The Trump administration and global security
In many respects, President Donald Trump is following Obama’s core foreign policies, albeit with a very different personal tone, as just seen with his new National Security Strategy document he released in mid-December. A specific examples of this continuity is the Iranian nuclear agreement; his general rage against it was for public consumption. Trump is keeping the US in the agreement and his specific complaints – the exclusion of military sites from inspection, missile testing, and the “sunset clause” – should and can be tackled by not just the US, but the international community.
The three major exceptions to this trend – the Pacific Trade Pact (TPP), the Paris Climate Accords, and the embassy move to Jerusalem – are less than meets the eye. The TTP was denounced by all three major presidential candidates and thus, cancellation was inevitable with or without Trump. The Paris Accords, however important for the long-term well-being of humanity, is not a core American global order responsibility. As the muted reaction in the region to the Jerusalem decision documents, it will have little lasting impact on America’s role there.
However, in terms of America’s most central global role – leading the collective security system against external threats – little has changed. Obama’s priority in the Middle East – fighting ISIS – remains “job number one” for the US military, even though its threat is diminishing and that of Iran’s is steadily growing. On North Korea, Trump’s rhetoric in response to truly dangerous developments appears to replace Obama’s benign neglect with imminent preventative war. But in terms of actual diplomatic or military steps, either to give substance to American threats or signal possible compromises, nothing has been done, despite a rich menu of options and despite the enormity of the new threat out of Pyongyang. With Russia and China, Trump clearly is seeking – as did Obama – common ground, while containing their more egregious challenges to the international order in the South China Sea and Ukraine.
In diplomacy, tone is often as important as substance, and Trump certainly violates this principle every day. His empty threats about the UN General Assemby vote on Jerusalem is a telling example of this. But there are two caveats. First, to a degree never seen before in any American government, his senior foreign policy team routinely contradict and correct him, and second, almost always prevail with more thoughtful policy approaches at the end of the day. This is an awful way to conduct diplomacy, with a real chance of miscommunication in life-or-death circumstances, but better than the likely alternative – Trump’s rants actually being translated into policy. And on the plus side, Trump seems to be genuinely liked by at least some foreign leaders.
But this bonhomie can and has led to misconceptions. The Saudis and Emiratis took Trump’s fulsome embrace of them in Riyadh as a green light to launch a campaign not against Iran or the terror threat, but fellow US ally Qatar. Tillerson and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to quickly set the record straight. With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump has sought to accentuate a positive atmosphere rather than explain differences on key issues tormenting the relationship – the role of governments in judicial processes, and US support rendered to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed affiliate People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey views as an existential threat to its national security. This has led Ankara to focus on a supposed American “deep state” disloyal to Trump and hostile to Turkey, rather than seek compromise with Washington. Trump promises full support to Erdogan on this issue but what happens on the ground could be different.
Finally, the foreign policy arm of the administration is a mess, be it an absence of senior policy level appointees or internal coordination and review of policies. Rather than a handful of leaders, a large, decentralized bureaucracy is necessary to spot and manage potential crises. By the time they gain the attention of top leaders it is often too late to respond in a routine manner. And top leaders can only field a handful of such dramatic challenges. It is thus up to the system to keep those to a handful, and Trump’s system currently is in no state to do so.
* Ambassador James F. Jeffrey is a Philip Solondz Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington D.C. He was also the US Ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010. This is an abridged version of the original article published in Turkish Policy Quaterly’s (TPQ) Fall 2017 issue.