There’s a natural human tendency to try to impose order on unfamiliar situations, and for better or worse, we often use frameworks that have worked for us in the past. Military leaders tend to use their past battlefield experiences to guide current decision making, though not always with the best results. Business leaders sometimes assume that strategies that worked in one industry or company will succeed in another -- even though they often don’t.
So it may cause a little alarm in the foreign policy community that President-elect Donald Trump appears to be organizing his approach to the United States’ relations with other countries in a frame familiar to him: the reality television show.
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Trump enjoyed a long and successful run as the star of The Apprentice television franchise, in which a group of hopefuls were assembled and, each starting with a clean slate, had to compete to earn Trump’s favor.
Compare that set-up to how Trump described his approach to foreign policy in an interview with the new news website Axios this week:
Trump earlier this week unsettled allies overseas by calling NATO obsolete and seeming to put Germany's Angela Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin on par as possible US allies. Trump told us ALL WORLD LEADERS are on par, with a fresh chance to prove themselves. “So, I give everybody an even start; that right now, as far as I'm concerned, everybody's got an even start,” he said.
That will, no doubt, come as surprising and unwelcome news to some of the United States’ closest allies, including the UK, France and the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. These are countries that have time and again sacrificed blood and treasure in places like Afghanistan and Iraq in support of U.S.-led military actions. Asking the county’s oldest friends to “prove themselves” to the incoming president is at best superfluous and at worst egregiously insulting.
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His assessment of the threats facing the U.S. on the global stage was no more encouraging. “I’ve had a lot of briefings that are very … I don't want to say ‘scary,’ because I'll solve the problems. But … we have some big enemies out there in this country and we have some very big enemies — very big and, in some cases, strong enemies.”
It wasn’t the only eyebrow-raising moment in Trump’s Axios interview.
The president-elect appeared to backtrack on his statement from earlier in the week that his aim in creating a replacement for the Affordable Care Act would be to provide “insurance for everybody.” Though he has said that his plan is nearly complete and will be released to the public soon, the best he offered was, “You know there are many people talking about many forms of health care where people with no money aren't covered. We can't have that,” he said.
He also appeared to reverse course on his previous statement that a border-adjusted tax was too complicated and shouldn’t be part of an emerging Republican plan to overhaul the federal tax code. His statement had confused GOP lawmakers, who had been told by Trump’s advisers that the president was in favor of the plan. In the Axios interview, he said that the border adjustment was back on the table.
It’s enough to bring a very different television show to mind: The Twilight Zone.