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Council On Foreign Relations President Says He Sees Recurring Theme In Trump's Policy


There is a pattern to the foreign policy of Donald Trump - the assertion of Richard Haass, who's made a career of tracking U.S. foreign policy from his perch as president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Haass says he saw this pattern play out just this past weekend in U.S.-China relations as President Trump met the president of China, Xi Jinping, and the two leaders agreed to hit pause in their trade war. Richard Haass joins me now. Welcome.

RICHARD HAASS: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Lay out for me the pattern that you see.

HAASS: Well, what we see is a pattern where Mr. Trump inherits a challenge or a problem of some sort, whether it's with China or North Korea or many other parts of the world. What he does is he takes a very confrontational stance, triggers something of a crisis. Then he backs down from the crisis in large part he created. And then he tends to claim victory, somewhat overselling what exactly he accomplished.

KELLY: You're arguing in fact that he sets a fire and then claims credit for putting it out.

HAASS: That's another way of putting it, yes (laughter).

KELLY: And you're arguing you saw this with China and trade, where of course there were longstanding tensions, but not a trade war until President Trump came to office. You also argue this is the case with NAFTA, and then you mention North Korea. Explain.

HAASS: Well, North Korea's probably the clearest case because here's a situation where the president, to be fair, inherited a difficult situation. The president then ratcheted up, threatening war with all sorts of rhetoric, has a meeting in Singapore, claims he got denuclearization when in fact he got nothing of the sort. And here we are.

KELLY: What the president's advisers might argue - and I base this on what they tell us in interviews - is that what in fact is playing out is that the U.S. now has a president who is not afraid of conflict, who maybe even is drawn to conflict, and that he's standing up for America in a way that previous leaders haven't had the guts to do.

HAASS: Well, again, I think he gets some credit for having confronted the problems, be it North Korea's missile and nuclear programs or China's trade behavior. That's all to the good. I don't think it's right to sweep them under the rug. The question, though, is by bringing it to a crisis and then backing down without having really addressed the fundamentals, are we in fact better off? The danger in the case of North Korea is either we kid ourselves that we're better off, or we say to ourselves, well, we tried diplomacy. That didn't work. Now let's look at something much more dramatic, like military force. I don't think that's a particularly good approach.

Or in the case of China, I think he set himself up for failure. There's a lack of precision. And we've seen that in several of these meetings which then, you know, while there's a - there are moments in diplomacy when ambiguity can serve your interests, it tends not to be a good idea when there's obligations to be met. So you not only fail to resolve the original problem, but you then add an overlay of friction where you have charges of bad faith.

KELLY: I'm wondering how you would apply your theory to U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia. The director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, is on the Hill. She's briefing senators today about the death of Jamal Khashoggi. And it does seem as though, if anything, in the case of Riyadh, the president seems to be bending over backwards to avoid crisis and controversy in that relationship.

HAASS: You're exactly right. It's almost the other extreme. I think it's pretty obvious to any open-minded observer that the murder of Mr. Khashoggi was authorized by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. This is not a government where freelancing of any sort is allowed to take place. I think we ought to make that clear. And then the question for the United States is how do we try to preserve this relationship against this backdrop?

The way I'd square it is, first of all, not doing all of it in public. I would probably send a private emissary to the king of Saudi Arabia and try to work something out in private. What I would basically do is dial down the rhetoric, not oversell it. It's important to see these not as events, but rather as part of a continuum in time. And we've got to think about our long-term relationship with all of these countries.

KELLY: Richard Haass, thank you.

HAASS: Thank you.

KELLY: He is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "A World In Disarray: American Foreign Policy And The Crisis Of The Old Order."

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDY SUMMERS' "ADINKRA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.