October 12, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: U.S. Foreign Policy Implodes

The ‘purposefully chaotic’ approach to foreign policy, as practiced by the Trump Administration, has rendered much U.S. diplomacy incoherent at a time of steadily increasing security challenges.

• On October 8, U.S. President Donald Trump opened a Twitter fight with the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

• The Twitter fight followed widespread reports of dysfunctional relations between the President and his chief foreign policy officer, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

• The daily drama and name calling from the White House is masking what appears to be the implosion of U.S. foreign policy. 

• The President’s notion of being the sole ‘winning’ partner in a transactional relationship is insufficient as a coherent implementable strategy for U.S. foreign interests and goals.

The ‘purposefully chaotic’ approach to foreign policy, as practiced by the Trump Administration, has rendered much U.S. diplomacy incoherent at a time of steadily increasing security challenges. Mercurial and seemingly-capricious swings on policies ranging from diplomacy with a nuclear-armed North Korea to long-standing trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have reportedly left U.S. partners and foes scrambling to try and make sense of the President’s increasingly ad hoc transactional approach. 

While foreign ministries engage in a White House version of Kremlinology—studying the minutia of face time and seating charts to try and divine President Trump’s policies and moods—the President engaged in another damaging clash on Twitter. On October 8, President Trump lashed out at Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, an early campaign supporter of the President who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, responsible for oversight, advice, and aid in implementing the nation’s foreign policy. Senator Corker lashed back, tweeting that the White House had become ‘an adult day care center’, to which the President responded on October 10, by taunting the senator on his height. While these exchanges may amuse and motivate much of the President’s political base, watching a President openly mock the chairman of a crucial Senate committees has been a staggering experience for many.

The Twitter exchange came less than a week after widespread reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the President ‘a moron’ after a July meeting with top national security officials—an apparently unheard-of remark in any past administration. The awkward denials of the multi-sourced reporting did little to put the matter to rest; nor did the President’s joke that he would take an IQ test with the secretary and win. Of far more importance are the continued poor relations between President Trump and his chief diplomat, at a time where both U.S and multilateral diplomacy are needed most.

The extremely personal nature of the President’s attacks against leading members of Congress mirror his now regular threats against North Korea, whose dictator he labeled ‘Little Rocket Man’, much as tagged the Foreign Relations Chairman ‘Liddle Sen Corker’. Many of the President’s supporters find themselves bouncing between explaining what the President ‘actually meant’ versus what he actually said. This has seen some tortured attempts at explanations; including claims that some Presidential comments were both serious policy statements and jokes a concerned world should take lightly. This self-induced policy instability at the highest level is not limited to the ongoing conflict with North Korea but can be seen in the full panoply of U.S. responses to a series of global challenges.

Beyond the President’s Twitter wars, the Trump administration’s preferred approach to foreign policy as ‘winning’ in a transactional relationship is neither sufficiently coherent nor realistically achievable for a modern country facing complex multilateral challenges. Even with a unified whole-of-government approach, the U.S. would struggle to address issues including: China’s efforts to expand its sphere of influence, Russia’s blatant land grabs in Europe and active measures campaign to exacerbate U.S. social divisions, wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and climate change. Meanwhile, the President’s ad hoc, purposefully antagonistic approach to parties both foreign and domestic, threatens to ensure the continued implosion of U.S. foreign policy goals and waning of Washington’s global influence.


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