Slate’s Joshua Keating on North Korea and what sets Trump’s foreign policy apart.

Trump’s Foreign Policy Isn’t “America First”

Trump’s Foreign Policy Isn’t “America First”

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Aug. 22 2017 9:00 AM
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Trump’s Foreign Policy Isn’t “America First”

Slate’s Joshua Keating on how the world sees Trump, and whether we should be worried about North Korea.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) speaks at the beginning of the first working session of the G-20 summit on July 7 in Hamburg, Germany. China’s President Xi Jinping, U.S President Donald Trump, and British Prime Minister Theresa May listen.

Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Especially ever since last year’s election, it seems difficult to avoid all that’s been happening within the United States. But that’s exactly the job for Slate staff writer Joshua Keating, whose beat is to focus on reporting on everything but local and national U.S. news—which, of course, is still a lot.

In this Slate Extra podcast—an exclusive podcast for Slate Plus members—Chau Tu talks with Keating to discuss recent news items like North Korea’s nuclear threat, Trump’s reputation around the world, and the international stories Americans aren’t paying enough attention to.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chau Tu: Let’s start with some of the more recent news, which is the tensions with North Korea. North Korea did just step back from its threats to launch missiles toward Guam, but from what you gather how much should we be worried about North Korea and nuclear attacks?

Joshua Keating: Obviously the threat is growing. I mean, North Korea either currently has or will soon have the ability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons, and that’s for obvious reasons a pretty distressing thought. But, as for this particular crisis, it often seemed like it was mostly just an exchange of words between, well, mostly just President Trump and the North Korean government. There wasn’t actually much military movement or really much prospect that there was going to be an attack on North Korea. So, I think that as unnerving as it is to have a government like North Korea with its hands on nuclear weapons, there’s every indication that the North Korean regime seeks self-preservation and isn’t going to take any steps like launching one of those weapons that would almost certainly result in the destruction of their regime.

Yeah, you had a piece recently about how we should actually be looking to Kim Jong-un to be the sane leader here. So overall, what has been Trump’s effect on this relationship with North Korea? Have these relations changed a lot since he’s come into office?

I mean, sane or not, I think North Korea’s definitely the more predictable partner in the duo. Their behavior has been pretty consistent throughout Kim Jong-un’s short time as leader, and going back to his father’s time, they kind of ramp up the threat and then get everyone paying attention to them, they win some concessions, and they back off. Then it repeats every few years. It’s hard to say that the overall approach has gotten worse under Trump. It clearly wasn’t very effective under previous administrations either, and the actual approach, Trump’s Twitter feed aside, has been remarkably consistent. Basically, we have been trying to ramp up sanctions on North Korea and pressure China to do more to put pressure on North Korea itself, and that was essentially Obama’s program and it’s essentially what the Trump administration is really doing, if you strip out all the bombastic rhetoric.

The risk is that whether or not is has any basis in actual strategy; these escalating wars of words can very easily be misinterpreted and lead to an irreversible mistake. So what worries me less is that there’s going to be a kind of deliberate showdown and that something will get taken out of context, someone will make a mistake, and that that will lead to a confrontation that turns into something bigger.

You mentioned the sanctions—what do you see happening with that?

Well, the security council voted to apply much stricter sanctions to North Korea. China says that it’s going along with that, so is Russia. Those are the two main countries that trade with North Korea. We’ve heard this in the past though, I mean, China has said before that it would cut down on its imports from North Korea. Either those happen under the table, or they employ some creative accounting that lets the trade continue.

The thing is, from China’s point of view, it’s not happy with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but it’s really less bothered by that then by what it sees as potential encirclement by U.S. military power. China won’t take any steps that it thinks could result in the collapse of the Kim regime, which will both create a humanitarian crisis right on its doorstep and, you know, potentially lead to the reunification of Korea under a pro-U.S. military-backed government right on China’s borders. So, as irritating as the Chinese find North Korea, they’re kind of willing to tolerate it, because of what they see as larger strategic concerns.

Right. So, from what you’re observing as sort of our correspondent who’s watching everything but the U.S., what has been the general perception about the U.S. and Trump around the world right now?

It’s a weird dynamic, because he’s very unpopular among traditional U.S. allies in Western Europe, in Canada, in Mexico, like, the U.S. popularity has plummeted. He’s much less trusted, more disliked certainly than Obama was, even than previous presidents were. I think that in other parts of the world maybe we’re not so certain about public opinion. I think that there are governments that see Trump as being in their interest. Ironically enough, a lot of governments in the Middle East, places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, those are countries that see a U.S. administration that shares their concerns about Iran, first of all, and that isn’t going to pick on them in terms of human rights. It isn’t going to come and lecture them. We’re not going to condition aid or trade deals based on their human rights record. So, I think that’s what’s behind the kind of enthusiastic response the president got when he visited Saudi Arabia a few months ago.

Yeah, it seems like he also got that sort of response in Poland, was that right? He got a pretty positive response there, it seemed.

Yeah, and that speech, that kind of defending Western civilizations speech that was, at least by Poland’s current government, that was pretty well-received. Poland, along with several other governments in Eastern Europe, has been very reluctant to settle large numbers of refugees and has really resented what they see as the EU lecturing them on how they need to take in more immigrants. So when Trump comes up and gives that kind of blood-and-soil appeal, there’s definitely at least some people in Poland, particularly the current right-wing government, who really like hearing that message.

How would you describe Trump’s foreign policy?

It’s very transactional. I think there’s been a kind of consensus, a bipartisan view for decades now that the U.S. has some role to play in maintaining global stability and supporting things like NATO, for instance, and maintaining a kind of balance of power in the world, supporting allies. Trump really doesn’t see the U.S. as kind of playing a role like that. For all that he talks about “America First,” he kind of rejects American exceptionalism in some ways. He just has viewed the U.S. as sort of a country like any other. It should be looking out for number one, and shouldn’t be, like, letting other countries free-ride and depend on, you know, U.S. security guarantees or anything else. So I think that kind of like narrow, transactional view, and kind of a cynical view of the U.S. place in the world is something new.

What are some of your go-to sources on foreign news?

It’s nothing too unusual. I just start with kind of wire services with writers in the AP just to get the kind of lay of the land. In terms of commentary, I still read my former employers at Foreign Policy magazine, which is a sister site of Slate’s as well. I read what those guys are doing. RealClearWorld, I find, is a good source that kind of aggregates both U.S. and international commentary on international affairs. And I’m kind of glued to Twitter like everybody else is.

What are some major international stories that you think aren’t getting enough coverage here in the U.S. right now?

Oh, it’s so many. What I’ve been looking at is kind of escalating tensions between India and China. There’s a border dispute which actually involves India’s border with Bhutan. The Chinese military has been conducting exercises there, and the tensions have been escalating. I’ve written a bit about the election in Kenya, which ended. Well, the controversy is still going on. That was one people were watching pretty closely, because two elections ago after the result was disputed it led to ethnic violence that nearly kind of led to civil war in Kenya. Thankfully it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen this time. There have been some worrying signs of the opposition alleging foul play and a kind of crackdown on civil society by the government, so that’s definitely one I’m keeping an eye on.

Venezuela, the crisis going on there. I guess that did get some attention from the U.S., but it’s definitely pretty scary. Latin America in generally I think its proximity and how closely tied U.S. interests are, and the kind of close historical relationship the U.S. has in that region, I kind of wish that it’s a place Americans paid a little more attention to, for an area.

What do you think is the hardest part of your job?

I think it’s just kind of the breadth of what I’m covering, and there’s only so much we can look at, you know, being a small magazine and having just a couple of us looking at international news. There’s only so much we can cover, and I think a lot of times when a crisis erupts or events in one country or another find their way into the U.S. conversation for one reason or another, we sort of find ourselves playing catch-up and trying to, you know, explain what’s been going on and why it’s important, and what the roots of it are. So, I guess the challenge for me is just trying to like, stay ahead of these stories and watch things as they’re bubbling up, rather than just reacting when everything erupts.

You were one of the hosts of Slate’s Fascism Academy, which explored the history of fascism throughout the 20th century. What were some key things that you learned from that that might be useful to think about today, especially in terms of a lot of stuff that’s going on recently?

I think what struck me doing that is how—we focused specifically on the kind of core fascist movements in the 1930s and ’40s in Italy and Germany and Spain, and several other countries—but I think just kind of the long build-up to fascist governments taking power, and the degree to which the political establishments and the economic establishments in those countries were willing to kind of along with it to a great extent were pretty alarming, given recent trends. It wasn’t like, you know, the fascists just took over overnight and kicked everybody else out. There was a kind of long process of—I guess to use the current buzzword—normalization where people not just on the right but on the center were sort of slowly willing to tolerate more and more of a fascist presence in government until it was too late. I guess that’s what really struck me from doing that project.

Are any alarms kind of going off in your head right now?

I guess there’s been this kind of debate about whether calling people Nazis or fascists is useful. I don’t really have a moral problem with it. In terms of moral equivalence, I think it’s fine to call them out on that. I think the problem with sort of invoking Nazism or fascism sometimes is that it’s almost comforting to us in a way that we can act like this is something foreign and European and historical when really, you know, a lot of what we’re seeing has deep roots in American history. So, I think weirdly just kind of invoking Nazis and fascists, rather than kind of looking to the American history that is driving a lot of this is almost like, kind of a way of comforting ourselves.

Do you feel optimistic overall about everything going on in the world? Is there anything that makes you feel particularly optimistic? Or maybe you’re not optimistic?

I guess in the short term I’m really not. I mean, it’s hard to feel good in any respect about the direction U.S. foreign policy is taking right now. Going back to the fascism podcast, just kind of looking at the broad sweep of history and realizing the kind of crises and terrible challenging times that people have gotten through and lived through before—I don’t know if it makes me optimistic, but it helps put me in some kind of perspective that whatever the current state of affairs is is not permanent, and whatever the future is going to look like, it’s not going to follow easily predictable trends based on what’s happening right now. I don’t know if that means it’ll be much better or much worse, but I take some comfort in chaos theory, and the fact that whatever the future looks like is probably going to be determined by factors we’re not even thinking about right now.