Defining a foreign policy theory that might merit the title of “doctrine” is difficult in the Trump administration, which is dismissive of reflection, consistency and precedent. But in practice, it is the replacement of national pride with personal vanity.
Any diplomatic outcome — no matter how useless or harmful — is claimed by President Trump as a victory. Any complications are pinned on the “stupidity” of previous presidents. Trump’s negotiating style is a panting desire for the appearance of accomplishment, making him the easiest mark of modern presidential history.
This was on full display at the Helsinki summit. Trump set the vague objective of “improved relations.” Russian President Vladimir Putin continued pursuing his long-term, strategic goals: acceptance of occupied Crimea as part of Russia, the easing of international sanctions, impunity for the 2016 Russian attacks on the American electoral system, the sowing of discord within NATO and the European Union, global amnesia about murder with a nerve agent in Britain, the weakening of the transatlantic alliance, the disruption of U.S. global economic leadership and the further legitimization of his regime as a world power.
In the run-up to Helsinki, Trump actively advanced many important national objectives — of Russia. He claimed Crimea to be Russian, credited Putin’s denials of cyberaggression, attacked NATO, called the EU a “foe,” openly supported Brexit, disparaged Angela Merkel’s leadership, pushed for a trade war with Europe and blamed tension in the U.S./Russian relationship on the U.S. At Helsinki, having imitated Neville Chamberlain in every detail but the umbrella, he declared a famous victory. And so our president, who shows how tough he is by abusing migrant children, was a cringing coward before a dictator.
One of the problems with narcissism as a foreign policy doctrine is that it hides national challenges from the president that are blindingly obvious to everyone else. While Trump employs a mirror, others in the federal government have been using a magnifying glass to find a direct and growing threat to American national security.
Speaking recently at the Hudson Institute, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats (for whom I once worked) warned that we have reached a “critical point” similar to the situation before the 9/11 attacks, when the warning lights are “blinking red.” Citing continual cyberattacks on the government, the military and U.S. businesses, Coats said, “These actions are persistent, they’re pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis.” The Russians in particular, he explained, have the “intent to undermine our basic values, undermine democracy and create wedges between us and our allies.”
Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller issued indictments for 12 named Russian intelligence agents engaged in a systematic assault on American democracy in 2016. That effort (among other things) included the illegal downloading of data related to half a million American voters, the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Clinton campaign, and the carefully timed release of information to benefit the Trump campaign.
The President remains in total denial about Russian intentions and actions. This is unexplainable in strategic terms. Why would an American president so regularly praise and excuse a dictator dedicated to the overthrow of American influence? It is also unexplainable in political terms. Why wouldn’t a president facing an investigation of Russia influence on his campaign find opportunities to distance himself from Russian aggression? There is no rational explanation for Trump’s surrender to Russian designs. Perhaps Mueller will supply some type of unexpected, unsavory reason. But we know that Russia is Trump’s Rosetta Stone — the key that will eventually explain the refusal of an American president to defend American interests.
In the process, the Republican Party is becoming something unimaginable just five or 10 years ago. By following Trump into this strange, unhealthy Russian fetish, it is proving its loyalty while forfeiting its legitimacy. Much of the GOP is downplaying Russian aggression. And it is actively undermining the investigation of that aggression. Trump’s political tools have become Putin’s useful idiots. The party of national strength has become an obstacle to the effective protection of the country.
If Mueller finds evidence of Trump’s complicity, obstruction or corruption, Republicans in Congress must support the removal of the president from office. If Republicans in Congress can’t make that simple pledge today, they must be removed from office. If the GOP proves unequal to this national security threat, it has ceased to be a responsible, governing party.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.