Jeffrey Goldberg was on Charlie Rose talking about his exhaustive interview with Obama for the Atlantic regarding the “Obama Doctrine”, Obama’s foreign policy legacy. Goldberg started by staring that Obama has had a recent “string of successes” and citing the Iran deal, the Paris Climate Change pact, the opening of Cuba and TPP as his notable accomplishments. He seemed unaware that others are citing these same deals as failures.
The discussion was typically Charlie Rose wonkish stuff, going into arcane detail and name-dropping in various corners of the world, mostly the Middle East. Goldberg was deeply convinced that Obama is a very smart guy with a real command of the details.
However, Foreign Policy has two aspects: (1) Expertise and (2) Presence. Expertise is the ability to grasp the facts and implications of a given situation, and to use those facts to come to a logical conclusion of action. The problem with this approach is that people do not always act logically, nor do they respond properly to reasoned arguments.
Presence is the ability of a foreign policy actor, and particularly a powerful one like a US President, to act in such a way that generates a desired result. Depending on the situation, a POTUS could be conciliatory, aggressive, logical, friendly, or unpredictable. In fact, acting in an unpredictable manner (such as Putin does) can be a very effective strategy to achieve one’s goals. The main objective in using Presence is that the other party respects you – he may not like you, or even think you’re stupid, but if he respects or fears your power enough he will defer to your position.
If Obama thinks he’s the master of Expertise, Trump has grabbed the mantle of Presence. Trump doesn’t sweat the details or care to engage in policy discussions, he’s all swagger and gamesmanship. Want a better deal from Iran? Send me in, I’ll take care of it!
So how are they alike? Each is, in his own way, surprisingly immature. Obama desperately wants to be seen as a smart guy. And not just smart, but smarter than everyone else, on whatever side of the table. Goldberg states that Obama thinks he knows better then other world leaders what is good for their own countries. He uses Clinton and Kerry for their “transactional abilities” and not for their expertise. He even famously ticked off Britain by criticizing PM Cameron’s actions on Libya, which is an extraordinary thing for a sitting US President to do.
Obama’s need to appear intelligent is immature, and a sign of weakness. He puts his desire to appear smart before the priorities of his country. Similarly, Trump wants to be the king of Presence. That desire has made him continually overreach himself, overstepping boundaries and alienating large swaths of the population. It may be a good thing to have people fear you, but not if you’re running for President and need their votes.
So would an Obama / Trump team be an ideal combination of Policy and Presence? And how would they do on foreign policy? Probably very badly, they are both just too immature – more interested in making themselves look good than creating an effective policy.