Jessica T. Mathews was President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 1997 to 2015 and is now a Distinguished Fellow there. She has served in the State Department and on the National Security Council staff in the White House. (February 2020)
A paradox of American presidential elections—especially during the primaries—is that unless a war is looming or underway, voters pay little attention to the arena in which a president has the greatest power to affect their lives. On taxes, education, health care, and all the other domestic issues for which candidates put forward detailed plans, what a president wants will have to be exhaustively negotiated with Congress. On foreign policy, his or her freedom of action is vastly greater. Foreign policy, too, unlike domestic issues, frequently entails surprises—the collapse of the Soviet Union, say—that demand a swift response in unexpected conditions. In their own interest, then, voters ought to want to know what a candidate’s instincts about foreign policy are—what she or he makes of recent history, of global trends, of the threats the US faces, and of what its responsibilities in the world should be.
The sheer size of the military establishment and the habit of equating spending on it with patriotism make both sound management and serious oversight of defense expenditures rare. As a democracy, we are on an unusual and risky path. For several decades, we have maintained an extraordinarily high level of defense spending with the support of both political parties and virtually all of the public. The annual debate about the next year’s military spending, underway now on Capitol Hill, no longer probes where real cuts might be made (as opposed to cuts in previously planned growth) but only asks how big the increase should be.
Shortly after the success of The Art of the Deal (1987) made Donald Trump a supposed expert on negotiation, he lobbied the George H.W. Bush administration to put him in charge of arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union. The position went instead to Richard Burt, an experienced diplomat and arms control expert. When the two men met at a New York social event, Trump pulled Burt aside to tell him what he would have done—and what Burt should do—to start off the negotiations. Greet the Soviets warmly, he said. Let the delegation get seated and open their papers. Then stand up, put your knuckles on the table, lean over, say “Fuck you,” and walk out of the room.
There are two possibilities: either President Trump was as ignorant after his June 12 meeting with Kim Jong-un about what North Korea has in mind when it pledges “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” as he was in March when he rushed to accept Kim’s invitation to meet. Or the president knows that he got nothing. In that case, when he bragged on his way home that “this should have been done years ago” and later tweeted “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” he was simply being fraudulent in the way that works so well for him at home. Stripped of its made-for-TV trappings—the walk, the flags, the solemn handshake, and the breathless talk of history being made—nothing was actually agreed to at the summit.
After six years in which he never traveled outside his country, never met with a foreign head of state, and maintained relations ranging from frosty to terrible with South Korea, China, and the United States, Kim Jong-un opened up to all three of those countries over three stunning weeks in March. He established a direct line of communication with the South for the first time in eleven years, scheduled an April meeting with South Korean president Moon Jae-in, invited President Trump to a summit meeting currently planned for May, and then traveled secretly to China for meetings with Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Imagine a business deal among multiple parties. It is so complex that after years of negotiation the contract runs to 159 pages. Once agreed upon, the project proceeds without problems, but two years later one of the signers changes his mind. His lawyers rewrite some of the deal’s provisions, and …