Trump as Juggler-in-Chief

The Trump administration is engaged in a global juggling act involving so many strategically significant balls that it would confound the capabilities of the most skilled circus performer.

President Trump’s allies praise him for his willingness to take on issues long neglected by US policy makers: confronting China’s unfair trade practices, taking on Iran’s malign regional behavior, working to replace Venezuela’s dictator with democracy, and deploying carrots and sticks to denuclearize North Korea, to name just a few.

Succeeding at any one of those challenges would be a major win. Score them all and President Trump’s name would be written large in history books. By the same token, dropping any of those balls – and any juggler knows that likelihood grows with the volume of what must be managed – would have long-lasting consequences, for the regions involved and for US credibility globally.

Even so, Juggler-in-Chief Trump keeps adding complexity to this high-risk, uncertain-return show.  Whether by increasing tariffs further on China and further restricting Huawei’s access to US markets, or by sending a carrier strike group to the Middle East, President Trump ratchets up pressure in the hope of leveraging that into success.

What unifies the four issues listed above are both their significance and the fact that President Trump has personally identified them as defining issues. Yet a great many other issues complicate the picture further, ranging from escalating violence in Afghanistan alongside Taliban negotiations and managing relations with an increasingly empowered and assertive Russia.

Mercifully, what the Trump administration hasn’t yet suffered is the unanticipated crises or shocks of the sort faced by previous presidents – such as the 9-11 attacks for President George W. Bush or the global financial crisis for President Barack Obama.  Should such a surprise occur, the already limited national security bandwidth of the administration – particularly with so many key jobs open or filled by “acting” officials – will be further strained.

What’s unsettling financial markets, allies and adversaries most is an inability to properly calculate and thus “bake in” this degree of geopolitical risk from a US President who prides himself on his disruptive tactics. No one quite knows what unifying strategy binds these situations – nor what President Trump’s end game might be on each.

Still, there seem to be three options for how this plays out.

First, Trump doesn’t get what he wants on all these key issues (no deal with China, Iran remains unchanged, Maduro remains in power and North Korea keeps its nukes) and America’s interests suffer across the board. Second, he moves off the maximalist positions he’s taken and settles for compromise – and there are some signs of that regarding Venezuela with talks in Norway and with his recent remark that he was open to a phone call from Tehran.

On trade, US stock markets closed somewhat lower for the week with concerns growing about hardening US and Chinese positions (see last week’s column on the end of illusions regarding US-China trade). At the same time, however, market concerns were softened Friday by the Trump administration’s decision to delay a decision on car tariffs by six months and through President Trump’s announcement that he had reached agreement to lift steel and aluminum tariffs on Mexico and Canada.

Third, President Trump escalates even further – through an even tougher trade war with China or military action against Iran’s mullahs or Venezuela’s dictator. Yet that would require him to abandon his reluctance to start new wars, one of the most striking consistencies of the Trump presidency and embrace the more hawkish approach of John Bolton. That’s unlikely.

What doesn’t seem to be guiding Trump’s thinking and actions is a clearly articulated strategy of the sort that has driven previous administrations. Instead, he seems guided by “America First” instincts and hunches that put the interests of the nation state first, to be advanced globally through the leverage of maximum demands and pressures short of military action.

President Trump’s National Security Strategy, produced by General H.R. McMaster, his former national security advisor, provided a coherent and prioritized view of the global challenges the United States faces. However, the president hasn’t ever spoken about it as his own. McMaster’s successor John Bolton told Graeme Wood of the Atlantic that it had been filed away and was consulted by no one.

The three national security advisors and two secretaries of state who have served President Trump thus far have spent a fair amount of time trying to wrap President Trump’s actions and tweets into a more discernible and sustainable doctrine.

Secretary Pompeo probably came closest to hitting the mark in a significant but underreported speech last Saturday at the Claremont Institute in Southern California, describing what analysts have come to call “conservative internationalism.”

The Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead described it this way:  “Where liberal internationalists believe the goal of American global engagement should be to promote the emergence of a world order in which international institutions increasingly supplant nation-states as the chief actors in global politics, conservative internationalists believe American engagement should be guided by a narrower focus on specific US interests.”

Said Secretary Pompeo, “This new pride in taking America’s interests seriously is not just an American phenomenon.”

“Countries all over the world are rediscovering their national identities, and we are supporting them… The wave of electoral surprises has swept from Britain to the United States and all the way to Brazil… Our focus is that, ‘What’s good for the United States – a foreign policy animated by the love of our unique way of life – is good for the world.”

Whatever intellectual context one wraps around President Trump’s global juggling act, one thing is clear. All presidents have learned that if they don’t match their goals with the means to achieve them, the result is failure.  And more than a few dropped balls.

This article originally appeared on

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. Subscribe to his weekly InflectionPoints newsletter.

Image: US President Donald J. Trump, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (second from left), White House National Security Advisor John Bolton (left), and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney (right) attended the extended bilateral meeting in the Metropole hotel with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un and his delegation during the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 28, 2019. (Reuters/Leah Millis)