It is normal for new presidential administrations in Washington to be initially inconsistent and confused about their policy decisions. This applies to both the drafting and the conducting of foreign policy, as new American administrations initially find it hard to adapt to the vagaries of foreign policy and global political competition and interaction.
But with the administration of Donald J Trump, who took office as US president on 20 January, the confusion and inconsistency of the handling of foreign policy issues has gone to a new level never seen before in American foreign policy.
There are various signs of this confusion. The first sign is what I would call the “normal” or “accepted” sign of confusion. I call this normal because it is expected to occur with any new American administration that needs time to gain experience in the practical application of foreign policy.
There are also two such normal signs, the first being that members of the Trump foreign policy team do not always agree on all issues. On Russia, for example, President Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have called for improving relations with Russia and have good personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn called for improving relations with Russia, but condemned the actions of Putin. Secretary of Defence James Mattis has been open to the idea of improving relations with Russia, but is also considered a “hawk” who has called for confrontation and standing up firmly against Russian actions (as opposed to a “dove” calling for reconciliation).
“I’m all for engagement,” Mattis has said. “But we also have to recognise reality and what Russia is up to. There are a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we’re going to have to confront Russia.” Perhaps Trump is reversing the policies of his predecessor president Barack Obama on Russia and China. Obama wanted to improve relations with China but took a harsh stance against Russia, especially over Ukraine and the Crimea. Trump, on the other hand, wants to bring about reconciliation with Russia and has made harsh statements against China on trade and Taiwan.
According to the US magazine Foreign Policy, “it is good to have a diversity of views inside the [American government]. This leads to robust debate… The problem is that you need a strong and engaged president who can listen to the various positions, make decisions, and set a clear course forward. There are no indications that Trump is going to have the attention span and willingness to do that.”
Indeed, Trump has clearly expressed his lack of affection for the fine details of foreign policy. For example, shortly before his inauguration Trump said that he would like his daily briefings on foreign policy issues to be only one page long and in the form of bullet points. “I like bullets, or I like as little [text] as possible,” said Trump, according to the US network MSNBC. According to a New York Times article, “while Obama liked policy option papers that were three to six single-spaced pages, Council staff members are now being told to keep papers to a single page, with lots of graphics and maps. ‘The president likes maps,’ one official said.”
The second “normal” sign of confusion is that Trump has sometimes had to resort to applying some of the foreign policy decisions made by Obama. It is normal that new administrations sometimes find that their foreign policy promises made during the campaign were not realistic, so they decide to stick to some of their predecessor’s foreign policy directions. But with Trump, this has gone to a new level because of the extreme nature of his campaign promises. The Trump team has had to stick to some of Obama’s foreign policy directions, and this may be a sign of hope that greater rationality might find its way into the Trump foreign policy team.
For example, despite Trump’s ties to Putin and his eagerness to improve relations with Russia, American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has expressed “strong condemnation of Russia’s actions” in eastern Ukraine and warned that Washington’s “Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the Peninsula to Ukraine.” This made her sound like her predecessor Samantha Power appointed by Trump’s predecessor Obama.
Another example of this return to Obama’s foreign policy is Trump’s policy on Iran. Trump has repeatedly spoken against the nuclear deal that the US and Europe signed with Iran in 2015, calling it a “dumb” deal and promising that repealing this nuclear deal would be his “number one priority” on foreign policy. But Trump advisers told EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini that Trump would fully carry out the Iran nuclear deal that Obama helped agree with Iran.
These two normal signs of confusion, the disagreement among administration members and the tendency to return to the foreign policy of a predecessor, are usually a cause of discomfort for any new administration. With Trump, however, there are more serious problems in his foreign policy apparatus that could cause more serious damage to his administration.
The following have raised foreign policy confusions to a new level and perhaps to one never seen before in American foreign policy institutions.
CLEANING UP: The second sign of confusion in Trump’s foreign policy is that Trump has repeatedly “mis-spoken” with America’s allies, causing a strain in relations or a diplomatic row. He has then had to have his staff clean up the mess he has caused.
On 2 February during a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, for example, Trump reportedly hung up after a shouting match between the two men. The reason for the row was a deal between Washington and Canberra, previously signed by Obama, to accept the transfer of 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention camp to the United States.
Trump called this “a dumb deal” and “the worst deal ever” even though he had never heard about the deal before the call with the Australian prime minister. Fortunately, the Trump team intervened with sane diplomacy and managed to fix the tension between Trump and Turnbull, and it seems that Washington will now go ahead with this “dumb deal” after all.
Another example is that during his presidential campaign Trump made statements that scared some of America’s allies in Asia. For example, Trump said that Washington’s allies, among them Japan and South Korea, should pay more for their defence and warned that he might withdraw American troops from bases in Japan. This was disturbing for these traditional US allies, which need American military protection from threats like China and North Korea. At the same time as alienating Washington’s allies in Asia, Trump was also making statements against China.
After the administration took office, however, Secretary of Defence James Mattis used diplomacy to fix Trump’s mistakes. In his second week in office, Mattis made his first foreign trip to Asia to reassure US allies of American military support. At the same time, he said he did not see any need for “dramatic military moves” in the South China Sea, contradicting earlier White House suggestions that Washington would move aggressively to counter China’s territorial claims in the region.
Trump also spoke out in his campaign against the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a military alliance led by the United States and composed of 28 states in North America and Europe that have united their military forces to face common threats. NATO has been one of the pillars of American foreign policy since it was established in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union, and its continued existence after the end of the Cold War has cemented American-European relations and helped Washington in several military operations in Europe and outside it.
During his campaign and even after winning the election, Trump repeatedly spoke against NATO. On 17 January, Trump said that NATO was “obsolete” because it had not solved the problem of Islamist terrorism, which many European allies took as a hint that Trump might try to dismantle the alliance. Again, Secretary of Defence Mattis took it upon himself to fix the problems Trump had caused.
In January, Mattis told the US Congress that “NATO, from my perspective... is the most successful military alliance, certainly in modern world history, probably ever.” He added that he has spoken with Trump and that the latter was ready to be more “open” on NATO. Mattis’s first phone call as secretary of defence was with the Canadian defence minister, the second to his Mexican counterpart, and the third to the NATO secretary-general, all of which suggests that Washington will remain committed to its traditional alliances.
According to Tom Wright, a fellow at the US Brookings Institution who has been studying Trump’s policies, “we may see two different strands of foreign policy in the Trump administration. There will be the foreign policy the president will say – a roller-coaster of tweets and off-hand comments – and then you’ll have a steadier ship in departments and agencies, where they’re trying to blunt the worst aspects of what the White House does.”
Indeed, according to the New York Times, “three weeks into the Trump administration, [National Security Council] staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them.”
INEXPERIENCED OUTSIDERS: The third sign of confusion in Trump’s foreign policy is that the reasons behind some of his foreign policy team appointments are sometimes hard to understand.
One example is his appointment of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Tillerson is the former CEO of global energy company ExxonMobil, and this may give him experience on how to deal with foreign governments, but it does not give him experience on how to make decisions on war and peace.
The appointment of the secretary of state is among the highest-profile decisions of an incoming president, and Trump had more experienced Republican Party members, including former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, or former governor of Massachusetts and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, or retired general David Petraeus who headed the American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker to choose from.
However, Trump ignored these men and chose Tillerson. He first met Tillerson on 6 December in Trump Tower in New York, and there was apparently immediately good chemistry between the two men. Trump liked Tillerson’s Texan attitudes and can-do swagger. Furthermore, Tillerson had been suggested for the job by former members of previous administrations. These included Condoleezza Rice (national security adviser and then secretary of state under president George W Bush), Robert Gates (secretary of defence under Bush and Obama), Stephen Hadley (national security adviser under Bush) and James Baker (secretary of defence under president George H W Bush). All of these have had business dealings with ExxonMobil.
Tillerson has good relations with Putin, and in fact Putin has awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, the highest Russian medal awarded to foreigners. But on Washington’s policy towards Russia, Tillerson indirectly admitted during his confirmation hearing at the Senate that he did not have influence in the Trump administration, as Trump had not discussed the matter with him.
Tillerson’s supporters argued that he would make a good secretary of state. But several commentators have also said that he does not have the necessary experience to conduct America’s foreign policy. He may have experience in international business, they say, but he does not have the experience to take decisions on war or peace, or in situations of conflict.
Another unusual choice in Trump’s foreign policy team has been that of his close advisers. It is normal for presidents to have advisers, but Trump has appointed advisers who do not have foreign policy experience. There are three men, dubbed the “Big Three” by the Washington Post, which has said that “no major decision can go forward without their sign-off.” These three men are Trump’s senior strategist Steve Bannon, senior adviser Jared Kushner and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
Before joining the Trump team, Stephen Bannon was a US Navy officer, then an investment banker at the New York Bank Goldman Sachs. This in itself shows one of Trump’s many flip-flops, as Trump had spoken against Goldman Sachs on many occasions during his campaign, and then appointed several ex-Goldman Sachs managers into his administration, including Bannon. Bannon later ventured into the media, where he produced television shows and then helped establish Breitbart News, a far-right, white supremacist, anti-Muslim Website which took a pro-Trump stance during the 2016 presidential elections and helped gather support from far-right voters for Trump.
Bannon has no foreign policy experience, but Trump is using him as an adviser on global strategy, especially towards Asia, expanding the American military, one of Trump’s campaign promises, and contact with far-right groups on the international level.
Jared Kushner is Trump’s 36-year-old son-in-law and is married to Ivanka Trump. Kushner has no foreign policy experience. He was a real-estate developer and the publisher of the weekly New York Observer before he joined the Trump team. But despite US laws against nepotism, Trump is using him as an adviser and has put him in charge of the Arab-Israeli peace process. The new president said that “Jared is such a good lad, he will secure an Israel deal which no one else has managed to. He knows the region, knows the people and knows the players.”
Reince Priebus is the chairman of the Republican Party. He has never been elected to office, but Trump selected him because he is from the establishment, unlike Tillerson, Kushner and Bannon, who are outsiders, and in the belief that he can help Trump improve his relations with the establishment. However, there are reports that Priebus is falling out of favour with Trump and that he might get fired from the Trump team.
Trump has blamed Priebus for several of the administration’s failures, including botched appointments and the failure of the executive order on immigration discussed below.
POLICY FAILURES: A fourth sign of confusion in Trump’s foreign policy apparatus is that there have been various failures in his foreign policy decisions thus far.
These include Trump’s executive order to impose a travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, namely Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and Yemen (the so-called “Muslim Ban”). However, the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has since frozen Trump’s executive order due to its dubious legality.
Another failure is related to a scandal involving former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The latter is known for his anti-Muslim statements, in which he has described the religion of Islam as a “cancer” and as “a political ideology hiding behind religion.” He has added that “fear of Muslims is rational.” He has wanted to improve relations with Russia, but has been critical of Putin.
Flynn resigned in mid-February because of five telephone calls which he had made with Russian Ambassador to Washington Sergei Kislyak in December when Obama was still president. Obama had imposed sanctions on Russia for allegedly interfering in the 2016 American presidential elections. In a telephone call with Kislyak, however, Flynn said that these sanctions would be repealed when Trump took office. This was an embarrassment for the Trump team, as it looked as if Flynn was colluding with a foreign government against the American government at the time.
This has been seen as unethical at best, and an act of treason at worst. It made Flynn the US national security adviser with the shortest tenure in history and only 24 days in office. The Republican Party has said that Flynn’s actions will not be investigated, and House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz has said that the situation “is taking care of itself” and there is no need for an investigation.
House Intelligence Committee Chair David Nunes has said that his committee will not investigate Flynn because of a presidential privilege which allows the president to withhold information from the public. In a television interview, Republican Congressman Chris Collins said that the Republican Party had been quiet about the Flynn affair because it was Valentine’s Day and the Congressmen were busy having breakfast with their wives!
These signs of Trump’s foreign policy confusion are due to several reasons. First, the Trump team did not expect to win the elections in 2016 because the polls were against them. Trump himself said that on the day before the elections he had told his wife, “baby, I tell you what, we’re not going to win tonight.” Because of this expectation, the Trump team did not see the need to devise a serious foreign policy.
Another reason for the confusion is that many senior Republicans refused to support Trump during the presidential campaign, and therefore the transition from the foreign policy apparatus of Obama to that of Trump was more chaotic than usual. A third reason for the confusion is Trump’s own management style, which has been discussed above.
These three factors indicate that Trump’s confusion on foreign policy is a sign of genuine inexperience, incoherence and incompetence, given his lack of knowledge of details. But there is another view that says that the confusion on foreign policy may be deliberate. White House Spokesman Sean Spicer, for example, said that the air of uncertainty was deliberate in order to keep Trump’s options open. Spicer said that Trump “does not like to telegraph his options” and that this was his way of reaching a successful one.
Another view says that the confusion is deliberate in order to keep America’s foes confused. Former American president Richard Nixon (in office, 1969-1974) used the so-called “madman approach” to foreign policy in which he deliberately saw a tactical advantage in scaring his enemies by making them think that he was unstable and that he would not hesitate to take rash or violent decisions.
Is Trump following an approach similar to that of Nixon? Even if this were the case, Stephen Sestanovich, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank on American foreign policy, says that Trump’s haphazard policies are still simply a sign of a lack of knowledge and understanding.
“It is a sign of confusion if you are making trouble with the Chinese at the same time as you are making trouble with US allies in Asia; and it is a sign of confusion if you are trying to make up with Russia at the same [time] that you are not tending to America’s allies in Europe,” Sestanovich said.
We must all hope that Trump will eventually find someone reasonable to advise him on foreign policy.
The writer is a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA) and of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at the Future University in Egypt (FUE).