On many of these issues, he has declared victory. Of course, that’s a fiction. North Korea has no intention of denuclearizing. NATO nations will not reach the defense-spending target of 2 percent of GDP. But as Trump portrays it, he fixed it and it’s time to move on. As he candidly confessed after his summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, if it turned out that he was mistaken about North Korea, he would not admit it.
But move on to what? Most presidents would outline a plan to deal with Iran after the nuclear deal, or to transform NATO to cope with the threat from authoritarian states, or to resolve the trade war. But Trump is not one for detail or course correction. In his world, there was a problem, so he did something quickly. And now it’s solved. To say anything else is to suggest the unthinkable—that he is not a magician.
The other thing we do not know is how this ends. If the Trump presidency were a novel, the plot up to this point would have been the most dramatic, compelling, and mind-boggling imaginable. It would surely culminate in a historic catastrophe, a major crisis where we pulled back from the brink, or a Shakespearean unraveling of the lead character. It would not, under any circumstances, end with a whimper whereby Trump spends the rest of his days in power frustrated and having little effect on the wider world.
This is not a novel. But everything we have experienced to date should prepare us for the possibility of a cliff-hanger finale.
It’s not hard to imagine a worst-case outcome. Trump could face a real external crisis. He is singularly ill-equipped to handle a 2008-style financial crisis. Serious questions surround his willingness to defend allies if they are attacked. He is in denial about the Russian cyber threat. Trump could also make a major mistake, such as launching a war or escalating the trade war to the point where it destabilizes the global economy. Or he could go down blazing in an epic showdown with Robert Mueller.
Trump’s speech to the UN General Assembly shed light on these two unknowns. As expected, it was dominated by two themes: self-congratulation and a defense of sovereignty. It seemed tired. He had nothing new to offer on China or Iran or Europe. Bizarrely, but not unexpectedly, there was no mention of the central theme of the National Security Strategy—that America’s most pressing challenge is a geopolitical competition with Russia and China. He reprised his old themes of blaming allies. And he defaulted to the pet projects of John Bolton, his national-security adviser, a man motivated more by legal theories than by foreign policy and the national interest. So we got a plan for protecting American sovereignty from the multilateralists (although not from Russian political interference). Obscure agreements, such as the UN Global Compact for Migration, were named and vilified.