Is the Trump administration out to wreck the liberal world order? No, insisted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an interview at his office in Foggy Bottom last week: The administration’s aim is to align that world order with 21st-century realities.
Many of the economic and diplomatic structures Mr. Trump stands accused of undermining, Mr. Pompeo argues, were developed in the aftermath of World War II. Back then, he tells me, they “made sense for America.” But in the post-Cold War era, amid a resurgence of geopolitical competition, “I think President Trump has properly identified a need for a reset.”
Mr. Trump is suspicious of global institutions and alliances, many of which he believes are no longer paying dividends for the U.S. “When I watch President Trump give guidance to our team,” Mr. Pompeo says, “his question is always, ‘How does that structure impact America?’ ” The president isn’t interested in how a given rule “may have impacted America in the ’60s or the ’80s, or even the early 2000s,” but rather how it will enhance American power “in 2018 and beyond.”
Mr. Trump’s critics have charged that his “America First” strategy reflects a retreat from global leadership. “I see it fundamentally differently,” Mr. Pompeo says. He believes Mr. Trump “recognizes the importance of American leadership” but also of “American sovereignty.” That means Mr. Trump is “prepared to be disruptive” when the U.S. finds itself constrained by “arrangements that put America, and American workers, at a disadvantage.” Mr. Pompeo sees his task as trying to reform rules “that no longer are fair and equitable” while maintaining “the important historical relationships with Europe and the countries in Asia that are truly our partners.”
The U.S. relationship with Germany has come under particular strain. Mr. Pompeo cites two reasons. “It is important that they demonstrate a commitment to securing their own people,” he says, in reference to Germany’s low defense spending. “When they do so, we’re prepared to do the right thing and support them.” And then there’s trade. The Germans, he says, need to “create tariff systems and nontariff-barrier systems that are equitable, reciprocal.”
But Mr. Pompeo does not see the U.S.-German rift as a permanent reorientation of U.S. foreign policy. Once the defense and trade issues are addressed, “I’m very confident that the relationship will go from these irritants we see today to being as strong as it ever was.” He adds that he has a “special place in my heart” for Germany, having spent his “first three years as a soldier patrolling . . . the West and East German border.”
In addition to renegotiating relationships with existing allies, the Trump administration is facing newly assertive great-power adversaries. “For a decade plus,” Mr. Pompeo says, U.S. foreign policy was “very focused on counterrorism and much less on big power struggles.” Today, while counterterrorism remains a priority, geopolitics is increasingly defined by conflicts with powerful states like China and Russia.
Mr. Pompeo says the U.S. must be assertive but flexible in dealing with both Beijing and Moscow. He wants the U.S. relationship with China to be defined by rule-writing and rule-enforcing, not anarchic struggle. China, he says, hasn’t honored “the normal set of trade understandings . . . where these nation states would trade with each other on fair and reciprocal terms; they just simply haven’t done it. They’ve engaged in intellectual property theft, predatory economic practices.”
Avoiding a more serious confrontation with China down the line will require both countries to appreciate one another’s long-term interests. The U.S. can’t simply focus on “a tariff issue today, or a particular island China has decided to militarize” tomorrow. Rather, the objective must be to create a rules-based structure to avoid a situation in which “zero-sum is the endgame for the two countries.”
Mr. Pompeo also sees room for limited cooperation with Russia even as the U.S. confronts its revisionism. “There are many things about which we disagree. Our value sets are incredibly different, but there are also pockets where we find overlap,” he says. “That’s the challenge for a secretary of state—to identify those places where you can work together, while protecting America against the worst pieces of those governments’ activities.”
Mr. Pompeo says his most important daily task is to understand what the president is thinking. As he prepared for the job, “I spoke to every living former secretary of state,” Mr. Pompeo says. “They gave me two or three big ideas about things you needed to do to successfully deliver on American foreign policy. Not one of them got out of their top two without saying that a deep understanding and good relationship with the commander in chief—with the person whose foreign policy you’re implementing—is absolutely central.”
He continues: “It needs to be known around the world that when you speak, you’re doing so with a clear understanding of what the president is trying to achieve. So I spend a lot of time thinking about that—trying to make sure that I have my whole workforce, my whole team, understanding the commander’s intent in a deep way.”
And the president’s agenda, as Mr. Pompeo communicates it, is one of extraordinary ambition: to rewrite the rules of world order in America’s favor while working out stable relationships with geopolitical rivals. Those goals may prove elusive. Inertia is a powerful force in international relations, and institutions and pre-existing agreements are often hard to reform.
Among other obstacles, the Trump agenda creates the risk of a global coalition forming against American demands. American efforts to negotiate more favorable trading arrangements could lead China, Europe and Japan to work jointly against the U.S. That danger is exacerbated by Mr. Trump’s penchant for dramatic gestures and his volatile personal style.
Yet the U.S. remains, by far, the world’s most powerful nation, and many countries will be looking for ways to accommodate the administration at least partially. Mr. Trump is right that the international rules and institutions developed during the Cold War era must be retooled to withstand new political, economic and military pressures.
Mr. Pompeo believes that Mr. Trump’s instincts, preferences, and beliefs constitute a coherent worldview. The secretary’s aim is to undertake consistent policy initiatives based on that worldview. This endeavor will strike many of the administration’s critics as quixotic. But Mr. Pompeo is unquestionably right that no secretary of state can succeed without the support of the president, and he is in a better position than most to understand Mr. Trump’s mind.
The world will soon see whether the president’s tweets of iron can be smoothly sheathed in a diplomatic glove.