Opinion

Mideast 'Friends' Beware: With North Korea, Trump Just Proved How Easily He’ll Sell Out America’s Allies

Long-standing alliances? Disposable. The entire international security order? Expendable. The lesson for Netanyahu and U.S. allies in the Gulf is that the only Trump foreign policy doctrine is: 'What’s in it for me?'

A historic moment: Kim and Trump shake hands, Sentosa, Singapore, 12 June 2018
SAUL LOEB/AFP

In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, editor Jeffrey Goldberg spoke to a number of people in the White House to seek their definition of a “Trump doctrine.” The response that garnered the most headlines was the remark of one official who said the doctrine could be summed as, “We’re America, bitch.”  

Presumably, the bitch in question is the rest of the planet earth. So, apologies to all of you. But candidly, Trump’s recent performance at the G7 Summit in Canada and then at the Singapore Summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, suggest that more serious apologies may be in order soon.  

That is because, with each of these fiascos, Trump has revealed yet again that to the extent to which he has a doctrine, it’s "What’s in it for me?"

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In other words, Trump does not look at the world in terms that usually shape U.S. presidential doctrines like, "What are America’s national interests?" or “What principles should guide our actions?” or "What are our strategic objectives?”  

Rather, he evaluates everything by one metric: What does any possible outcome mean for him personally? He seeks to determine how he might gain politically, reputationally, or, it appears from his on-going business interests worldwide, financially. (I admit this is a trifle unfair. He will also sometimes ask what is in it for his friends or family.)

It is for this reason that Trump could go to Canada to meet with some of America’s most important allies at the G7 Summit and seemingly ignore the post-World War II history of the relationships, their central economic and political importance to the U.S., the minimum basic requirements of sound diplomacy, the economic facts of the trading relationships between the countries and virtually everything every written or understood about trade.  

Instead, he concluded that his base would like it if he beat up on a bunch of foreigners (even if they included folks he very recently praised as buddies like Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau) and that he promised a trade war during the campaign and that by golly, he was going to have one of those things regardless of who it hurt.

U.S. President Donald Trump shows the document, that he and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un signed acknowledging the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

It would seem absolutely pointless to attack Canada, our closest ally and a country that literally has spent most of its existence being as inoffensive to anyone as, say, a donut and a cup of coffee.  But Trump felt it would make him look tough and so, consequences be damned.

Similarly, he embraced one of the world’s most odious, murderous, corrupt human beings in Singapore because he thought it might make him look better and distract from his legal problems at home in the U.S.  Now, arguably, this summit had a higher purpose which was reducing the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. And so pursuing that might be seen as a selfless act, and not simply a bit of calculated politics that might also result in a Nobel Peace Prize.  

And that would be true if in fact anything had occurred at the Summit that might have indicated Trump or Kim were serious about the goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Oh sure, the post-Summit communique mentioned that as a goal, but in precisely the same terms as in past unsuccessful agreements between the countries.

Further, Trump laid on the concessions to Kim like a car dealer trying offering options in a hard-sell to a buyer.  

He gave him international recognition Kim’s family had long craved but had always been denied. He praised Kim in ways that starkly contrasted with his insults of the G7 leaders. He offered up a potential visit to the White House.  He suspended U.S. military exercises in the Koreas. He even suggested he might consider pulling U.S. troops out of the Koreas.

Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G7 summit
Jesco Denzel/AP

None of it was warranted. Kim didn’t really reciprocate with much except a suspension of nuclear testing and missile engine testing that can easily be reversed. But Trump wanted the event to appear to be a success. 

He didn’t consider as other presidents might have done, the risks associated with suspending what he disparagingly termed "war games" or offering to send troops home. Because those risks are risks Americans and our allies would face. Trump personally won’t be hurt by them at all. So to him, they were freebies, easy giveaways.

This is where the future apologies may come in - and Trump’s seeming friends in the Middle East may wish to take notice. A deal is only as good as it is for him as long as it is good for him. Long-standing alliances?Disposable. International agreements? Unimportant. The entire international security order and America’s investment in global peace and stability of the past century? Expendable.   

Because the Trump doctrine is, "What’s in it for me?" And the events of the past couple weeks (and from all of Trump’s personal and professional endeavors throughout his life) have shown, when that calculus changes, so too can and will the actions of the president of the United States.  

So, to Bibi Netanyahu and the leaders of the Gulf, ask not for whom the news from Donald Trump’s Washington tolls, because sooner or later it will toll for thee.

David Rothkopf is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His most recent book is Great Questions of Tomorrow (Simon & Schuster/TED, 2017). Twitter: @djrothkopf