The Great Disruptor*

The Great Disruptor

Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, is The Great Disruptor. There is little disagreement that in his less-than-three-years-as-President, Trump has caused more national and international disruption than any individual or group since the end of the Second World War.

Is that a good thing … or a bad thing? Is that good for America … or bad for America?

The dictionary defines a disruptor as “someone who drastically alters or destroys the structure of something.” Such an alteration can be “innovative,” and therefore positive in changing an inferior status quo into a superior “new normal,” or the alteration can be chaotic. In actual practice, disruption and innovation should be two sides of the same coin. Disruption uproots and changes how people think, how they behave, how they do business and learn and how they go about their day-to-day lives. If the disruption went no further, it would simply create disorder, causing confusion, bedlam, uncertainty, disturbance, unpredictability and/or turmoil. To be innovative and beneficial, disruption must not be an end in itself. It must be part of a process to achieve specified goals … to create a new and superior status quo – for example, as SpaceX and Blue Origin are attempting to do for space travel and Uber is attempting for car travel and Facebook/Libra for monetary transactions. Disruptive innovation must take the next step of not only challenging current habits, but also creating constructive substitutes. An innovative disruption displaces existing thought and produces something new and more worthwhile. In business, it creates a new market and value network, over time replacing an existing market and network and replacing previous market-leading firms, products and alliances. Disruption is the destroyer – it destroys the status quo – and innovation builds a new foundation for more creative and efficient operations.

In political terms, Ronald Reagan was an innovative disruptor, both domestically and in international relations. He destroyed and rebuilt. His policies set specified goals – for example, domestically, to deconstruct the demand-based economy and implement supply side economics and, internationally, to take an aggressive, confrontational approach to America’s enemies and forcibly bring down the Iron Curtain – and in pursuing those policies he brought change to America. It was directional change achieved through focused and well-managed, well-staffed government execution.

Barack Obama ran for the Presidency on a platform of disruption. His catchphrase was “Change has Come to America.” His policy goals were innovative …, but not revolutionary. There was no significant disruption to domestic policy – his policies were evolutionary – and the only disruption to foreign policy was an attempted withdrawal from the world stage, a first, weak stab at isolationism. In sum, Obama continued the policies of his immediate predecessors. He was neither a disruptor nor an innovator.

Trump ran on a disruptive platform and has implemented a hybridized version of political, economic and diplomatic philosophies policies that defy ready labeling. Domestically, those policies include some traditional Republican ones, such as a conservative social agenda (e.g., gun rights, right-to-life), and lower taxes on businesses and wealthy individuals; some traditional Democratic ones, such as activist government intervention in markets, manufacturing, corporate economics and hiring practices, and fiscally via massive deficit spending; as well as some new policies, including closing America’s borders to immigrants and erecting unilateral tariff barriers by executive order. Internationally, Trump has mixed a strong defense budget without the use or projection of American military power, a combination of both traditional Republican and traditional Democratic policies. The question is whether the Trumpian strategies have been disruptive AND innovative, or disruptive without creating the foundation for a new and better American foreign policy. Jeb Bush during the 2016 Republican primary campaign warned that Trump would be a “chaos President.” He followed up in 2017 by observing that Trump is “living in the tyranny of the moment” instead of “executing on a clear agenda.” Is that an accurate description of the Trump Presidency?

An answer may lie in the Trumpian decision to remove American troops from Syria, which he did suddenly and without alerting either the American diplomatic corps or America’s allies … in a pronouncement that most certainly was disruptive. Was it also innovative?

Trump’s decision reportedly was triggered by a telephone conversation initiated by Turkey’s dictator president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which Erdogan informed Trump that he had ordered the Turkish military to invade Syria to create a safety zone between Turkey and the Kurdish region of Syria occupied by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mostly Kurdish militia established and supported by, and allied with, America. Erdogan added that, if American troops got in the way stationed there to fight ISIS and provide support to the SDF were not removed, they would be dealt with by the Turkish army in the same way as the SDF forces – that is, they might well become casualties of war. Some reports added that Erdogan viewed his ultimatum as an opening gambit in what would be a drawn-out negotiation about the future of America’s role in Syria and its relationship with both Turkey and America’s Kurdish allies. Instead Trump agreed to immediately withdraw America’s troops and, further, publicly invited Turkey to invade Syria. He made no attempt to dissuade Erdogan from annihilating an American ally. He also made no effort to receive a quid pro quo that might benefit American interests (and there was at least one already on the table: see “Updates Part 1” in the July 24th TLR (updating “More Turkey Anyone” in the May 29th TLR and “Let’s Talk Turkey” in the April 1st TLR)). Turkey’s invasion resulted in the release of thousands of ISIS prisoners and the death of a number of America’s former Kurdish allies, and forced the SDF to ally itself with Russia and Syria.

Trump received such a powerful domestic backlash (including from members of the Republican Party) that, for non-innovative political rather than foreign policy reasons, he was forced to condemn penalize Turkey for its incursion. To do so, he deployed the same type of economic sanctions on Turkey that he had imposed on other enemy countries …, in Turkey’s case, the equivalent of putting a toll booth on the barn door after the horse has gone to eat the corn growing in America’s abandoned cornfield. The result is that, instead of negotiating with Erdogan to enhance America’s influence and do so from a position of military strength, Trump was compelled to sanction a NATO member-state for doing what the President had given it permission to do, in the process pushing it into a forced pragmatic alliance with America’s enemies – Russia and Syria and Iran. This cannot be America’s optimal foreign policy strategy and is not part of a process of foreign policy innovation (see, for example, “The Failure of American Foreign Policy” in the September 30th TLR, “Axis of the Sanctioned” in the June 21st TLR and “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” in the March 27th TLR). The President followed up with a bizarre letter to Erdogan on October 9th pleading with Erdogan to not “be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool.” Erdogan ignored the letter (and reportedly showed anger and contempt). Trump was unperturbed, saying that his decision will have no effect on America. After all, he said, “We’re 7000 miles away,” presumably safely separated from Europe and Asia by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans just as American was in 1941 and 2001.

The belief that distance – isolationism – insulates America from foreign policy challenges outside of North America encapsulates the Trump Administration’s America First foreign policy and its approach to internationalism. It’s a straightforward policy of going it alone, a continuation of the isolationist foreign policy “disruption” initiated by the Obama Administration and the opposite of the international leadership approach that successfully anchored American policy after WWII. It misses the complexities of modern international relationships and the impact of 21st Century technology, including the technology described in “The High-Tech Arms Race” in the May 13th TLR – hypersonic weapons that shred the defensive benefits of distance.

There is, of course, another side to the Trump-Erdogan analysis. Trump is undoubtedly correct that American troops cannot be stationed in a war zone indefinitely. Trump inherited the Syrian situation. He didn’t create it. And part of his foreign policy objective has been to bring American troops home. Although that is neither disruptive nor innovative, it is a valid policy objective. Given the threat of an imminent attack on American troops by Turkey, Trump reasonably could have determined that this was the appropriate time for American troops to pack up and retire. The SDF was going to have to be on its own at some point. Perhaps this was the time for it to do so and reach accommodations with its neighbors in Syria, Iran and Turkey (which does not explain the suddenness of the Trump decision which gave the SDF and Kurdish civilians no time to prepare or discuss accommodations or make contingency plans). Therefore, why not remove American troops now, before American lives are put at risk?

That question frames the difference between innovative disruption and chaotic disruption. Innovative disruption succeeds as a strategy when it’s part of a process, not an end in itself. Chaotic disruption occurs when the strategy is to disrupt and await the outcome. In that case, the chips fall where they may, with the possibilities ranging, in the case of Syria, from the positive (for example, bogging down Russia, Iran, Syria and Turkey in conflicts with ISIS and each other), to a stand-off among the differing interests and powers in the Mideast, to the establishment of an Axis of the Sanctioned that undermines America’s interests in the Mideast and elsewhere, to conflicts that spread across the Mideast, to Israel, Egypt and northern Africa, to southern Europe and Central Asia. Whatever the consequences, the Trump Administration no longer has the ability to control or significantly influence possible outcomes. That is not an optimal result.

Foreign policy/international relations is about managing – actively managing – difficult trade-offs. It’s about reacting based on contingency plans created by a disciplined team of foreign policy experts …, and executing accordingly. It’s about understanding how other countries might respond to a variety of American actions. Foreign policy decisions cannot be innovative if they’re made in the “gut” without having vast background knowledge and mastery of the analytical details. President Trump has proudly proclaimed that he makes decisions by his “gut,” that he is a master of all knowledge … and that his is the best of “guts.” He does not proclaim himself a strategic thinker. He is, instead, The Great Disrupter, and the past three years provide numerous examples of his ability to disrupt foreign policy. The most notable and instructive example – pre-Turkey and Syria – is Iran. When Trump withdrew from the Obama-Iran treaty, he described that treaty as a horrible one that gave Iran license to do all sorts of bad things …, which is true. He followed up by imposing stifling sanctions intended to bring Iran to its knees. That economic sanctioning policy has not succeeded. To the contrary, Iran is now closer to creating nuclear weapons than it ever was … and it is continuing to pursue the same “bad things” it did before Trump took office …, perhaps more so (as its increasing presence in Syria and along the Golan Heights confirms). The Trump Administration now says that it would be satisfied if Iran simply agreed to comply with the once-horrible Obama-Iran treaty. That’s a foreseeable outcome of disruption-without-strategy (as is Trump’s firing of former National Security Adviser John Bolton).

One TLR reader has argued that America has been in desperate need of disruption, whatever the outcome. Disruption, he states, is better than the pre-Trump status quo. He believes that the U.S. was in such bad shape after two terms of President Obama that anything would be an improvement, even foreign policy disruption-without-direction. The facts, however, do not support that assertion. Global economic health reached a new peak in 2016, and the number of wars, inter-nation conflicts and their impact reached a relative bottom in 2016 as well. The question is whether The Great Disruptor has a cohesive Reagan-esque foreign policy plan and whether his international disruptions will prove to be innovative and, most importantly, ultimately healthy for America.

As TLR previously noted, “The world’s perception of America’s commitment as an ally and global player on the world stage changed after President Obama’s failure to end Syria’s use of outlawed chemical weapons in 2012. Obama drew a red line in the Syrian sand and, after [Syrian dictator] Bashar al-Assad crossed it, did nothing…. John McCain caustically noted that the red line was ÔÇÿapparently written in disappearing ink.’ The failure to act marked the end of Obama’s foreign policy credibility and, indeed, marked the beginning of the end of American global leadership.” That conclusion is being borne-out by the Trump Administration’s continuation of the Obama-era’s pacifist foreign policy. Mitt Romney noted the link when, commenting on President Trump’s actions with Erdogan, he said: “[America] once abandoned a red line. Now we abandon an ally.” Some speculate that the Trump Administration’s missteps presage a crisis for the Republican Party in the 2020 election and compare the 2019 Ukraine and Syrian events to the early 1950s when Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican Senator from Maine, warned that Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist inquisition was threatening the integrity of the American republic. She said: “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny – fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear. I doubt if the Republican Party could – simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. Surely, we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory.”

Finally (from a good friend)

*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

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