Americans in 2017 are distracted or fearful, or euphoric or just plain puzzled by the Trump Administration. Foreigners see no firm guideposts emerging from the White House or the Congressional majority to indicate how the US intends to interact with the rest of the world.
The President’s public communications on international matters as well as those of his senior advisors, to include the Executive Orders, have caused consternation and unease in many foreign capitals.
All observers are attempting to read the tea leaves to extract hints as to where the richest, most powerful nation on Earth may be heading. The Executive Orders issued to date, are somewhat opaque because no one knows how many of them were meant to lay down longer-term policy markers or were intended to demonstrate fidelity to the election campaign agenda. Perhaps clearest to date is the White House preference for keeping the foreign and national security policy decision process within a small number of family members and absolutely trustworthy advisors. Other countries see this approach as obscuring the familiar, traditional roles of the National Security Council, the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury and the Intelligence Community.
The Vice President and the Secretaries of State and Defense are actively attempting to reassure allies and others alike, that the United States will not abruptly change any fundamental, long-standing policies. Most governments from Beijing-Teheran-Moscow to Mexico City-Baghdad-New Delhi, welcome such statements but have adopted a wait & see posture.
No major crisis, demanding more from the USG than diplomatic communications and media messaging, has erupted. Had it, the Trump Administration’s characteristics and priorities might have become more visible to everyone. It is entirely possible that the current relative calm may reflect extra caution on the part of some governments (minus Pyongyang) in the face of Washington’s current unpredictability. However, everyone understands challenges will come.
The Election took place over three months ago, and our Chief Executive has been in office slightly more than thirty days. However, many Americans after more than a year and a half of the 24/7 media displays of Mr. Trump may feel their brains were long since captured by his larger-than-life persona and atmospherics
His statements, Tweets, lifestyle and glamorous family are accessible to anyone at any time. Without question, they provide seductive diversions from most people’s more humdrum daily existence. They also serve to distract millions from the Administration’s somewhat frenetic, first four weeks in charge. But, perhaps most interesting is the emotional nutrition all-things-Trump serves up to very different segments of the body-politic.
The President’s strongest supporters are excited by the Administration’s defiance of the Washington “establishment”, its norms and expectations and invigorated by the dramatic change in tone and treatment of the media, foreign governments, Muslims/immigrants and the general business of being president. At the same time, those who voted for other candidates in the primary and general elections, draw some satisfaction from what they see as the Administration’s rough debut complete with judicial slap downs.
Those who strongly favored Hillary Clinton are excited and encouraged by the huge 1/21/17 Washington Women’s Demonstration and its sister events across the nation and the globe. Trump allies dismiss them as the actions of sore losers who should get over it and move on.
When the subjects addressed in Washington involve national security and foreign policy, attention shifts to a global audience. America’s Allies, friends, and foes have become accustomed since WWII, to the United States providing stability, contributing to world order and following fairly predictable policy themes. This historic background conditions their present reactions and concerns.
Foreign governments are following everything the Trump Administration does, says and hints very carefully. Many admit, after only one month, they are having difficulty deciphering its intentions. What apparently disturbs them most are: (1) the White House and its own Government, fighting with each other and (2) the uncertainty of who speaks for America.
The following represents a sampling of specific issues foreign leaders are waiting for Washington to clarify. What is the Trump Administration’s policy on or position towards…:
The Russian Government?
The existing US, UN, EU sanctions regime imposed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the conquest of Crimea and support of the insurgency in Eastern Ukraine?
Partnering with Russia to combat global terrorism?
Russia’s military support of the Assad Regime in Syria?
The multi-lateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Nuclear Agreement) with Iran?
Will the Administration authorize the Boeing Corporation’s $17 Billion aircraft sale to Teheran?
Will it oppose the expansion of European commercial relations with Iran?
The essentiality of the NATO Treaty/Organization to Trans-Atlantic security and on the EU as an important economic element of that relationship?
The One-China Policy as the foundation of its relationship to the PRC?
A military response to China’s efforts to dominate the South China
Implementation of the 2016 Paris Environmental Accord?
Global warming as an established fact?
Accepting refugees and asylum seekers from Muslim countries?
The deployment of additional US ground forces in the Middle East?
Multilateral versus bi-lateral trade agreements?
The importance of the United Nations Organization?
The Trump Administration has been in power for only one month. It is very early days for anyone, American or foreign, to be reaching any conclusions tentative or otherwise about its trajectory. Some European commentators have noted similarities between today’s US Government and those more nationalistic and conservative political parties vying in 2017 and 2018 elections, particularly in Germany and France.
However, the questions being raised and doubts expressed overseas today about the coherence of the US political leadership and its capacity to develop a reasonable basis for its foreign and national security policies is not healthy. For better or worse, the US has been for many decades, the only country with sufficient wealth and power, disposed to intervene and restore order, help the helpless and introduce human hope for the future where it has disappeared. Everyone at home and abroad understands mistakes have been made, but that fact has not weakened America’s role as the final fall back for many and the “sleeping tiger” for others.
Some countries will welcome a much reduced American global presence, while many others are fearful such a retreat is imminent. Confusion can be dangerous.
Tom Timberman is an expert on military policy and now lives on the Eastern Shore. Among his many assignments with the US Department of State, he has headed a provincial reconstruction team, embedded within a combat brigade in Iraq. He has also helped implement a new counterterrorism strategy in Southeast Asia as Senior Advisor for South Asia in the Office of Coordinator for Counterterrorism.