Can a perpetually combative man who—despite his career successes (or perhaps because of them)—sees life as a series of fights to be won, scores to be evened and counterpunches to be delivered, be trusted to shape the foreign policy of the world’s most consequential power?
Donald Trump, who last week finally clinched the Republican nomination for president, may be correct: The world is often cruel and unforgiving, filled with threats and challenges that require toughness and resolve. In his 2007 book Think Big, Trump described his worldview in utterly uncompromising terms: “The world is a vicious, brutal place. It’s a place where people are looking to kill you, if not physically, then mentally. … People are looking to put you down, especially if you are on top.”
His lifelong response has been to put everyone else down, or at least anyone who challenges him. Call it Trump’s “counterpunch” approach; it’s one he’s articulated again and again in different forms and forums, and it’s plainly central to his worldview: When someone hits you, you hit them back 10 times harder. Nor is he likely to alter that attitude, as his own campaign manager, Paul Manafort, suggested last week: “You don’t change Donald Trump,” he told Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post.
But the world is a place in which America probably can’t afford to be in a constant state of counterattack, and where every challenge isn’t a nail that requires a hammer. In such a world, the application of honey is often as important as vinegar; nuance, restraint and prudence matter, too. So history has taught us. In October 1962, when his generals and others pushed for military strikes on Cuba that might have provoked a Soviet military response, President John F. Kennedy’s patience bought time for a peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, possibly preventing a nuclear war. I’ve personally seen up close how restraint can be the best course of action: As a diplomat specializing in the Middle East under George H.W. Bush, I saw the president wisely avoid invading Iraq after his lightening success in pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. A decade later, Bush’s son chose otherwise.
Manafort says that Trump—who will be the first major-party nominee without any political experience since Wendell Willkie—is still eager to learn. And perhaps Trump is a better performer and stage actor than even we make him out to be. What if hiding behind the bullying, the braggadocio and the bluster, there lies a real president in waiting, calm, preternaturally prudent and wise just waiting to get out and to assume his place in the pantheon of presidential greats?
To date, though, that hope exists only in a galaxy far, far away. Here on planet Earth the only evidence we have is Trump’s words over the course of a long career and others articulated more recently in a campaign about to reach the one-year mark.
True, as Trump has it, large parts of the world are forlorn Hobbesian-like places where life is brutish and short. Sectarian, tribal and religious confrontations in Syria and Iraq, Libya and Yemen; humanitarian crises in Congo and Sudan. And there are actors and agents too in this world—ISIL al Qaeda affiliates; Boko Haram, al-Shabab—that seek to inflict galactic harm on America and its allies. Evil in today’s world is very real and threatening.
But a president must carefully choose his fights, as we’ve learned throughout American history—and he (or she) really can’t afford to create new conflicts where there are none today. In that spirit, let’s carefully measure what Trump has said over the years against how the world really works.
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