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The Jerry Lewis of International Diplomacy

Is Trump’s foreign policy the work of an incompetent ignoramus or a strategic genius? The answer may surprise you.

House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) is joined by Democratic members of the committee for a news conference about the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit in the US Capitol Visitors Center, July 17, 2018 in Washington DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Bulletin is a chronicle of socialist comment and analysis from Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman. 

The Jerry Lewis of International Diplomacy

If there’s one master misconception people have about international diplomacy, it’s that the professionals who run foreign policy at the highest levels of major nations possess some special insight into the global ebb and flow of power and interest, presumably due to their access to inside information.

The reality is quite different.

Take the example of Trump. Most knowledgeable observers in this country see Trump’s exercise of US foreign policy as a study in brainless bungling, based on no particular strategy beyond a dril-like compulsion to avenge himself on his trolls and haters.

And yet, just as Jerry Lewis was supposedly seen as a genius in France, Trump, apparently, is seen as … a “master tactician” in China!

In the west, most foreign policy experts see him as reckless, unpredictable and self-defeating. But though many in Asia dislike him as much as the Europeans do, they see him as a more substantial figure. I have just spent a week in Beijing talking to officials and intellectuals, many of whom are awed by his skill as a strategist and tactician …

In Chinese eyes, Mr Trump’s response is a form of “creative destruction”. He is systematically destroying the existing institutions — from the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement to Nato and the Iran nuclear deal — as a first step towards renegotiating the world order on terms more favourable to Washington.

Once the order is destroyed, the Chinese elite believes, Mr Trump will move to stage two: renegotiating America’s relationship with other powers. Because the US is still the most powerful country in the world, it will be able to negotiate with other countries from a position of strength if it deals with them one at a time rather than through multilateral institutions that empower the weak at the expense of the strong….

They describe him as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can. … For the Chinese, even Mr Trump’s sycophantic press conference with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in Helsinki had a strategic purpose. They see it as Henry Kissinger in reverse. In 1972, the US nudged China off the Soviet axis in order to put pressure on its real rival, the Soviet Union. Today Mr Trump is reaching out to Russia in order to isolate China.

— Mark Leonard, president of the European Council on Foreign Relations, writing in the Financial Times: “The Chinese are wary of Donald Trump’s creative destruction”

What’s fascinating is how the Chinese and US foreign policy establishments can look at the same phenomenon and see two totally different realities. While the Chinese view sounds far-fetched to me (to put it mildly), who knows, maybe history will prove it right.

Either way, it usefully reminds us that geopolitics is like Hollywood. As William Goldman put it: “Nobody knows anything. … Every time out it’s a guess.”

One If by Hack, Two If by Tweet

Somehow, I missed this: There is now a “Committee To Investigate Russia,” which bills itself as “a nonprofit, non-partisan resource provided to help Americans recognize and understand the gravity of Russia’s continuing attacks on our democracy.”

With an advisory board stocked with top national-security veterans (James Clapper, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta), right-wingers (neocon commentator Max Boot, talk-radio host Charlie Sykes), and of course … Rob Reiner, who is apparently funding the outfit, the group harkens back to the many “citizens committees” of the Cold War era, those nonprofit Paul Reveres arousing the people to resist foreign dangers.

The committee’s website offers one-stop shopping for all your Russiagate needs, featuring dossiers on the “key players,” timelines of the conspiracy-so-immense, and a news feed with frequent updates. The latter doesn’t shy away from the wilder fringes of the Russiagate universe, either: yesterday it ran an opinion roundup titled, “What Could Putin Have On POTUS?”

In a previous edition of Bulletin, I traced the appeal of Russiagate for liberals to nostalgia for the Jed Bartlet administration. I will simply note here that Reiner was the director of the 1995 Sorkin-written Michael Douglas vehicle The American President — said to have been the inspiration for The West Wing.

Phantom Threat

Another bit on Russiagate. Yesterday, I mentioned a sinister bit of rumor-mongering from the human rights lawyer Scott Horton, who recently claimed that European intelligence had detected Russian attempts to back “anti-establishment” Democrats in primaries.

I pointed out that if such a campaign were actually happening, there would have to be evidence of it in the public record, yet no one has produced any. Maybe this is why:

Chris Krebs, undersecretary of the National Protection and Programs Directorate, the main cyber unit in DHS, told House lawmakers that Russia has been quieter this year than it was during the last presidential race … Going into the midterms, Krebs said, “the intelligence community has yet to see any evidence of a robust campaign aimed at tampering with our election infrastructure along the lines of 2016 or influencing the makeup of the House or Senate races.” [Matt] Masterson [senior cybersecurity adviser at DHS] echoed his remarks…

— Derek Hawkins in the Washington Post: “Election security legislation may be gaining steam in Congress.”

Good Idea

The shiny, new, plutocratic New York has a crumbling subway system whose on-time rates have fallen back to where they were in the supposedly bad-old-days of the 1970s. One beleaguered New Yorker has a useful suggestion.

One rider, Kyana Palmer, described the all-too-common experience of being swept up in a painful delay this month. She had taken an Uber from her home in Brooklyn to the Franklin Avenue station, hoping one of its four lines would be running to take her to work. Instead, she found hundreds of frustrated riders waiting on a sweltering platform for more than half an hour.

“You’d think people would be out protesting in the streets,” Ms. Palmer said …

— Emma G. Fitzsimmons in the New York Times: “They Vowed to Fix the Subway a Year Ago. On-Time Rates Are Still Terrible.”

Can we get started on this?