Trump’s foreign policy wins will be his ticket to re-election success at home
Niall Ferguson says Donald Trump might capitalise on his success on North Korea and negotiations with European allies and China to better his chances of re-election, regardless of his failures on the domestic front
Some teams – generally the ones I support – tend to win at home and lose away. The same is true of some American presidents. Lyndon Johnson's most enduring victories were legislative (civil rights and the Great Society), yet his presidency was destroyed abroad, in Vietnam.
Woodrow Wilson won abroad – ending the first world war and establishing the League of Nations – but lost at home, failing to get the league ratified by the Senate and suffering a debilitating stroke in the process.
A year and a half since his election victory, Donald Trump seems destined for domestic disaster. True, he had a prominent supporter of his cause last week in rapper Kanye West. “You don't have to agree with trump,” West tweeted, “But the mob can't make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother.”
This is not what you're supposed to say in either Wakanda or Woke-anda, and all hell duly broke loose. For Trump, however, this was a solitary ray of sunshine in an otherwise darkening sky. Robert Mueller's investigation rolls inexorably on, its scope expanding with every passing week. James Comey is on his book tour, dripping sanctimonious drops on the president's character in every interview. Trump's old flame Stormy Daniels is not done with the president either. Worst of all is the human cloud that is Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen, who these days drifts around Manhattan heavy with the moist vapour of potentially incriminating evidence.
By comparison, the latest personnel pratfalls are barely newsworthy. On Thursday, Trump's nominee to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, the presidential physician Ronny L. Jackson, had to withdraw amid allegations of misconduct. The same day the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, was questioned by a House committee for ethical lapses and profligate spending.
Yet, all of this could be mitigated by a few big away wins. It is not because he enjoys Trump's company that his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, came to Washington last week. It is because, no matter how much they may loathe his personality, Europeans cannot get around the fact that Donald Trump is the most powerful man in the most powerful country in the world. Macron's sycophancy is strategic, like everything he does.
Like the mutant Pikachu he (from a distance) resembles, Trump has one Pokemon superpower. Though in a state of permanent distraction, he retains an unerring instinct for the weakness of any adversary. Jeb Bush thought he was entitled to the Republican nomination; Trump zeroed in on his “low energy”. Hillary Clinton believed the presidency was hers; Trump highlighted her high crookery.
The same has applied in the realm of foreign policy. European leaders – especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel – believed they were entitled to the American security umbrella, gratis. Then Trump hinted that the US commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation might not be unconditional, and up went defence budgets.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un thought he could test nuclear warheads to his heart's content. Trump threatened him with “fire and fury”, while leaning on China to impose economic sanctions on Pyongyang. Lo and behold, “Little Rocket Man” crossed the demilitarised zone on Friday, taking the first steps to peace on the Korean peninsula.
Kim wouldn't be the first North Korean leader to make a deal and then cheat on it. Still, even habitual critics of Tump acknowledge that he has made more progress on the Korean question in a single year than his predecessor made in eight. It turns out that the madman theory of diplomacy works, if the world seriously thinks you're mad.
Iran believed it could sign its nuclear deal with president Barack Obama, while continuing its flagrant meddling in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Enter Trump, casting aspersions on the deal and resuscitating America's traditional alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Cue anti-government protests in Iran.
Next up is China. The world seemed to be going Xi Jinping's way last year. But, on his way back from his Asia trip last year, Trump came to his senses. The most powerful man in the world was not Xi, but he, himself. The best way to prove that was to threaten China with a trade war. The Chinese reaction – public pledges of retaliation, private offers of concessions – says everything.
Foreign policy professionals would say Trump's chronic lack of preparation will doom his Asian foreign policy to failure. Maybe so. But the domestic politics experts said the same about his 2016 campaign.
Richard Nixon did not have much of a domestic record to campaign on in 1972. Because the Democrats controlled Congress, his legislative record was modest. He imposed wage and price controls in a misguided attempt to suppress inflation, and his approval rating was just over 50 per cent.
But Nixon smashed the Democratic candidate George McGovern with one foreign policy win after another. He met Chairman Mao in China in February 1972, then went to Moscow in May and signed two agreements to limit nuclear weapons. On October 26, Henry Kissinger declared that peace was “at hand” in Vietnam.
Trump may find himself in a similar predicament in 2020, with the difference that his impeachment may already have started before he is up for re-election. Inflation will be up by then. But the Democrats will nominate a progressive candidate. Trump will have no choice but to campaign on foreign policy.
He will have lost at home. But he could still win on away goals.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford