Photo: Courtesy of Tribune News Service

Column: Diplomacy, Trump style

Diplomacy has always been an integral aspect of modern states. In everything from minor trade deals to world-shaping international defense agreements, diplomacy has led the way. Diplomacy has crafted America’s place and status in the modern world and now may very well take it away.  

President Trump has a tenuous relationship with diplomacy. On one hand, Trump has attempted to shape U.S. foreign policy, going as far as to push forward massive policy decisions like his plan for Afghanistan and a harder line on North Korea. However, these aims are overshadowed by a complete and abject failure of the State Department to perform even the most simple of tasks. Furthermore, Trump’s repeated insertions into foreign policy, often followed by complete contradictions, have neutered the ability of the State Department to uphold its basic obligations to the American people. It has become clear that this supposed “policy revolution” is instead a complete loss of concerted direction within the White House and State Department. Trump’s understanding of diplomacy is the fundamental cause of this aimless breakdown that only degrades America’s position in the world.  

From the beginning, Trump’s White House set forth a foreign policy that, while difficult to carry out, was feasible. Shifting from policy of international cooperation to “America First” was not some impossible task, it would just take the right people in the right positions with the right plan. This however, is when everything started coming apart.

To begin with, Trump’s appointment of Rex Tillerson to Secretary of State was in complete contrast to his own ideological position. Tillerson himself is a moderate on foreign policy, Trump is far more nationalistic. This in itself, was not the biggest hurdle. Earlier Presidents have had clashes with their Secretary of State for similar reasons. What made this case different was Trump’s advisers and how much influence they’ve had on him. Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller, in particular, have had far greater influence than their foreign policy backgrounds — or lack thereof — would warrant. Bannon, Gorka and Miller are all far-right nationalists, the complete opposite of Tillerson, and their influence was apparent in Trump’s actions. Pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, extreme criticism of NATO and arguing that we should abandon Afghanistan all run in opposition to Tillerson and his perspective on foreign relations.

This ideological fight was compounded by the inclusion of even more moderates in Trump’s cabinet. James Mattis, Jared Kushner, H.R. McMaster, Steven Mnuchin and John Kelly, to name a few. The past few months have been filled with news of political infighting in Trump’s cabinet, coming to a head when Bannon was ousted and replaced. Such fighting has led to a shift. Trump is possibly no longer pulling out of the Paris Climate accords, has walked back some of his criticism against NATO and has decided to recommit to Afghanistan. This shift has consequences, however, as Tillerson has had to juggle both the nationalistic and moderate aspects of Trump’s foreign policy. Currently, Tillerson and the State Department seem to have a hard time nailing down Trump’s real position on a number of issues, preventing forward motion on many, if not all of them.

Yet again, the primary factor complicating all of this is President Trump. His lack of a solid ideological position is one, his willingness to interject himself into State Department business, often erratically, is another. It seems Trump cannot keep his mouth shut. His statements to the press are often in conflict with Tillerson’s, with the media often seeming to know Trump’s foreign policy direction before even the Secretary of State. This, again, undermines Tillerson’s position. His goal is to translate the President’s lofty foreign policy intentions into practical action, but this is impossible if he doesn’t even know what the goals are to begin with.

Frankly, this disaster by Trump’s own hands is unsurprising. Trump has no government experience outside of what he’s gained in the past few months. He is a man of business, an area where unpredictability can sometimes work in your favor. This is not so in diplomacy. The closest you can get to that was Nixon and Kissinger, and even they had decades of foreign policy experience that let them balance the unpredictability with clearly defined goals. Trump, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Instead of working in step with his State Department, he’s decided to run the show himself, neglecting the fact that foreign policy requires an experienced bureaucracy with a well-defined mission. Rome was not built in a day, and diplomacy is the same; it can take years to broker an agreement between nations, something Trump lacks the patience and attention span for.

This isn’t just a problem for the U.S.; other nations need to know what to expect in negotiations. If U.S. foreign policy is constantly vacillating between two different ideological perspectives, how can a foreign power safely say that any deal made with the U.S. will exist after the President has his morning tweetstorm? Furthermore, will nations we are currently courting into our sphere of influence turn to another power simple because they no longer have faith in the U.S.? What about our allies? How can they trust us to follow through on our obligations if our president can’t be half-assed to make up his mind? These are all problems created by presidential mismanagement of an essential facet of U.S. standing in the world: diplomacy.

Trump may pride himself on being a deal maker, but when it comes to the difficult realities of international diplomacy, he falls flat. Internal ideological conflict and unpredictability have essentially eliminated the ability of the State Department to carefully carve out America’s place in the world, all because of Trump. He needs to realize that far more is on the line than a casino or a football league, our very future is at stake. A rudderless ship will sink in a storm, and so too will our preeminence as the world’s leader if Trump continues to play diplomat.  



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