The foreign policy wisdom of Trump the fool

The foreign policy wisdom of Trump the fool

4 May 2016

King Lear’s Fool was no idiot. The buffoonery and artifice of the Fool in Lear’s entourage allows Shakespeare to make the Fool the only honest person, excepting Cordelia, surrounding the ill-fated king.

Is Donald Trump a fool? He certainly says foolish things. Indeed, often it seems those are the only things he is capable of saying, and unlike his possible Shakespearian counterpart he also says dangerous, short-sighted and misplaced things. His speech last week on US foreign policy (which featured the word disaster five times, just to give a sense of its general tone) was full of the foolish things many have come to associate with Trump, and yet have led to the seemingly inexorable rise in his popularity.

But, perhaps more like Shakespeare’s Fool that we would like to imagine, he also said some surprisingly honest things, claims that align not only with Trump’s personal ambition to become CEO of the United States of America, but sophisticated analysis of the limits of American power.

According to Trump the logic of American foreign policy was “replaced with foolishness and arrogance” bred of the “dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming Western democracies”. Trump continues, “we tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what was unleashed”. Is this foolish or Fool-ish?

President Barack Obama, in his extensive interview with The Atlantic, said: “In order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hard-headed at the same time as we’re bighearted.” It is surely more eloquent, but the statements of Obama and Trump are far more aligned than those of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who spoke repeatedly of the “freedom deficit” and the need to promote democracy as both central thrust of US foreign policy and as a justification for military adventurism.

But more surprising, and perhaps challenging, is that this sense of the limitations on America’s ability to re-forge the world in its likeness finds echoes in recent scholarly work. Key thinkers from the history of international relations as an academic discipline would agree with Trump in at least this area.

Hans Morgenthau, a central figure in the classical realist tradition which argues that international politics and the presence of violence within it is a reflection of our imperfect human nature, implored leaders to think of the national interest in terms of their capabilities and their limitations. He concluded it was prudence and humility, not moral absolutes and national myths that should guide decision makers. Morgenthau did not see the world through rose-tinted glasses – foreign policy was about doing the lesser evil, and prudence and humility meant knowing when to know not to help others even if you wish to because the consequences of trying to help could be so terrible.

More recently some scholars have questioned the ethical value of ideas like the ‘democratic peace thesis’ as a motivation for political action, and too easily foreign policy disaster, and instead have promoted a more reflective approach to considering foreign policy.

As confronting as it may seem, is this not exactly what Trump was proposing? That there are things that America cannot do, and that it is weakened if it tries to do them? Their chains of reasoning could not be more different but some of the conclusions Trump reached are not wholly alien to more traditional, and well respected, thinkers.

Trump was surprisingly mainstream in a number of other areas, even if the presentation of these ideas seems offensive to the smooth sensibilities of those, such as myself, who comment on such things. NATO Allies should pay more for their own defence – a wholly reasonable and mainstream request already made by previous administrations and NATO itself.

His comments on Russia and China, the quest to seek common ground, are not immediately problematic, even if he quickly lapses into seemingly impossible solutions to addressing these relationships (somehow repatriating millions of manufacturing jobs to the US seems, shall we say, unlikely). Reconsideration of NATO’s mission and purpose may be unnerving not only to European states but to those who consider the ingredients and structures of global order, but again is it inherently ridiculous to seek to redesign a Cold War institution to face a completely different set of challenges when the US is deteriorating in its economic ability to provide ‘service as usual’?

This is not to say that all of Trump’s speech was reasonable, let alone well-reasoned. It was full of contradictions, blinkered assumptions and dangerous assertions of just how persuasive Trump thinks he can be – but it was not devoid of insight.

Trump is not humble, and he shows no signs of being reflective, and I am constantly stalked by the suppressed worry that he knows he is often being absurd but cannot believe how well it is working. But that does not mean that everything he says is outlandish and extreme, even if most of it may be. Perhaps one of the dangers of Trump is that the absurd and offensive coexists with the plausible and almost reasonable in what charitably might be called his policy thinking.

Trump’s foreign policy speech was not a cause for head-in-hands disbelief, but a puzzled reconsideration of why it is Trump, the offensive outsider, who is saying these things and not the established candidates. What binds them so tightly to ways of thinking about foreign policy that are simultaneously so unpopular and under heavy critique from academia and public commentary?

Lear’s Fool disappears in the middle of Shakespeare’s play, his purpose achieved as Lear comes to realise what he has done. Unfortunately Trump has not exited stage right, and instead appears set for the denouement, winning the primary, and then taking a leading role in the sequel, the general election campaign.

To understand Trump, but to also understand the response to him and what his impact and maybe even his contribution might be, we should remember that sometimes the Fool speaks through the foolish.

Mathew Davies is head of the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia and the Pacific, at the Australian National University.

First published in The Canberra Times, 4 May 2016.

Updated:  23 March 2016/Responsible Officer:  Su-Ann Tan/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team