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Trump's schadenfreude foreign policy and its political appeal

For Trump, inflicting pain on others is the policy aim, probably because it makes him, and maybe even his supporters, feel better about their own lot.

Analysis | Washington Politics

Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Council on Foreign Relations' Philip Gordon have compiled a good summary of how the Trump presidency has been largely bereft of diplomatic agreements and achievements, despite Donald Trump’s self-promotion as a deal-maker. The administration’s record has been far less one of making deals than of destroying or withdrawing from them, with little or nothing in the way of replacements. 

That record has included arms control, with the administration’s abandonment of the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces and its tireless efforts to destroy the agreement that restricted Iran’s nuclear activities. It has included trade, with the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the resulting weakening of the United States in negotiations about commerce, and an unresolved and economically harmful trade war with China. It has included other matters of global importance, especially multilateral agreements to arrest climate change, which the Trump administration also has abandoned.

This pattern is stark even when including the administration’s most recent claimed achievement, the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates — which Shapiro and Gordon incorrectly label as a “largely positive step” that is an exception to the pattern. Real “peace” agreements resolve conflicts that underlie threats to peace, and this step does nothing of the sort. Israel and the UAE were not at war, and already had peaceful bilateral cooperation that extended to almost everything short of full diplomatic relations. 

The conflict between Israel and Palestinians that has been at the core of Arab-Israeli animosity is still very much unresolved. The new step in Israeli-UAE relations reduces further any Israeli incentive to make the changes necessary to resolve it. Meanwhile, this step sharpens lines of conflict in the Persian Gulf region and may escalate conflict there, given that the sale of more advanced U.S. arms, including perhaps F-35 fighter aircraft, to the Emirates evidently was part of the price that Abu Dhabi extracted from the Trump administration for agreeing to the diplomatic relationship with Israel.

Shapiro and Gordon aptly characterize the overall thrust of Trump’s foreign policy this way: “Punishment of adversaries—and sometimes even allies—is no longer part of a diplomatic strategy to achieve specific policy goals; it has become the objective itself.” Rather than using the pain inflicted through economic damage or other harassment as an incentive to reach agreements, the administration has been “simply declaring the pain inflicted the measure of success.”

This pattern has repeatedly occurred during this administration’s tenure, on matters involving China, Iran, Syria, and other states. The pattern produces such oxymoronic rhetoric as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claiming “historic results countering the Iranian regime” while cataloging the ways in which a provoked and undeterred Iran has been behaving worse than ever since the administration began its “maximum pressure” campaign of economic warfare against Iran.

Multiple explanations

All this raises the question of why the administration pursues a foreign policy that is mostly just pain for others without any gain for the United States — or for anyone else, for that matter. Maybe the policymakers simply don’t have any better ideas. With a president who has no sense of grand strategy or the national interest but does know how to make things painful for others, inflicting pain is what he will do. 

But a full explanation is not that simple. Trump may have no sense of international strategy but he does know what appeals to his domestic political base. So does Pompeo, who hopes to inherit that base.

Rhetorical spin undoubtedly leads some citizens to perceive that there has been gain even when there hasn’t been. If large parts of Trump’s base can be led to believe, for example, that someone on the opposing party’s national ticket is not a native-born U.S. citizen — a tactic that Trump is resorting to again — then they can be made to believe that thanks to the administration’s efforts a better trade deal with China or a better nuclear deal with Iran is on the verge of being inked.

Something even more fundamental than gullibility, however, is also involved. Humans’ sense of well-being is in large part relative rather than absolute. Happiness often involves comparing one’s status with those of others. The worse off someone else is, the better one’s own lot seems. That is how someone else’s misfortune can be felt as a gain. The phenomenon has been the focus of studies at the neural as well as the political level.

The extent to which well-being if felt in such ways varies greatly across individuals. Survey research has shown that Trump supporters disproportionately exhibit traits that make them more likely to feel pleasure from someone else’s pain. These traits include the authoritarian personality syndrome, with its greater aggressiveness toward members of outgroups, as well as prejudice and what psychologists call the social dominance syndrome. Probably most relevant is the tendency of Trump supporters to feel relative deprivation — a tendency to measure well-being in relative terms and to resent others’ success. That trait is a basis for the Trump administration’s xenophobic appeals involving immigration, and it likely is an ingredient in feeling good about pain inflicted on entire foreign nations.

Self-inflicted pain

The fundamental problem with a schadenfreude-based foreign policy is that someone else’s pain is not a U.S. gain. In some ways, the pain of others entails pain and costs to the United States itself. For one thing, deprivation and hardship, whether inflicted by the United States or occurring for whatever other reason, tend to foment increased instability and violence. A world with increased instability and violence is generally not in U.S. interests.

In a globalized world, economic harm to another country may entail economic disadvantages to the United States. Trump is profoundly wrong in treating international commerce as entirely a zero-sum situation. Macroeconomics is not the same as besting a counterparty in a real estate deal. The economic entanglement of China and the United States is not going away anytime soon, and if it did it would be to the disadvantage of both nations.

The intentional infliction of hardship on the citizens of another nation breeds resentment that works to the disadvantage of the United States. The hardship that Trump’s economic warfare is inflicting on ordinary Iranians will continue to shape attitudes among the Iranian people, who have long memories about such things, well after Trump himself is gone. Those attitudes will in turn shape some Iranian policies to the detriment of the United States.

Finally, pain-based policy ignores the need for cooperation rather than conflict in addressing global problems such as climate change or the current COVID-19 pandemic. Regarding the pandemic, Trump asserts pain on the part of other nations if he cannot create it.  “You’ve seen what’s going on in New Zealand?” Trump said on Monday. “Big surge in New Zealand. It’s terrible. We don’t want that.”  The “big surge” consists of a couple of dozen new cases early this week, after New Zealand had avoided local transmission of the disease for months. New cases in the United States have lately been averaging around 50,000 per day. With no better ideas, or sufficient willingness, to combat a scourge that has killed 175,000 Americans and counting, even the imagined pain of others seems to be all that Trump has.

TULSA, Oklahoma, USA. - June 20, 2020: US President Donald J. Trump holds campaign rally in Bank of Oklahoma Center. The campaign rally is the first since coronavirus lockdown in March 2020. (Photo: Albert Halim /
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