Donald Trump has spent the entire first year of his presidency doing the opposite of learning on the job. Nowhere is this more plainly obvious than his grasp of foreign policy; the only thing he has learned, it seems, is that the media loves it when he bombs stuff or gets troops killed.
And yet all year long, op-ed columnists, cable news channels, magazines, and think tanks have attempted at various times to give Trump a “doctrine.” For example, earlier this month the conservative National Review—less than two years removed from “Against Trump”—wrote that the Trump doctrine was “America and American interests will always come first, globalist agendas second.”
A New York Times story today is the latest to try to assign Trump’s foreign policy some kind of quality that can’t be boiled down to him not knowing anything. Reporter Mark Landler writes that Trump is “unpredictable and inward-looking” and “remains an erratic, idiosyncratic leader on the global stage, an insurgent who attacks allies the United States has nurtured since World War II and who can seem more at home with America’s adversaries,” namely Russia and China. He also says that Trump’s tweets “often make a mockery of his administration’s policies and subvert the messages his emissaries are trying to deliver abroad.”
National security adviser H.R. McMaster, in an attempt to give Trump some semblance of credit, told Landler that Trump’s “unorthodox approach ‘has moved a lot of us out of our comfort zone, me included,” and described Trump’s approach as “pragmatic realism.”
Trump’s interactions with German chancellor Angela Merkel, however, betray the real problem: Trump simply doesn’t know anything.
Later, he told Ms. Merkel that he wanted to negotiate a new bilateral trade agreement with Germany. The problem with this idea was that Germany, as a member of the European Union, could not negotiate its own agreement with the United States.
Rather than exposing Mr. Trump’s ignorance, Ms. Merkel said the United States could, of course, negotiate a bilateral agreement, but that it would have to be with Germany and the other 27 members of the union because Brussels conducted such negotiations on behalf of its members.
“So it could be bilateral?” Mr. Trump asked Ms. Merkel, according to several people in the room. The chancellor nodded.
“That’s great,” Mr. Trump replied before turning to his commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and telling him, “Wilbur, we’ll negotiate a bilateral trade deal with Europe.”
According to Landler, some officials in the Trump White House “found the episode humiliating,” presumably because the head of the German government had to explain to the most powerful politician in the world how trade negotiations with one of the United States’ largest trading partners works, and because Trump changed his definition of “a new bilateral trade agreement with Germany” in the same conversation.
Trump is “unorthodox” because he doesn’t know anything. Contrary to what some in the media would like to believe, there is no doctrine or approach, just whatever Trump feels like saying or doing at any given moment. Trump isn’t unpredictable or inward-looking, but rather completely clueless and unwilling to learn.