The first half of 2018 has demonstrated, clearly, two lessons that we should already have known and recognized about government in the United States; well, anywhere, really. The second of these I will get to later. I will begin, first, with the logical proposition that a government needs leadership that is experienced in the work that needs to be done. This should be self-evident, an unquestioned concept. It should be accepted in the same way that employers and applicants alike expect job applicants to have relevant experience in the work they will be expected to perform once hired. Yet in repeated instances, in political campaign after campaign, we have heard arguments that what we need in high government office is a businessman, a “proven” manager, a CEO. A man, for example, like Donald Trump, who was recommended, even lauded, because he was an outsider, someone who had no previous experience in government. Even now, more than 500 days into his presidency, there are those who defend President Trump by excusing his gaffes on the basis of inexperience (that is, ignorance) or by claiming that his errors are proof of his willingness to think “outside the box” and to upset the status quo, attempting to reframe his lack of knowledge as a positive quality.
The damage that is inflicted by amateur leadership in this case is exacerbated by the application of dogmatic theories that ignore the realities of democratic governance, often bypassing and undermining the intent of laws passed by congress. The Trump administration has, for example, placed key administrators in charge of both HUD and the EPA not because they were knowledgeable about the work of these federal agencies but because their past actions and statements demonstrated opposition to the goals enumerated when the agencies were created. In this case, the touted business focus of the president may have increased the potential for damage, as he and his appointees have espoused and applied theories that emphasize the short-term profit-centered goals of modern corporate logic rather than the long-term community-oriented goals of government social planning. They go further than that, in fact, and regard the private and public sectors as antagonistic, and they strongly favor the side of anti-government extremes.
The most recent examples of the dangers of amateurish leadership have come in the area of foreign affairs, a stage on which a modern president has a great deal of flexibility. At and leading up to the June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, President Trump gave unprecedented concessions and recognition to a minor power and its dictatorial leadership. In return, as subsequent events have demonstrated, the U.S. and South Korea received nothing of consequence, not even a detailed or enforceable document. The only lasting outcome of that meeting seems to be a message to other dictatorial powers that the path to security and world status is to develop a nuclear weapons program.
Surrounding the diplomatic failure regarding Korea the President has repeatedly produced a series of false statements that have misrepresented the policies of our closest allies and threatened vital alliances. Perhaps the major example of this was the manner in which Trump sabotaged the June 2018 G7 Summit. The unnecessary tariff war that the U.S. initiated prior to that meeting certainly didn’t help. However, for sheer incompetence in foreign affairs it is hard to match the July NATO Summit in Brussels: Before and during that meeting Trump repeatedly demanded, in press releases and campaign rallies and bombastic tweets, that every NATO member should increase their military spending to a level above two percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Unfortunately, this arbitrary two percent figure is not a new NATO goal. For decades it was a rough and unofficial rule of thumb, largely ignored. Also unfortunately, the administration of President Obama pushed to have it codified as a formal commitment at a 2014 summit meeting in Wales, as a response to the rise of the Islamic State and to the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea. But the difference between the actions of prior administrations and those of the Trump regime points out another of the problems inherent in inexperienced leadership. Prior presidents treated the rule diplomatically, almost never mentioning it. It rarely surfaced in the media. In contrast, the Trump team turned the two percent goal into a cudgel that the president used as often as possible to denigrate the NATO organization and U.S. commitments to Europe. Trump has compounded his public bluster by demanding that European countries bring their spending up to the two percent level immediately, even though the Obama guidelines had set the completion date at 2024. He intentionally created a media storm, even threatening to withdraw the U.S. from NATO if they didn’t comply by “paying their fair share”.
Unfortunately, media coverage in the U.S. has largely parroted the erroneous Trump framing of this issue. First, they have largely accepted the mistaken concept that the two percent figure refers to funding which supports NATO, as if all this money were fully dedicated to a distinct governmental entity like the United Nations or the European Union. And Trump has taken advantage of that error to imply that the U.S. would be able to pay less if only the other countries contributed their “full share”. None of that is true; the two percent figure refers to total defense spending in each of the NATO countries, only a minuscule percentage of which goes to NATO administration and coordination. The size of Germany’s “share”, for example, has no effect on the defense spending in any other country.
One other concept that illustrates the folly of this interpretation is the structure of the United States defense budget itself. In all of the other NATO countries the defense budgets are almost entirely devoted to self-defense within Europe, and thus to NATO defense. On the other hand, the U.S. military budget, which is about 3.5 percent of GDP, is spread out all over the world. Only about half of the 130,000 U.S. troops that are stationed overseas are stationed in Europe. Does that mean that we should only credit the U.S. with contributing half, or about 1.8 percent of its GDP, to NATO? By another measure, the U.S. has troops in more than 150 countries, of which the 12 European countries only make up eight percent. So would the Europe-adjusted U.S. “contribution” actually be only eight percent of the 3.5 percent total (0.28 percent of GDP)? Instead, the Trump administration and the media coverage seems to accept that the billions spent by the U.S. to maintain a presence in South Korea and Okinawa are part of its effort in defense of NATO. That is ludicrous. Previous leaders experienced in diplomacy and foreign policy have not always recognized the folly of this assumption, but at least they have been less likely to try to shame our allies for failing to measure up.
But the biggest flaw in this entire two percent question can be pointed out by reference to the farewell speech made by a previous (and very popular) Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. This is the second lesson I promised at the beginning of this document. Eisenhower warned us about the power of the military-industrial complex and the danger that military spending would continue to increase irrespective of any rational analysis of defense requirements. The truths are these: (1) U.S. military spending is excessive, driven more by the desires of weapons manufacturers and their lobbyists than by the needs of our troops or our country’s defense; (2) the NATO two percent commitment is an arbitrary figure that is also irrelevant to the needs of each European country, a figure that seems to be intended more to increase arms sales and manufacturing than to provide useful defensive capabilities.
So what are the two lessons we should have learned from the first half of this Trumpian foreign policy year? First, it is folly to assume that experience in the private corporate world is evidence that a political candidate will be successful in government leadership. Second, Eisenhower was right.
As to whether our country will ever internalize either of these lessons on a large enough scale to avoid mistakes like the ones mentioned above, I’m not optimistic. Perhaps a third lesson is that we would be better off with a more flexible government that includes a parliamentary-style vote of no confidence. Unfortunately, we have to work with the system we’ve got. Vote for Democrats in November 2018.