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Recent months have seen the escalation of Donald Trump’s appetite for magical thinking, particularly with respect to winning trade wars and masterminding regime change in Iran. Unfortunately, as Ron Pruessen suggests, Trump is not unique in the history of US foreign policy in his periodic divorce from reality.

As the war with Iraq was starting in 2003, the story goes that the then Senior Adviser to President George W. Bush, Karl Rove told a journalist “We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality.” Rove denies authorship of the sentence, but it’s still quoted to capture the essence of the hyperconfident mood of the early Bush years. The disasters that unfolded in Iraq and Afghanistan (nearly 5,000 American lives lost, upwards of $4 trillion essentially incinerated) have made it easy – and reasonable – to mock imperial pretensions, of course. And yet: the emperor was not actually naked in this case, was he? The pseudo-Caesar assault on Iraq did create a new reality. Yes, it turned exhilarating visions on their head, but that has not kept the United States from having to struggle ever since with the unanticipated pains of “our own reality.”

I’ve been reminded of the “Rove” words – and notions of cakewalks and slam dunks – as Donald Trump’s harum-scarum bluster has ratcheted up in recent weeks. (Who’d have thought it could grow even more absurd and frightening?) The president’s bloated confidence about Iran and China have been especially telling, though there is thunder and lightning not far off-stage involving Venezuela, North Korea, Mexico and other issues. Tighten the screws on Tehran and threaten “the official end of Iran”; move the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group to the Persian Gulf – aiming to bring about regime change that would allow Trump (in his own mind, at least) to trump Bush and Obama. Some see the possibility of a Nixonian “madman” ploy here – more subtle than regime toppling, aimed at making the mullahs more accommodating in negotiations. As Stephen Walt has persuasively argued, though, Trump has never shown the delicacy that would prompt interest in a Kabuki theatre approach.

With Beijing, a different kind of pressure: tariffs and targeted punishments (as with Huawei) – supplemented by naval maneuvers in the South China Sea and new gestures toward Taiwan. “Trade wars are good and easy to win,” Emperor Donald tweets – exuding Bush era arrogance about shaping a new and rewarding “reality.”

The importance of spectacle and drama in Trump’s presidency

Imperial audacity is as innate to Trump and some of his cohort as it was to Bush’s “Vulcans” – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice (who responded to doubts among allied task force leaders in Afghanistan by saying “I’m an American. Nothing is impossible.”) Mike Pompeo is one current counterpart, with his injunction to increase the “swagger” in American foreign policy. So is John Bolton, complete with muscle-flexing pronouncements (and the buccaneer-wannabe flourish of that mustache) – or Attorney General William Barr’s Rottweiler assaults on constitutional traditions (and honesty). But no one can best the president’s knack for pyrotechnics and spectacle (which is exactly as he would want it). This is a leader who thrives on high drama, not least when it entails creating fever-pitch turmoil within which he can see himself as star and hero. His infantile narcissism would be at home in a Marvel Comics universe where he can sculpt his persona as some superpowered hybrid of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain MAGA. If his “executive time” television hours allowed occasional surfing between Fox and HBO, imagine the hot flash of exhilaration (or envy?) as the Donald watched Daenerys and Drogon in flight?

Spectacle, turmoil, and outsized audacity can work well in the multiplex or the binge-watching wavelengths of cable networks – but fantasies there have consequences primarily in box office receipts and corporate revenues. Magical thinking in the real world can be infinitely more consequential. To lose Iron Man, Daenerys, and all the other lamented or celebrated cadavers of Game of Thrones is sad. (Yes, sad – if you’ve been a fan of these tales.)  Imagining the pain that would be generated by a trade war with China (or other players) that would not be remotely “easy to win,” however, involves a far darker exercise about actual people in an actual global economy. Globalization has come with serious flaws – consider only the income disparities that plague even Americans, much less many millions in less-developed societies. Nonetheless, to use demolition explosives rather than repair and reform essentially guarantees turning the clock back to the dynamics of the Depression era 1930s (and the conflicts they helped generate).

Donald J. Trump, Chinatown, NYC” by Jake Cvnningham is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As bad as a serious trade war would be, a real war with Iran conjures up even more catastrophic images. Regional princes, clamorous clerics, and satraps maneuvering for advantage; powerful suzerains peering over the myriad fences of the Greater Middle East, attempting to manipulate while being manipulated; a bursting Pandora’s box of conventional arms, nuclear weapons, and terrorist tools: the makings of a Tolkienesque twilight of the gods.

Trump’s magical thinking on foreign policy is nothing new

If Trump qualifies as fantasist wunderkind, however, it is important to remember that he has had predecessors among American policy makers and leaders – over more than two hundred years, in fact.

In the early 19th century James Madison, Henry Clay, and others demonstrated that brilliant political theorists and shrewd politicos could wander off in fanciful (and costly) directions as much as fools and scallywags. One thread in the logic behind the decision to go to war in 1812 was the assumption that Great Britain could be defeated by way of an easy conquest of Canada. It was simply “a matter of marching,” Thomas Jefferson said. It wasn’t.

A century later, other incisive minds dreamed other impossible dreams. Woodrow Wilson, especially, believed a military expedition would teach Mexicans to “elect good men” – and then rocketed forward into entering the Great War to make the world safe for democracy. More than 400,000 American lives were lost in campaigns that did not prevent devastating economic crisis, fascism, and an even more terrible conflict within a generation.

In 1940, before Pearl Harbor brought the United States into that more terrible conflict, magazine magnate, and Time founder, Henry Luce helped revive the visionary impulse by waxing rhapsodic about the dawn of the “American Century.” One example of the wild imaginings that could emerge as flames spread around the globe found Nebraska Senator Kenneth Wherry conjuring a trans- Pacific chimera: “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.” Neither China nor the rest of the world proved so fully amenable to US construction and management.

Dwight Eisenhower was one of the Cold War leaders trying to cope with global management challenges. Often appropriately credited with being sensibly moderate in his approaches, his leadership did also show how prudence could go awry. Ike was a believer in the value of “covert operations,” seeing surgical tools serving national interests more effectively (and cheaply) than conventional military operations. But optimistic expectations were mocked over and again. Helping to midwife repressive governments into existence in Guatemala and Iran – two notorious examples – cost the lives and liberties of many thousands without producing the long-term stability supposedly threatened by “communists” and left-wing nationalists. The CIA-assisted overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddeq in 1953 is one important wellspring of Tehran’s ongoing hostility toward the United States – while Guatemala is the starting point for the journey of thousands of migrants seeking better lives across the Rio Grande. Both cases show how covert operations could plant time bombs that would plague the American interests Eisenhower thought he was protecting.

Unfortunately, the fact that Trump and his true believers had predecessors in magical thinking offers anything but comfort. What becomes clear is that one ongoing strain in American politics, policy making, and culture is a susceptibility to grandiose presumptions. As in other empires, leaders and citizens in the United States have regularly developed what Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper call “imperial imaginaries.” (Forget Donald Rumsfeld’s contention that “We don’t do empire” – a Vulcan fantasy in itself.) If some American “imaginaries” can be absurd – and tragically costly – Trump shows they are as hard to eliminate as ticks and Lyme disease. His bizarre visions may prove as unrealizable as others, but that is not likely to be the end of the tale: The emperor’s fantasy is dead, long live the emperor’s fantasy.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. 

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About the author

Ron Pruessen – University of Toronto
Ronald W. Pruessen has served as the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Director for International Partnerships & Research and is former Chair of the Department of History, University of Toronto. His primary research and teaching interests are in 20th century US foreign policy and international relations. Early work focused on the Cold War (e.g., John Foster Dulles: To the Threshold, 1888-1952) and he recently co-edited (with Soraya Castro) Fifty Years of Revolution: Perspectives on Cuba, the United States, and the World.  His current book project is called Cakewalking with Tigers: Americans Choosing War and Making Mistakes, From James Madison to Donald Trump.