A president’s budget has never been so much a blueprint for spending as a statement of his priorities. At a glance this one reflects the priorities of a president who expects, or wants, to go to war.
What other conclusion can we draw from a budget that gouges 10.9 billion dollars—29 percent—out of the budget for diplomacy and increases the defense budget by 52.3 billion dollars—10 percent—for unspecified equipment?
The Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz taught us that “war is a mere continuation of policy with other means.” In other words, war happens when diplomacy fails. Or is not pursued.
If you think that conclusion is extreme, consider that Trump’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has no experience in diplomacy; that the entire senior management team under him—six top-echelon officials—have either resigned or been fired since inauguration, taking with them more than a combined hundred fifty years of institutional memory, and have not been replaced; that Tillerson’s choice for a deputy, the conservative and highly experienced Elliott Abrams, was vetoed by the president over a perceived slight and no new candidate has been named; that many of Trump’s meetings with foreign leaders occur in the presence of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, his daughter and son-in-law, but not Tillerson; the secretary travels abroad alone, without press or state department experts; that this week on a trip to China, South Korea, and Japan he invited a single reporter who writes for a conservative website and who has no foreign policy background.
Trump has established some ambitious foreign policy goals, promising for example that “radical Islamic terrorism . . . we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.” Then he asked the Pentagon to write a plan for that. Son-in-law Kushner, who is Jewish but has no background in diplomacy, was put in charge of Middle East peace negotiations.
When asked about the prospect for good relations with Russia, Turkey, Great Britain, or Israel the president described these relationships as if they depended wholly upon his personal relationships with their leaders.
I like them, he says of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Theresa May, and Benjamin Netanyahu, but I don’t know whether they’ll like me.
This is foreign policy by a middle schooler, not worthy of the United States of America or its president. But the foreign policy being shaped by this administration probably is not middle school.
Given the emasculation of America’s existing foreign policy structure and the bizarre arrangements that are taking its place, it seems much more likely that Trump and his chief strategist Steve Bannon intend to start Bannon’s promised deconstruction of the administrative state by destroying the state department and consolidating control of foreign relations in the White House, thus obliterating seventy-five years of carefully constructed policies and alliances that created and cemented America’s leadership of the free world.
The department has long been an object of resentment to nationalist conservatives. Destroying it was a dream of Wisconsin’s demagogue Senator Joe McCarthy and the extreme conservatives who succeeded him for decades. But it isn’t to honor the memory of McCarthy that this is being done now.
The State Department is the government’s main repository of deep knowledge, expertise, and institutional memory regarding America’s carefully built network of relationships with the world. If decisions were being made in Washington that favored our adversaries—Russia being chief among them—it is the State Department that would have the intellectual power and background to explain the dangers, teach the history, suggest the alternatives, indeed perhaps dig in its heels.
Similar brain power and knowledge exist at the Central Intelligence Agency, but its mission requires secrecy. In any event Trump has already begun the process to destroy that agency’s credibility and he can be expected to continue doing it.
There is another, darker reason for Trump to draw total control of America’s foreign relations into his own hands and those of his small circle of White House advisors. Personal control is a non-negotiable requirement of any dictator in a totalitarian state.
Who voted for that?