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Trump’s Willful Ignorance Is Another Strain of American Exceptionalism

America is the “prize amateur nation in the world.”

A television report in Seoul, South Korea, shows President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Photo: Bloomberg /Jean Chung)

A television report in Seoul, South Korea, shows President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Photo: Bloomberg /Jean Chung)

If a meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un ever happens, it won’t be for a lack of amateurishness. After all, there was little advance preparation for the meeting originally scheduled for June 12, no hammering out positions between underlings and experts before the leaders were to meet. The repeated references to a Libyan solution could only mean that Kim might give up his bomb only to be dragged from a ditch and murdered. And then there was the cancellation, as if Trump were walking away from a rug merchant to get a better price.

Such amateurishness has become a hallmark of this administration’s foreign policy. On his way to North Korea to meet the mercurial Kim, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, The New York Times reported, referred to him as “Chairman Un,” apparently not realizing that, in Korea as in China, the first name is the surname. It’s like referring to Mao Zedong as Chairman Zedong.

A gaffe can be forgiven, but what are we to make of a president who gives his utterly inexperienced son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the portfolios of China and making peace between Israelis and Palestinians, problems steeped in history and cultural differences? Kushner has been quoted as saying: “I am a businessman. I don’t care about the past.”

Unfortunately, there is a place for ignorance and inexperience in American diplomatic tradition. It is a part of American exceptionalism, the belief that, because we are Americans, we bring fresh and new perceptions to the table, unburdened by the past. The author Scott Anderson has written about the “American can-do spirit,” a belief common to Americans that “ignorance and lack of experience could actually bestow an advantage, might serve as the wellspring for originality and boldness.”

I once asked a senior American officer in Vietnam during the war if he had read anything about the French experience in that country. “No, why should I?” was his answer. “They lost, didn’t they?”

I met Americans in the Green Zone of Baghdad at the height of the insurgency, in 2008, who had only the fuzziest understanding of the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims that our invasion of Iraq had exacerbated and that is now tearing the Middle East apart. They didn’t think they needed to know ancient history. They were Americans bringing democracy. Why bother about the past?

And in Afghanistan, I met Americans who thought that purple ink on people’s fingers, showing they had voted, could erase a thousand years of ethnic and tribal rivalries. They didn’t really have to know about what had gone before, because they were Americans doing things the American way.

Ninety-nine years ago, at the Paris Peace Conference, following World War I, the noted economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that Woodrow Wilson knew little of European affairs and was not the intellectual equal of the other allied leaders. But Keynes didn’t understand American exceptionalism. It wasn’t that Wilson wasn’t intelligent. It was just that he didn’t think any of that mattered compared to the high moralistic ideals he was bringing to the table. It was doing things the American way that mattered, not mastering the sordid intrigues of Europe.

America is the “prize amateur nation in the world,” said Wilson during the war, according to historian Patricia O’Toole. In her new book, “The Moralist,” she quotes Wilson as saying: “When it comes to doing new things and doing them well I will back the amateur against the professional any time because the professional does it all out of the book and the amateur does it with his eyes open upon a new world and with a new set of circumstances. He knows so little about it that he is fool enough to try the right thing.”

Trump is not the intellectual equal of Woodrow Wilson, but in his future dealings with North Korea, Iran, and a host of other problems, you can bet that Trump will be counting on ignorance as a wellspring of originality and boldness to guide him.

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H.D.S. Greenway

H.D.S. Greenway

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Boston Globe and author of Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.

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