican Party who did not believe that America should be involved, especially in Europe — they were happy to mess around in Asia but they weren't interested in messing around in Europe. This is actually interestingly enough where we get the legend that FDR deliberately set up the bombing on Pearl Harbor, because they argued that that was a deliberate attempt to get America involved.
Suskind: You're kidding, so there was a U.S. behind 9/11 thing behind FDR and Pearl Harbor? I didn't know that! Tell me about FDR behind Pearl Harbor. Who was saying that? Not credible people.
Richardson: Well, yes, credible people, in fact. It was the Hoover wing of the Republican Party who were led in the 1940s by Sen. Robert Taft, the son of President William Howard Taft. And they believed staunchly in isolationism, they believed in the kind of world that came out of the 19th century — the idea that the only people who should be operating on the international stage were businessmen. And this plays out really dramatically in American history, because it looks in the 1950s as if Robert Taft is going to become president in 1952, or at least get the Republican nomination. And he has every reason to believe he's going to win, because Truman's quite unpopular then. Eisenhower has been in Europe trying to get NATO going. And Eisenhower comes back and goes, we simply must have the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to push back against the spread of the USSR, and he goes to Taft and he says, "Listen, you need to get your act together and get behind NATO. Don't be an isolationist anymore or NATO's going to collapse, and we must have NATO. And if you will back NATO I will not challenge you for the presidential nomination. But if you will not back NATO, my hat's in the ring." And Taft says, "I'm gonna win without you. America should be an isolationist country." And that's how Eisenhower ends up running for president in 1952.
Glasser: I think the NATO story — and it's great to hear sort of the founding politics of it and then to take it forward all these decades later. Nobody expected it to live on 70 years later, but nonetheless here it is. I have to say something about Donald Trump, because this is really important. It's not just that Donald Trump is taking an "America First" foreign policy, or he doesn't want the U.S. to go off adventuring in foreign wars. That was something that Barack Obama felt, and that he has in common with Donald Trump. The difference is about NATO and about Russia.
So what is it that is so striking about Donald Trump's comments on NATO? It is Vladimir Putin's animating goal in life. It is his No. 1 enemy — NATO. NATO is the thing that he believes threatens him, which makes an American president publicly questioning the foundation document of this entire alliance to be basically Vladimir Putin's dream.
Suskind: You were a reporter from Russia. You reported on Putin. Help us understand, talk to me about the Putin-Trump relationship, how you see it.
Glasser: Well, look, I think that is the signal question so far of Donald Trump's presidency, when it comes to foreign policy, is to unravel that mystery. Is it as simple as the fact that he seems to have always admired Vladimir Putin along with strongmen more generally? He specifically said many very admiring and praiseworthy things of Putin's presidency. But it's clearly something more than that, because his agenda is not just, "Well, gee, why can't we all get along," kind of simplistic.
He now has started to actually act on Putin's foreign policy agenda in a more specific way. And that's the part that really leaves people demanding answers, wanting the investigation to get to the bottom of this, because otherwise, it seems almost inexplicable. Why would you question NATO? Why would you end American CIA assistance to Syrian rebels who were opposing the Russia-backed Assad regime? And why would you do so and trade that away for nothing?
Look, what I would say is a) I'm glad that someone with the investigative capacity and skills of Bob Mueller's is investigating this, because I want to know just like you want to know. Donald Trump had every reason not to do it, and the fact that he so desperately wanted to speak privately to Vladimir Putin despite the potential political costs — which he was well aware of, obviously — make this an extraordinary moment. And anybody who thinks otherwise, you know, is just not paying attention.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the participants and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.
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