We’re dealing with a president-elect who may well start a war over Twitter.
Foreign policy is a tricky beast for any new president, at any time. But 2016 presents some particular international challenges: ISIS, Syria, Russia and the Ukraine, Russia and Syria, China and Iran (to name just a few). When a new president is on the way, traditional adversaries might test the waters a bit by, say, seizing a U.S. unmanned research drone. Just to see what happens. It’s a period of uncertainty for the foreign policy establishment, an establishment that relies entirely upon norms, rules of engagement that have been agreed upon, protocol. And here comes Trump, freaking the hell out of everybody.
As Trump veers from one surprise tweet to the next—at times misspelled 140-character statements that seem to contradict decades of U.S. foreign policy, State Department bureaucrats are facing a unique challenge: How to follow the lead of a president who seems uninterested in consistency, protocol and nuance?In Trump’s November phone call to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for example, he called Pakistan a “fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people,” neglecting to mention Pakistan’s involvement in fomenting terrorism against U.S. interests, a major point of tension for American presidents since Al Qaeda and its affiliates set up shop in Pakistan after the September 11 attacks. On December 2, Trump spoke by phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a move breaking with nearly four decades of protocol in U.S.-China relations.
This seemingly impulsive personal style makes it extremely difficult for the State Department bureaucracy to interpret Trump and follow his example. Do these new developments signal a real shift in U.S. alliances or are they offhand remarks? Will Twitter be the primary platform for Trump to issue new statements of foreign policy? If so, how much will the State Department be involved in the shaping, coordination and vetting of such messages?
No one in the Trump sphere seems to be able to do anything about that itchy Twitter finger, or the phone calls. Or maybe, in their arrogance and ignorance, they don’t understand the import of what it is Trump is doing. This is all terrifying for the State Department, which has the responsibility of carrying out that policy and of protecting continuity and consistency in the messages that the rest of the world is hearing.
Back when Tricky Dick Nixon was president, the canny president coined what he called the “madman” theory of foreign policy. He wanted foreign leaders, adversaries, to think that he was irrational and volatile and capable of doing anything on a whim. That was intended to send the message to adversaries that the U.S. should not be provoked. But it was a facade carefully crafted and communicated through his foreign policy team, one that they understood and used with some restraint. And with a knowledge of the world in which they were operating. Out of it came one good—totally unexpected and maybe even a little irrational—the beginnings of a rapprochement with China.
Now we’ve got an actual madman going to the White House, a man who appears to have no control over his impulses and no understanding of why following them is dangerous. For the existing State Department employees, it’s a problem. Ambassador Richard A. Boucher, a former Department spokesman under no less than six secretaries of state, explains that “until the president gives a clear statement about where America stands in the world with our enemies and allies, it will be hard for career people to take that and turn it into policy.”
For the career State Department folks, this is a deeply unsettling prospect, one in which we get cozy with Russia and they have to worry about things like whether housing visiting foreign dignitaries in Trump hotels will create international incidents.
Joan McCarter is a Daily Kos staff writer.