This week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a press conference to discuss current international developments. It also gave the world a chance to see the evolution of American foreign policy during the Trump Administration.
Obviously, there has much policy movement since Trump took office. The campaign rhetoric developed for applause lines has disappeared. Trump is no longer a raw populist. Rather, he is showing some of his pragmatic side.
He no longer advocates isolationism and his attitude towards international trade and NATO has definitely modified. And, despite expectations that he would favor Russia, there appears to be more chemistry between China’s Xi and Trump than between Trump and Putin.
Other U-turns in Trump policy include currency manipulation by China, North Korea, the Syrian civil war, and Federal Reserve Chairman Yellen.
Trump has learned as president, and he has listened to advisors like Mattis, McMaster, and Tillerson.
Tillerson has influence with the President and has impacted foreign policy. However, he has remained quite loyal despite the turmoil of the Trump White House. In his press conference this week Tillerson reiterated Trump’s foreign policy position. He said, “I think it’s important that people understand as we deal with the President and in helping him formulate and articulate foreign policy, it is those words, Make America Great Again, that we test our policies against, and how are we representing America’s interest first and foremost. And I think you’ve seen that articulated in many different ways by many different people, but it is what guides our formulation of policy here at the State Department.”
“I think the President has been clear though that when we say America first it doesn’t mean America alone, and we do value our friends and allies; we value our partners. And we recognize and acknowledge our adversaries and our enemies, and we tend to think about our relationships in those types of terms. But as we have said, America first is not America alone.”
He also admitted that Trump was making dramatic changes. “Certainly a lot has happened since the end of the Cold War. And I don’t know that anyone’s ever actually taken a step back and said these relationships that have served us well for so long, are they still going to serve us in the 21st century?”
However, in the course of the press conference, he made statements that showed the weakness of the Trump foreign policy. It also showed the weakness of the current style of American foreign policy – Democratic or Republican, Hillary Clinton, Rex Tillerson, or John Kerry. It is a lack of Grand Strategy, a lack of understanding overriding national interests of other nations, and an evolution of American foreign policy from subtle diplomacy to an international form of “Let’s make a Deal.”
On North Korea, Tillerson noted, “We’ve been very clear with the Chinese we certainly don’t blame the Chinese for the situation in North Korea. Only the North Koreans are to blame for this situation. But we do believe China has a special and unique relationship because of this significant economic activity to influence the North Korean regime in ways that no one else can.”
“In doing so, we’ve sought to partner with China. China does account for 90 percent of economic activity with North Korea. The Chinese have been very clear with us that we share the same objective, a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. They do not see it in their interest for North Korea to have nuclear weapons, just as we do not see it in anyone’s interest. China has ways that they can put pressure on and influence the North Korean regime because of this significant economic relationship that no one else has.”
This is a dramatic change from the diplomacy of foreign policy experts like Dr. Kissinger, who is widely considered one of the great diplomats of the 20th Century, even if they disagree with his goals.
Kissinger, whose doctoral dissertation was on the Congress of Vienna, focused on long term goals – not short term, political goals – maintaining a balance of power that kept world powers comfortable, and recognizing the national interests of other nations. The result was a European peace that lasted nearly 100 years.
Recent American secretaries of state (including Kerry, Clinton and Tillerson) have opted for quick political goals that eschew solid diplomacy.
While China is definitely concerned about North Korea’s nuclear capability, a quick diplomatic blitz of a few months by Tillerson and Trump will not change China’s long term national goals.
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner. North Korea is also a neighbor of China, which means that they will have to continue to deal with North Korea long after Trump and Tillerson are gone. That means economic sanctions and strong arm tactics by China towards North Korea will only cause long term problems. It also means that any military solution by the US will have long term repercussions for China.
This sort of poorly thought out foreign policy isn’t limited to Trump and Tillerson. Arrogance and short term policies that don’t take into account other nation’s national goals has become a major policy flaw in all recent administration.
A good example is the Obama/Clinton/Kerry policy towards Russia in Syria. Syria has been a Russian client state since before Obama was born. And, acquiring a warm water port has been a Russian national policy for centuries. Trying to challenge Russian national interests, when it isn’t a major American national interest is going to be doomed to failure.
In this case, Trump foreign policy better represents a sound American policy as the US has made it clear that in some cases, they will “agree to disagree” with Russia.
Tillerson said, “Now, we’ve chosen the theater in Syria as a place in which we test our ability to work together. We share the common view of ISIS as a threat to both of our countries, and so we are committed to the defeat of ISIS, Daesh, other terrorist organizations, and then we are committed to the stability of Syria following the battle to defeat ISIS. Clearly, Russia has aligned itself early on in the conflict with the Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad, which we find to be unacceptable. So we’re working with Russia through how do we achieve the end state, which is a unified Syria…The sequencing of all of that we’re open to, as long as that is the – that’s what is achieved at the end…Again, we’re working closely with Russia and other parties to see if we can agree a path forward on how to stabilize Syria in the post-ISIS world.”
In this case, Tillerson is opting for a long term solution that recognizes national interests of the players and seeks a balance of power that will help maintain peace.
This is the same strategy that Kissinger advocated two years ago in the Wall Street Journal. He said that defeating ISIS should take precedence over regime change in Syria. Henry Kissinger added that Russia’s intervention may help re-establish order in the Middle East that was once entirely dominated by the US.
Though the US has dominated the region following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Washington is now at odds with just about every party in the region and at risk of losing all ability to shape events, Kissinger warned. At issue in the Middle East today is “American resolve in understanding and mastering a new world.”
Russia, he says, merely stepped into a vacuum left by the conflicting and confused US policies. Moscow’s intervention in Syria is driven by geopolitical, rather than ideological concerns.
The current Trump/Tillerson policy in Syria may reflect the fact that Kissinger is an unofficial foreign policy advisor for Trump. In fact, Kissinger met with Trump in May at the White House, where they talked about Syria and Russia.
“We’re talking about Syria and I think that we’re going to do very well with respect to Syria and things are happening that are really, really, really positive,” Trump said after the meeting.
Whether a meeting with Kissinger will redirect American foreign policy towards the development of strategic, long term policy is unknown. Political considerations, a media focused on short term results, and a hard-nosed pragmatism make good foreign policy hard to implement.
Good diplomacy is measured in decades, not weeks or months.
American diplomacy is no longer geared towards long term strategic goals. Until both Republican and Democratic presidents abandon the notion of American exceptionalism and domination, America will continue to stumble in the international arena.