Some teams — generally the ones I support — tend to win at home and lose away. The same is true of some American presidents. Lyndon Johnson’s most enduring victories were legislative (civil rights and the Great Society), yet his presidency was destroyed abroad, in Vietnam.
Woodrow Wilson was just the opposite. He won abroad — ending the First World War and establishing the League of Nations — but lost at home, failing to get the league ratified by the Senate and suffering a debilitating stroke in the process.
As things stand, a year and a half since his election victory, Donald Trump seems destined for domestic disaster. True, he won a prominent new convert to his cause last week, in the unlikely figure of the rapper Kanye West. “You don’t have to agree with trump,” he tweeted on Wednesday, “but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother.”
This is not what you’re supposed to say in either Wakanda or Woke-anda, and all hell duly broke loose. For Trump, however, this was a solitary ray of sunshine in an otherwise darkening sky. Robert Mueller’s investigation rolls inexorably onwards, its scope expanding with every passing week, like a vast, bone-chilling cold front. James Comey is on his book tour, dripping sanctimonious drops on the president’s character in every interview he does. Trump’s aptly named old flame Stormy Daniels is not done with the president either. Worst of all is the human cloud that is Trump’s erstwhile consigliere Michael Cohen, who these days drifts around Manhattan, heavy with the moist vapour of potentially incriminating evidence.
By comparison with all this, the latest personnel pratfalls are barely newsworthy. On Thursday, Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, the presidential physician Ronny L Jackson, had to withdraw amid allegations of misconduct. The same day the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, was hauled over the coals by a House committee for ethical lapses and profligate spending.
That the president is oppressed by his local difficulties is clear. Last week he dialled in to his favourite television show, Fox & Friends, to give vent to his frustrations. It was a tirade that left even the show’s Trumpophile presenters looking groggy.
And yet all of this could be mitigated, if not negated, by a few big away wins. It is not because he enjoys Mr Trump’s company that his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, came to Washington last week. It is because, no matter how much they may loathe his personality, Europeans cannot get around the fact that Donald Trump is the most powerful man in the most powerful country in the world. Monsieur Macron’s sycophancy is strategic, like everything he does.
Like the mutant Pikachu he (from a distance) resembles, Trump has one Pokémon superpower. Though in a state of permanent distraction, he retains an unerring instinct for the weakness of any adversary. Jeb Bush thought he was entitled to the Republican nomination; Trump zeroed in on his “low energy”. Hillary Clinton believed the presidency was hers; Trump zeroed in on her high crookery.
The same has applied in the realm of foreign policy. European leaders — especially the German chancellor, Angela Merkel — believed they were entitled to the American security umbrella, gratis. Then Trump hinted that the US commitment to Nato might not, after all, be unconditional. Before you could say “Auf Wiedersehen, pet”, up went those defence budgets.
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, thought he could test nuclear warheads and long-range missiles to his heart’s content. Trump threatened him with “fire and fury”, while at the same time leaning on China to impose economic sanctions on Pyongyang. Lo and behold, “Little Rocket Man” crossed the demilitarised zone on Friday, taking the first steps to peace on the Korean peninsula.
Yes, I know, Kim wouldn’t be the first North Korean leader to make a deal and then cheat on it. Still, even habitual critics of the president have been forced to acknowledge that he has made more progress on the Korean question in a single year than his predecessor — he of the eloquent speeches — made in eight. It turns out that the madman theory of diplomacy really works, if the world seriously thinks you’re mad.
Iran believed it could sign its nuclear deal with Obama and get sanctions lifted, while continuing its flagrant and bloody meddling in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Enter Trump, casting aspersions on the nuclear deal and resuscitating America’s traditional alliances with Israel and the Saudis. Cue protests in Iranian cities against the government.
Next up is the big one: China. The world seemed to be going Xi Jinping’s way last year. He was the toast of Davos, “The world’s most powerful man” on the cover of The Economist. Even Trump’s superpower seemed to fail him at Mar-a-Lago, where he stuck to the globalist script drawn up by the Goldman Sachs alumni.
But then, on his way back from his Asia trip last year, the president came to his senses. The most powerful man in the world was not Xi. It was He, Himself, “the Donald”. And the best way to prove that was to threaten China with a trade war. The Chinese reaction — public pledges of retaliation, private offers of concessions — tells you all you need to know. They don’t like cold steel tariffs up them.
The foreign policy professionals will tell you that Trump’s chronic lack of preparation will doom his Asian foreign policy to failure. Maybe so. But the domestic politics professionals said just the same about his 2016 campaign.
Richard Nixon did not have much of a domestic record to campaign on in 1972. Because the Democrats controlled Congress, his legislative record was modest. He had imposed wage and price controls in a misguided attempt to suppress inflation, and his approval rating was just north of 50%. But the Democrats nominated a left-leaning candidate, Senator George “amnesty, abortion and acid” McGovern.
Nixon smashed McGovern with one foreign policy win after another. He visited China and met Chairman Mao in February 1972, then went to Moscow in May and signed two agreements to limit nuclear weapons. On October 26, Henry Kissinger declared that peace was “at hand” in Vietnam. McGovern won just one state.
Donald Trump may find himself in a similar predicament in 2020, with the difference that his impeachment may already have started before he is up for re-election. Inflation will be up by then. But the Democrats will nominate a progressive candidate. Trump will have no choice but to campaign on foreign policy.
He will have lost at home. But he could still win on away goals.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford