Global Affairs

US diplomacy adrift in a Trump tempest

Tillerson's troubled relations with his boss are just one sign of a deeper, dangerous malaise at the State Department

LONDON • "Laughable" is how US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dismissed media reports that the White House is about to get rid of him. And just to prove the point that he remains firmly in charge of US diplomacy, Mr Tillerson is embarking this week on a tour of European capitals, where he will seek to reassure Washington's closest allies of America's "ironclad" commitment to their defence, as he put it.

But his reassurances are unlikely to be taken at face value. For the reality is that US foreign policy has seldom been in such disarray, with neither America's friends nor foes knowing where they stand, or who takes decisions in Washington.

Meanwhile, America's dispirited diplomats, browbeaten and ignored by their political masters, are abandoning their careers in droves, leaving vacant hundreds of positions both at home and abroad. And all that, as Mr Tillerson himself knows only too well, is most certainly no laughing matter.

The problem is not, as many commentators like to suggest, that President Donald Trump and top officials of his administration came to office knowing next to nothing about foreign policy. Many other presidents were equally unaware of the wider world when they first walked through the doors of the White House, and they include Mr Barack Obama, that darling of intellectuals and foreign policy wonks who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for just getting elected.

Indeed, it could be argued that, in the US, pleading ignorance about foreign policy is a badge of honour and electoral asset; after all, Mr Bill Clinton came to office proclaiming that "It's the economy, stupid". So at least in this respect, Mr Trump merely stands for continuity; his disdain of "foreigners" remains the rule among incoming US presidents, not the exception.

The real problem with Mr Trump is that, unlike his predecessors, he not only made no effort to learn about foreign policy after he came to office, but also missed no opportunity to undermine and denigrate his country's diplomats. President Trump believes that instead of representing US interests to the world, the State Department is merely an advocate for foreign interests in Washington, and that US diplomats are poor negotiators bamboozled by foreigners into signing deals which are detrimental to America's interests.

The world, according to Mr Trump, is a jungle in which everyone tries to swallow everyone, and where only the fittest survive; "I don't blame China" - he told Chinese President Xi Jinping during his recent visit to Beijing - "for taking advantage" of America.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The real problem with Mr Trump is that, unlike his predecessors, he not only made no effort to learn about foreign policy after he came to office, but also missed no opportunity to undermine and denigrate his country's diplomats. He believes that instead of representing US interests to the world, the State Department is merely an advocate for foreign interests in Washington.

But in this jungle, the job of defending the supposedly innocent, vulnerable and often naive United States is far too important to be left to those limp-wristed American diplomats, good only for speaking foreign tongues and eating foreign food; the job needs real men able to "make America great again". As outlandish as these may seem, such views have been commonplace among far-right politicians in the US for decades; the only difference is that a believer in this narrative is now sitting in the Oval Office.

And the impact on American policy has been little short of catastrophic. One of Mr Trump's first actions after taking office was to order a cut of almost a third in the State Department's budget. And with an almost uncanny ability for timing, he undermined every single one of his country's major foreign policy initiatives, by simply firing off a tweet at a critical moment.

"I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," Mr Trump tweeted, just as the head of America's diplomacy embarked on shuttle talks with regional leaders over the Korean nuclear crisis; "Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done," he added, implying that Mr Tillerson's effort not merely had no chance of success, but did not enjoy the President's backing either.

Mr Tillerson also tried to uphold the nuclear deal which the US signed with Iran; "We are going to stay in," he told US legislators in mid-October, only to be contradicted days later by the President, who did precisely the opposite. The same happened when the Secretary of State tried to mediate in the ongoing dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar; just when America's chief diplomat was shuttling from one Gulf capital to another, a single tweet from Mr Trump scuppered all his efforts.

When Mr Tillerson was appointed Secretary of State, the assumption among policymakers in Washington was that he'd be able to withstand pressure from the President and assert the State Department's prerogatives in running foreign policy. But exactly the opposite has happened.

Mr Tillerson spent most of his time trying to reform the State Department by poring over headcounts and organisational charts and by engaging in the incomprehensible management-speak so dear to people who undertake such exercises: as he grandly told congressmen in August, he wanted to create "an evidence-based and data-driven process to enhance policy formulation and execution, as well as optimise and realign our global footprint".

The usual management consultants were called in. And the consultants, of course, first had to engage in a "listening tour" of US embassies around the world, before they offered their wisdom as to what the State Department needed to do to reform. And, yes, you guessed it: the highly paid consultants flew from one embassy to another in business class, while America's own ambassadors are legally obliged to fly in economy.

Meanwhile, the US has still to appoint new ambassadors to key countries such as France, Germany and Saudi Arabia. It has no permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency. And it has no policy chiefs at the level of assistant secretaries of state for the Middle East or for East Asia and the Pacific, and all this while President Trump is talking of a potential war with North Korea.

This US administration "is not divided into people who are loyal to Trump and those who are not. Rather, it is divided between those who know how to manipulate his vanity, his hatreds, his sensitivities, and those who do not", Mr Eliot Cohen, a former US senior diplomat who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, wrote recently. Sadly, Mr Tillerson belongs to the latter category.

Yet it's worth remembering that the emasculation of America's foreign diplomacy and the marginalisation of the State Department did not start with, but merely accelerated under, Mr Trump; if the State Department were a piece of complicated machinery, it started seizing up under the Obama presidency, when the White House insisted on micro-managing every detail, and when not doing anything to handle global crises was elevated to the highest form of art.

Either way, worse may lie ahead for America's diplomats. Mr Trump's "Twitter adventures" continue unabated. In an extraordinary turn of events, the President, who refuses to admit that he was simply wrong to retweet recently inflammatory and racist videos circulated by anti-Muslim fringe activists in Britain, is now effectively trolling the British Prime Minister, the leader of one of America's closest historic allies; a more bizarre turn of events can hardly be imagined.

And more significantly still, Mr Trump is now engaging in private diplomacy on some of the world's most sensitive potential crises, a sure recipe for potential disaster.

The "peace package" which is apparently touted throughout the Middle East by Mr Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law, without any consultation or even the knowledge of the State Department is such an example; chances are high that instead of settling a conflict between Palestinians and Israelis which has lasted for over seven decades, the half-baked Kushner plan would merely give the wrong message to everyone, and exacerbate violence.

Mr Trump's supposed personal communications with President Xi are another example of a disaster waiting to happen: undocumented, unsupervised and understaffed, such contacts could well end up just muddying diplomatic waters. And the idea that the current administration may consider mounting a pre-emptive strike against North Korea's nuclear installations when it cannot even coordinate a proper dialogue between the White House and the State Department does not even bear thinking about.

"If it's as bad as it seems to be described, I'm not seeing it, I'm not getting it," is how Mr Tillerson reacted when confronted recently with the litany of America's diplomatic troubles.

But that, in a nutshell, is America's key difficulty: its leaders are just not getting it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2017, with the headline 'US diplomacy adrift in a Trump tempest '. Print Edition | Subscribe