Trump’s Foreign Policy by the Seat of his Pants
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
Understanding United States foreign policy can be perplexing. However, American foreign policy, though complex, usually has been logical and coherent. Astute observers, and by extension foreign governments, could pierce the veil of American foreign policy to reach certain conclusions about underlying objectives. Each U.S. president had a framework – a national security and geopolitical strategy – which provided clues, reduced uncertainty, and allowed the international community to react as appropriate in the interest of international comity among nations. U.S.-led collective response to restore normative behavior where rogue nations are acting contrary to international norms, thus ensuring collective action to restore and protect a stable and safe international environment, were expected.
It is never about America right or wrong. It is about whether America acts in a coherent, moral, and logical manner, and, whether in protecting America’s strategic interests, international norms are not degraded. U.S. president Donald Trump has by virtue of an incoherent foreign policy has created a new paradigm in U.S. foreign policy formulation and execution. Trump pursues foreign policy “by the seat of his pants.” He decides on a course of action based almost exclusively on his “own initiative and perceptions rather than a predetermined plan.” Moreover, he does this “without the necessary experience or ability.” He has compounded his ineptitude by failure to be guided by expert foreign policy advisers. His incoherence has created an appearance of chaos and confusion in U.S. foreign policy which erodes international norms and has grave implications for global stability.
At best, current U.S. foreign policy is chaotic. There is no clear policy. There is no foreign policy strategy. Like never before, there is mistrust among allies and global uncertainty is the new norm. No foreign government can rely on the U.S. for moral leadership. It now appears that moral standards are no longer enshrined in U.S. foreign policy. In this context, the U.S. has become bereft of the ability to engage in moral suasion.
Best characterized, Trump’s foreign policy destabilizes an already destabilized world, international norms are not respected and adhered to, and the international community advances towards anarchy. Unless there is a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy, marginalization of regional and international organizations and institutions will continue, and world order will be left to the whims and fancies of despotic leaders acting with impunity.
The complexities in U.S. foreign policy are characterized by several factors. The formulation of American foreign policy covers a broad range of inputs in order to position the United States as the preeminent global leader in world affairs. However, the many missteps and misstatements which have characterized the first year of Trump’s presidency demonstrate the lack of a clear understanding of global issues and America’s important role in the world.
At all times, the U.S. president must position the tools of the U.S. government at his disposal in order to respond to global threats. He must be able to take responsible actions to encourage adherence to international norms or to respond to natural and man-made disasters. The international community overwhelmingly relies on the United States to lead and act responsibly. At the same time, members of the international community are wary of actions that are not based on sound judgment and a coherent foreign policy thus reducing global uncertainty.
Perceptive foreign leaders understand that the underlying objectives of American foreign policy is to further U.S. national security and geopolitical interests. They also recognize that pursuit of U.S. interests can best be achieved if facilitated in partnership with friendly foreign governments. However, there must be trust and expectation that the U.S. will do the right thing, and the U.S. may be quickly forgiven when U.S. leaders make mistakes or overreact in certain circumstances. What is not easily forgiven is when the U.S. fails to act in a responsible manner. Confidence earned over decades of relationships with past administrations that Washington will act responsibly has been severely eroded.
This erosion has taken place during the first year of the Trump administration. America is fast losing, if not already lost, its ability to forge partnerships in its own interests or the interests of the international community. The trust factor in bilateral relations is nonexistent though some governments out of expediency retain the facade of trust. There is significant harm to U.S. national security and geopolitical interests.
History will earmark the degradation in the integrity of U.S. foreign policy over such a short period of time. The deficiencies in policy formulation and execution will be underscored. It will note the absence of the usual inputs from many sources supporting, guiding, or influencing the President’s own perspectives. It will highlight the absence of inputs from many relevant sources, including from: diplomats and foreign policy experts led by the Secretary of State; the Secretary of Defense; the Intelligence Community; agencies engaged in international trade and commerce; Congressional committees and leaders with oversight responsibilities on foreign policy issues; as well as public and private think tanks and academia. History will identify the president’s disdain for the coordination, formulation, and advisory roles of the National Security Adviser in the president’s decision-making process during this period.
Similarly, president Trump by ignoring the advice of, and often contradicting or undercutting his Secretary of State, contributes to the lack of coherence in U.S. foreign policy. After a year of degrading and marginalizing U.S. diplomatic expertise and the Secretary of State the expected shakeup foretells no greater role for the State Department. The newly nominated Secretary of State appears to hold views in sync with president Trump’s and are unlikely to have much influence on the president’s perspectives and approach to foreign policy. Replacing Rex Tillerson, as marginalized and ineffective as he was, with Mike Pompeo, whom some are already characterizing as a Trump sycophant, is not likely to engender much confidence in, or expectation of significant changes to the future conduct of U.S. foreign policy.
Under normal circumstances, the National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States provides a basis for understanding U.S. strategic and geopolitical objectives. It is a framework on which the international community builds expectations. When the president pursues foreign policy by the seat of his pants and foretells his next move on twitter, foreign governments are left to give more credibility to his tweets rather than in the NSS or the words of American diplomats around the world. Unfortunately, each tweet’s announcement in the nature of the president’s policy lasts for only as long as it takes him to tweet again, and his “policy” could take a 180 degree turn in less than 24 hours. Hence, the confusion, instability, and uncertainty in current U.S. foreign policy have become the new norm and there is no change in sight. There will be no level of predictability, which Trump thinks is a good thing. Chaos is not a good thing. Without integrity and moral underpinnings, the lack of predictability makes the world less safe.
© 2018 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post