WASHINGTON President Donald Trump thinks he is a master of flattery, intimidation and dealmaking. He also apparently thinks hes a New York natural at handling belligerent world leaders.
He may be right about the first three, but he is taking the planet on a hair-raising ride into a perilous unknown as he tests the fourth.
Almost overnight, Trump has transformed himself from a churlish, know-nothing isolationist into a wheeling-dealing Kissinger on Mountain Dew: speed-dating China, embracing NATO, fleet-trolling North Korea and dispatching Secretary of State Rex Hoss Tillerson to Moscow to talk nasty to putative pal Vladimir Putin.
Im flexible, and Im proud of that, the president said the other day.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has a bridge to sell you if you think this is only about Trump suddenly being moved to tears by dead Syrian babies.
Its partly about turning around his dismal domestic polls. Trump is not just wagging the dog; he is wagging a whole pack of them. Have you heard much about Obamacare or the wall lately?
Talking tough has a related aim: to undercut the idea that Trump is a Putin plant, aided last year in the campaign by Russian bots, fake news sites and email hacks.
Trumps new embrace of world affairs also has to do with putting White House chief adviser Steve Bannon in a corner. Yes, the meister was laughing in the front row of Wednesdays press conference with the head of NATO. But it was a chuckle of the condemned. Everyone in town saw the presidents dismissive distancing of himself from Bannon in Trumps hometown newspaper, the New York Post. Everyone also has seen Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster shred Bannon to pieces for the amusement of vengeful First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner.
But Trumps real motivation, as with everything in Trump World, is ego gratification. Its WAY more of a rush to get on the phone with new BFF Xi Jinping than to read rising Gallup numbers.
Like other presidents only much faster, since he is so impatient Trump has found Congress tedious, bureaucracy boring and the press corps somewhere between annoying and treasonous.
Barack Obama was no master of world affairs either when he entered the Oval Office. But Obamas form of hubris to lecture the world on its moral failings was less perilous, at least in the short run.
Trumps form of pride is the opposite. He doesnt care about framework. He wants to make deals of all kinds, everywhere, Now. Yalta on cell and tweet. And that is a far riskier route.
Making snap judgments about world leaders with nuclear weapons or even claimingthat you are making such judgments can complicate things quickly, and do irreversible damage in societies that dont get that the tweet-paced palaver is show.
The possibility of fateful escalation in this social media age is extreme.
Sending the Navy to troll North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may feel like fun, but what if Kim decides to attack nearby Seoul with conventional weapons?
Trumps developers penchant for wanting to make deals at any cost comes with an equally evident willingness to welch on deals if it serves his purposes.
But its one thing to stiff a subcontractor. Its another to stiff, say, the Chinese. They have methods of getting payment that far exceed that of a floor-tile jobber on a highway in Paramus.
It looks as though Trump indeed made a quick deal on the phone with Xi, and it was a disastrously bad one if you care about China overwhelming the American economy with underpriced goods.
Maybe its a coincidence, but Trump has decided to stop calling China a currency manipulator; China, for its part, at the United Nations abstained from voting against an American resolution condemning Bashar Assad for his gas attack on Syrian civilians.
I was honored by the vote, the president said, as though accepting a gift from China. It seems that Xi also made some promises about helping out on North Korea by stopping coal shipments.
Were either of things worth the abandonment of the main American economic argument against China? Probably not. Did Trump run the traps of his national security team before cutting a deal with Xi? Probably not, since it all happened in a couple of hours.
Putin is a bully, but if you answer him with bullying of your own you had better be patient, consistent and unflinching. Tillerson demanded that Moscow accept responsibility for the gas attack in Syria. But back in Washington, Trump was milder in tone on that topic.
Like Henry Kissinger back in the 1970s,Trump seems to think he can corner Russia by siding with China. But unlike Kissinger, Trump knows next to nothing about either country. And a one-week flirtation with Xi is not enough to scare Putin.
The last problem is that Trump mistakenly believes he knows the world because he has built hotels and licensed his name all over the globe. But in most places, he only learned what he had to learn to close the dealwhich consisted largely of knowing which local officials to flatter, cajole or threaten.
Does he know anything about the history and culture of China, Russia, North Korea or Syria? Another businessman, Henry Ford, said that history is bunk. To Trump, that is an overstatement.
As for NATO, Trump stood in the East Room Wednesday and pledged his new-found love of an alliance he denounced during the campaign as a bunch of deadbeats who were crying wolf about Russia, but who were unwilling to pay to protect themselves.
Its an enduring partnership, Trump said Wednesday, and a great alliance. Jens Stoltenberg, the stolid Norwegian who serves as NATO secretary general, stood on the stage with the president. He didnt smile much, which was smart. For there is no guarantee that Trump will say the same thing tomorrow.
Tomorrow is another episode.
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