The Incompetence Doctrine


Through Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, foreign policy analysts have been hard at work seeking to divine the guiding precepts of his administration. But when it comes to foreign policy, the one thing that has become piercingly obvious so far is that this president has no idea where he is going.

Trump may have come into office with a set of strongly held, if poorly considered, ideas bound together by the isolationist chic label of “America First.” Yet the story of his presidency so far has been one of a leader who is veering incoherently, and often incompetently, between the irresponsible promises he made on the campaign trail and the hard realities he cannot escape now that he is in office. The near-term result is what frequently appears to be a fundamentally unserious approach to some of the most serious geopolitical issues the United States confronts.  The longer-term upshot is likely to be significant damage to America’s position in the world.

Take the latest example: Trump’s pointless brinksmanship over NAFTA last week. Candidate Trump had, of course, threatened to tear up the agreement, apparently without considering the economic havoc this step would wreak not just on Mexico and Canada but on the United States. Once he took office, however, there were reassuring signals that the administration was adjusting to this reality and instead taking a more moderate tack aimed simply at updating a 25-year old agreement.

Yet at mid-week Trump, apparently agitated by his paucity of concrete accomplishments during the first 100 days, and perhaps seeking greater leverage in the renegotiation talks, suddenly began to threaten that the United States would soon withdraw from the agreement altogether. It was reportedly only after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, armed with a set of appropriately colorful maps, explained to Trump that terminating NAFTA would economically devastate many of the Republican voters who helped elect him — and only after Mexican officials bluntly explained that they would not negotiate under such duress — that Trump walked back from the precipice.

The entire episode would have been amusing were it not so depressingly revealing about how Trump — and by extension, his administration — operates. There was the utterly reckless campaign pledge that would have proven catastrophic if implemented, and the slow and grudging move toward normalcy as Trump’s presidency began to unfold. Then out of nowhere came a dramatic turnabout informed as much by emotion as by analysis, followed by a last-minute climb-down after a frantic intervention by Trump’s more sober advisers. In the process, a president who continually boasts about his deal-making prowess proved himself to be an utterly inept negotiator: It was Trump, after all, who folded after the Mexicans called his bluff—a prudent retreat, but one that never should have been necessary. In sum, Trump managed the unusual feat of combining belligerence with flaccidness, of seeking to manifest determination and boldness — and instead showing just how weak, capricious, and tactically amateurish he really is.

These tendencies have, unfortunately, been the rule rather than the exception. During the transition, he sought to make good on his threats to get tough on China by suggesting he might deepen U.S. ties with Taiwan. Yet he subsequently retreated, with little to show for the effort, after Beijing made clear it would simply give Trump the diplomatic silent treatment until the policy was reaffirmed.

Then, in late January, the White House issued its infamous executive order on refugees and migration — a step meant, at least in theory, to protect the United States from terrorist infiltration and enact one of Trump’s key campaign pledges. Yet that initiative, had it been implemented, seemed sure to alienate the very partners crucial to any effective counter-terrorism campaign: Muslim-Americans and Muslim governments abroad. In any event, its design and implementation were so thoroughly flawed that the restrictions were quickly enjoined by the courts—as was the revised executive order subsequently promulgated by the administration.

Similarly, in March the administration announced — in keeping with Trump’s campaign rhetoric — that it was ditching the Obama administration’s declared “Assad must go” policy, without apparently extracting a quid pro quo for this significant concession or even considering the likely consequences. After Assad, predictably, responded by launching his most egregious chemical weapons attack since 2013, Trump — now outraged by the carnage, and having been made to look weak and foolish by Assad — responded by ordering cruise missile strikes against a Syrian air base.

The missile strikes themselves were potentially useful in reestablishing deterrence against the usage of chemical weapons, and they were executed with a degree of discipline highly unusual for this administration. But the positive effects were immediately undermined, as hopelessly mixed messages from administration officials and Trump himself made it painfully clear that the administration had not adequately determined what strategic effects the strikes were meant to produce, whether they were prelude to additional U.S. action in Syria, or whether they represented a reversal of Trump’s earlier policy positions on Syria and Assad. In these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Moscow and demanded that Russia drop its support for Assad, he came away empty handed.

More recently still, Trump — building on an earlier public pledge to stop the North Korean nuclear and missile program in its tracks — tried to intimidate North Korea by suggesting a powerful U.S. “armada” was headed Pyongyang’s way. Yet he succeeded only in alarming and then confusing U.S. partners in the region when it became clear that the carrier strike group in question was actually thousands of miles away and steaming in the opposite direction. And on the heels of that fiasco, Trump managed to alienate and frighten America’s South Korean allies in three separate ways: by warning (accurately, but too cavalierly) that a “major, major conflict” — one that would devastate South Korea — is possible; by demanding, contrary to a settled agreement, that South Korea pay for the operation and maintenance of a U.S. missile defense system stationed in that country; and by threatening to terminate a U.S.-South Korean free trade deal. He did all this, moreover, in the context of a South Korean presidential campaign in which Seoul’s approach to Pyongyang is being hotly debated.  How any of this will actually help Washington deal with a severe and worsening problem — North Korea’s advanced weapons programs and increasingly belligerent behavior — is anyone’s guess.

Indeed, the unifying themes among these episodes have been incoherence and incompetence.  Incoherence in the sense that it is nearly impossible for observers within the United States or abroad (or even, perhaps, within some quarters of the administration) to pin down, on any given day, what U.S. policy is and how Trump intends to accomplish his goals. And incompetence in the sense that Trump has shown no ability to address difficult issues effectively, to align expectations with what can realistically be achieved, or even to project a basic sense of steadiness and purpose in foreign affairs.

Perhaps some of this can be chalked up to the inevitable learning curve, and there have been some hopeful signs of late that professionals like Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are gradually gaining greater sway. But the real problem remains what it always has been: At the head of this administration sits a poorly informed, thin-skinned president who places more emphasis on winning the news cycle than on advancing America’s long-term interests. In these circumstances, policy is destined to be incoherent, incompetent and fundamentally chaotic.

The consequences of all this will not be trivial. The constructive and stabilizing role that Washington has played in global affairs since World War II has not simply been about the policies America has pursued. It has also been about how U.S. officials have pursued them. For decades, the United States has cultivated a reputation as a country that generally knows what it is doing and where it is going in international affairs, periodic mistakes and deviations notwithstanding.

Trump is now putting that reputation at risk, as much through ineptness as through ideology. He is making America a country that zig-zags haphazardly in foreign policy, thereby continually undermining its own credibility and reputation for seriousness in addressing an array of difficult issues. Mainstream observers have long worried about Trump’s radicalism in foreign policy, but it is his incompetence that may ultimately be our undoing.


Hal Brands is Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  His most recent book is Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order, published in 2016. 

Image: Donkey Hotey, CC

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