IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The 'Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' foreign policy endures

There's a key to understanding the Trump administration's foreign policy: don't listen to Donald Trump.
US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on February 17, 2017 in North Charleston, South Carolina. 
In his second week as president, Donald Trump spoke to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull via phone, and the call should've been one of the easier moments of the Republican's initial attempts at international diplomacy.It was, however, a disaster. Trump, when he wasn't bragging to the Australian about his imagined electoral-college landslide, thought it'd be a good idea to lash out at Turnbull over a refugee agreement. The call was supposed to last an hour, but Trump abruptly hung up after 25 minutes.The American president soon turned to Twitter to declare, "Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!"In reality, Trump didn't really know anything about the agreement, and as the New York Times reported over the weekend, "this dumb deal" has now been reaffirmed by Trump's administration.

Vice President Mike Pence assured Australian leaders on Saturday that the United States was committed to the countries' "strong and historic alliance," and he reaffirmed that the Trump administration would honor a refugee deal that President Trump disparaged in a January phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. [...]On Saturday, Mr. Pence confirmed that the deal was still on. "Whatever reservations the president may have about the details of agreements reached by the prior administration, we'll honor this agreement, out of respect for that enormously important alliance," he said at a joint news conference with Mr. Turnbull in Sydney.

It's quite sad to see this play out in real time. Trump, confused and intemperate, insulted one of the United States' closest allies for no reason, and suggested he might tear up a bilateral agreement. It fell to Mike Pence to travel abroad and quietly tell our allies not to pay too much attention to the nonsense coming from the Oval Office.Two months ago, I described the 'Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' foreign policy, and it's discouraging to note the degree to which it endures.American foreign policy has never worked this way, it shouldn't work this way, and it can't work this way. As a rule, if anyone on the planet wants to know what the United States' foreign policy is, they should be able to listen to the president and accept his words as having at least some credibility.In the Trump era, however, we're largely better off ignoring what the president says, because his comments often appear to have no meaningful connection to reality or even his administration's own policy. Trump's rhetoric about U.S. policy towards China has proven to be meaningless, for example. Trump also said he'd dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Korean peninsula when he hadn't. Trump dismissed NATO as "obsolete," only to reverse course without a credible explanation.Trump suggested Iran isn't honoring its international nuclear agreement the day after the U.S. State Department said the opposite. Similarly, Trump heralded democracy's decay in Turkey around the same time as the U.S. State Department showed far more caution. Trump and his administration don't even seem to be reading from the same script on Israel.And don't even get me started on Trump's incoherence when talking about his policy towards Syria.Three months into the Trump era, we've reached the point at which the president is pretty much the last person we should listen to if we want to understand the administration's foreign policy. This creates dangerous uncertainty, but it's become an unavoidable fact.