President Donald Trump wrote in a tweet last week:“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
There are opposite assertions in the same sentence. What message is he sending to Russia or to Assad in Syria? Your guess is as good as theirs.
If you are the foreign minister of say Russia or Mexico, how do you calibrate your country’s policies and responses to the current United States and its rapidly changing foreign policy priorities and postures? Do you appoint a dedicated staff to stare at the Twitter account of President Trump, hoping he will tweet something about your country? Or do you wait for the appointment of an ambassador who may be able to explain to you how Washington plans to relate with your nation, going forward?
Consider the case of Russia. President Trump calls President Putin and has a friendly chat in which he congratulates him on his victory, and does not raise the issues of absence of free and fair elections, foreign assassinations using chemical weapons or the engagement of hybrid warfare against many Western democracies. Then, a few days later an avalanche of expulsions of diplomats and new sanctions!
How do you square that circle?
When Rex Tillerson was secretary of State, he advocated for months to adopt a more diplomatic approach toward the standoff with North Korea. President Trump, on the other hand, took to Twitter not only to second guess his own chief diplomat, but also to get into a verbal war with the leader of North Korea, calling him names and threatening him with “fire and fury.”
And then the president agrees to sit down with the “rocket man” for a face to face summit, sometime soon.
How does one make sense of this cacophony? It is difficult to even guess or infer the worldview or principles that are guiding the new U.S. foreign policy. Ambassadors are missing, National Security Advisors come and go, secretaries of State and directors of CIA play musical chairs.
Is there anything that anchors this administration?
The global liberal order and all its constituents depend on the U.S. to make the world safer and more predictable. Unfortunately, the U.S. has become a disruptive nation, rather than making the world predictable. It itself is behaving in unpredictable ways and contributing to global insecurity.
So here is my recommendation to those who want some degree of predictability in U.S. foreign policy. If you are interested in understanding U.S. policies toward high profile nations (from the current administration’s perspective, North Korea, Russia, China, and Iran) then you have got a difficult task ahead of you. You will have to follow every mood that swings the president’s Twitter finger. Pay close attention to what the American media is obsessing about, how Fox News covers the country and finally also follow closely the first family’s business interests.
But if you are interested in U.S. policy toward nations and issues that are not high profile, then you are in luck. I think standard operating procedures apply in all these cases until they attract the attention of the White House.
Outside the limelight, there is order and predictability. Bureaucrats, ambassadors, second and third-tier political appointees have broad principles and a strategic vision to guide them as they make decisions that impact national security and defense policies. They can be found in the National Security Strategy document published by the White House in October 2017 and the National Defense Strategy, whose key principles were made public by Defense Secretary James Mattis.
These principles may serve as a guide, in the absence of countervailing presidential tweets or statements:
- Henceforth America is First: which means that America’s short-term trade and other interests trump long-term benefits to the global order, environmental conservation or even global economic stability.
- Bilateralism over multilateralism: Expect the U.S. to deal with nations directly on matters of shared interests. There will be less likelihood of inclusive policies. Basically expect to be cornered alone by the U.S. so that the advantages that the U.S. has over individual nations will help it dominate every transaction. In terms of game theory, no more hunting for the stag, hares for all.
- The global war on terror is over. We are back to great power rivalries and now expect to see growing tensions with Russia and China. Most states will now have to choose whether to balance the U.S. or bandwagon. We are rapidly heading back to the cold war era geopolitics.
So here is the mantra: In absence of tweets, follow the texts.
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Originally Published in Delaware Online.