It was several hours before Donald Trump‘s speech to accept the nomination as the Republican presidential candidate at the party’s convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Mark Landler, the New York Times’ veteran correspondent who has covered American foreign policy since the inauguration of Barack Obama as U.S. president, was at the Carter Center for a World Affairs Council of Atlanta event where he would promote his recently published book Alter Egos – Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power.
Mr. Landler’s book barely mentions Mr. Trump, but in view of the event’s timing the evening of July 21, it was Mr. Trump who was foremost on the mind of the attendees and on Mr. Landler’s as well.
In his opening remarks, Charles Shapiro, the World Affairs Council’s president, couldn’t help but congratulate his staff on their organizing the event with such perfect timing, and the topic quickly turned to Mr. Trump and foreign policy.
During an interview with Global Atlanta before the World Affairs event, Mr. Landler had made it clear that he had a fairly good bead on Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy views, but that he was totally at a loss to imagine what might be Mr. Trump’s.
Of course, Mr. Trump would hit out against trade deals and U.S. relations with China as he did over the course of the primaries. But Mr. Landler’s problem with Mr. Trump is not so much what he says as with what he says next.
“I don’t think we can honestly say what Mr Trump is going to do,” he told Global Atlanta. “He is so irrational and unpredictable.”
While he placed Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy views in a traditional mainstream Democratic context (“a fairly textbook American exceptionalist in favor of diplomacy”) stretching back through the Kennedy administration and even further to President Truman, he said that Mr. Trump’s views represent “a new creation that confounds a lot of the traditional models.”
“Trump’s foreign policy, to the extent that we even know what it is, is riddled with contradictions,” he added. “On the one hand he says he is going to bomb ISIS into oblivion. On the other hand, he says he is going to avoid stupid interventions of the kind that Obama and Clinton did in Libya or that Clinton voted for in the case of Iraq.”
He made it perfectly clear that he feels Mr. Trump’s views on foreign policy are unclear, and he defined them as “a mix of bluster and nationalism with isolationism thrown in,” referring specifically to Mr. Trump’s comments concerning NATO and those related to his hesitation about coming to the defense of U.S. allies Japan and Korea in the face of possible hostilities from North Korea.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump had unleashed a firestorm of protests from U.S. allies in Eastern Europe because of an interview with the New York Times during which he suggested that the United States might abandon its NATO military commitments if he were elected president.
There’s no questioning Mr. Landler’s tells it as he sees it, even to the extent that he can admit to the shortcomings of the fourth estate as evidenced by his response to the question — Why the media had failed to adequately report about the potentially disastrous aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003? – which he gave following his book overview.
He agreed with the tenor of the question and said that he felt it may have been due to the mood of the country following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center twin towers in New York that had taken place two years earlier.
Acknowledging that a few journalists had written about the potentially dire consequences on the Iraq invasion, he went on to say that, in his opinion, the national press corps had not taken seriously enough Mr. Trump’s campaign, which was viewed it in its early stages mostly as a circus act and not a serious drive for power.
If Mr. Trump had been taken more seriously six months ago, he added, his assertion earlier in the day that the United States might abandon its NATO military commitments would have come as less of a surprise.
Mr. Landler admitted that he began thinking about writing the book comparing the foreign policy perspectives of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the prospective Democratic candidate for president, with the upcoming election in mind.
But he quickly acknowledged that while he believed at the time there was a “90 percent” chance that Mrs. Clinton would run for the office, he had no idea she would be so severely challenged by Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont (Mr. Landler’s home state), whom he had known since his childhood.
An even bigger surprise, he admitted, was Mr. Trump and the success he had beating what were considered the more likely presumed Republican nominees, who were trounced in the primaries.
Regarding the upcoming debates between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, he said that he expected to see rigorous negotiations concerning how many should be held and their formats. In view of Mrs. Clinton’s “skill as a debater and her command of the issues,” Mr. Trump “is probably going to be pretty worried about it,” he added.
Mrs. Clinton also will be able to rely on a seasoned foreign policy team of advisers including Strobe Talbott, a Russian expert and president of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank; William Burns, a former undersecretary of state; Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state; and Nicholas Burns, a Harvard University professor and former undersecretary of state for political affairs.
As for Mr. Trump, he will rely on representatives who are “not well known in Washington,” he said.
The relationship between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama no doubt will come up in the debates, and Mr. Obama’s legacy likely will suffer from the widespread consequences of his inability to contain the Syrian crisis.
According to Mr. Landler, Mr. Obama’s hesitation to be involved in the early stages of the Syrian conflict was a reaction to the U.S.’s intervention in Libya where he initially had been hesitant to become involved and which “sped out of control and provided for him a kind of sobering illustration of why intervention is such a bad idea. He always believed that he had been kind of talked into it.”
The next administration will have to deal with the aftermath of the Syrian conflict that now includes the refugee crisis in Europe as well as the involvement of the Russians, Iranians and Saudis, he said.
Concerning trade, Mr. Landler told Global Atlanta that Mrs. Clinton probably had to split from Mr. Obama’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership because of the leftward pull of Mr. Sanders’ campaign during the primaries.
“I’m not persuaded that she wouldn’t have come out against TPP even if Bernie was not in the race,” he added. “But Bernie’s being in the race made it inevitable. I think what she hopes now is that President Obama can get this passed in the lame-duck” session before he leaves office.
“And I think that that is not looking very likely,” he added. “It’s hard to contemplate if she would reverse herself,” if she wins the presidency. But he also said that she is “capable of political gymnastics.”
Meanwhile, Republican leaders such as Mitch McConnell Jr., the Senate majority leader, are caught, he said, between their “political agenda” opposing free trade and their “policy agenda” in favor of free trade.
In an answer to a parting question from Global Atlanta, he said that he wasn’t totally convinced that Theresa May, the U.K.‘s prime minister, would pull the trigger on Brexit’s Article 50 for the U.K. to leave the European Union in view of her comments that she wouldn’t go ahead unless the Scottish Assembly voted to leave. “The Scottish Assembly voted against leaving by a two to one ratio. I’m not persuaded that it will happen; yet it is more likely than not.”
Whether Brexit occurs or not, he also said that he feels the next U.S. administration is likely to be more focused on Europe.
“Europe has been neglected during the Obama years because he was intrigued by Asia and was preoccupied by the Middle East,” he said. “But there is a lot of instability in the EU, the Dutch, Austrians and others with far right movements also will want to split off. The new president will have to go to Europe a lot. It’ll be a new theme.”
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