Trump needs to follow another example

Perhaps as Chancellor Angela Merkel met President Donald Trump she probably was tempted to make comparisons to another leader from German history. No, not the one that everyone seems to pull out of the pack but Kaiser Wilhelm II, who reigned from 1888-1918.

Vain, egotistical, flighty and loquacious, Kaiser Wilhelm was addicted to the media outlets of his day. Like the twitterer-in-chief, he craved attention and dramatics. He kept his foreign office on tender hooks and often expressed opinions best left in the corridors of power, not splashed on the front of newspapers. Despite a first-rate intellect, the Kaiser frequently shot himself in the foot with pithy observations. Once, after seeing a tribal village recreated, he noticed skulls and commented that he wished to see his opponents displayed in such a fashion.

As to quick comment, in 1896 after Dr. Leander Starr Jameson’s raid on the Boers in the Transvaal, Wilhelm wired President Paul Kruger expressing support for his government. Naturally, the British were offended and Wilhelm’s own foreign office was appalled. They agreed that Jameson’s London-backed raid was wrong but they were alarmed at the public display — Wilhelm style. He also, in 1908, gave an interview to the British Daily Telegraph where he made a number of remarks that were too candid and that damaged his reputation.

Wilhelm II acted as if foreign policy was his chief province, believing that the world could be managed face to face, policy be damned. Certainly Trump has shown this tendency with his predilection for insta-comment. Without evidence he blamed former President Barack Obama of illegal surveillance of Trump Tower. He quite inappropriately brought it up during Merkel’s visit. When the Chancellor left, he falsely claimed that Germany was behind in its payments to NATO.

Trump’s openness seemed charming at one point, but he has worn out the privilege. The self-praise is juvenile and the false claims offensive. Moreover, it gives foreign governments an insight into his way of thinking. Like Wilhelm he seems to lack the understanding that words are important, particularly in foreign policy and are not to be wasted casually. He treats his own State Department like a private service and sends Secretary Rex Tillerson on foreign missions without staff or press. He is becoming the petit-king of Mar-a-Lago.

Forget that Trump has some right to distrust the foreign policy establishment. But his behavior is gradually making him a figure of mirth. He fancies his strategy a reprise of Nixon’s “madman” approach. Keep them guessing, but given Trump’s mouth he undercuts his State Department and delivers empty threats. No sooner than Tillerson landed in Beijing he was recognizing China’s primacy over North Korea. Like the careless comment to the Taiwanese president, Trump’s remarks seem empty, frivolous and ridiculous.

No president can conduct foreign policy on the fly or with midnight communications. His base might like it, but foreign governments will not. If he wants to redirect American foreign policy he would be better to imitate that other German statesman, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, rather than “Silly Willy.”


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