‘Does America have a foreign policy right now?’ – Zbigniew Brzezinski, president Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor pondered on Twitter. There are, I believe, at least three answers to this question, none of them reassuring.
First of all, one may say that the actions of the current administration are not coordinated at all. Secondly, there’s plenty of evidence to assume that even if the administration is pursuing some foreign policy goals, they are not defined by the people officially appointed to do it. Thirdly, it is justified to argue that the country’s foreign policy is inextricably connected to many internal crises the new president and his team are facing. What is worse, these three interpretations are not mutually exclusive.
In the beginning was chaos
In the five weeks since taking office Donald Trump has issued multiple contradictory foreign policy statements. In his first interview given to the European press after winning the election Mr Trump called the European Union a ‘vehicle for Germany’, asserted that the UK was ‘smart’ to leave the Union and expected other members to follow suit. However, only a few days ago in a conversation with Reuters the president said he was ‘totally in favour’ of the EU, which he now sees as ‘wonderful’.
Trump’s policy towards NATO remains equally ambiguous. After famously calling the Treaty ‘obsolete’ and threatening that the US may not abide by its commitment to protect other member countries, the administration seem to be changing its tone. During the Munich Security Conference in February vice-president Mike Pence tried to reassure American allies by saying that ‘the United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to this trans-Atlantic alliance.’ In order to dispel any doubts Mr Pence emphasised he was speaking on behalf of the president himself.
Chinese-American relations witnessed another remarkable U-turn. After Donald Trump’s chat with the president of Taiwan – which Beijing saw as a threat that the US might change its decades long ‘One China’ policy – the tension between the two superpowers seems to have eased. In a phone conversation with Xi Jinping the American president reportedly assured his counterpart that Washington will not move in that direction.
One might see those shifts in Mr Trump’s approach as a positive sign, a proof that he is beginning to appreciate the complexities of the issues he faces and – what’s even more important – the limits of his power. Does it mean that the most experienced members of Trump’s cabinet – including Defence Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly – have managed to exert some influence over their less experienced boss?
All the president’s men
Unfortunately there is not much evidence to support this claim. During a recent meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Mr Trump said he was not attached to a two-state solution for the Middle East peace process. After reviewing two-state and one-state solution to the conflict Trump said he liked ‘the one that both parties like’ and could ‘live with either one.’ Rex Tillerson learnt about this major shift in American foreign policy ‘in real time’.
Another striking example of an utter lack of coordination between the president and his top aides came during the Homeland Security Secretary’s visit to Mexico. John Kelly assured the audience that the US will not use military forces to implement its immigration laws. A few hours earlier, at the meeting with top American CEOs, president Trump said that to fulfil his promises made during the campaign he might resort to ‘military operation’ on the Mexican border.
These contradictions only added fuel to already widespread rumours that the people shaping American foreign policy may not be those officially appointed with this task. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, advisor Stephen Miller and, above all, chief strategist Stephen Bannon, are seen as those behind Mr Trump’s surprising and often confounding statements.
Nothing to see here…
What is more, these U-turns might be driven not by changing policy goals, but by ever-mounting challenges the administration is facing. On 14 February the White House Press Secretary announced that the president expected the Russian government not only to ‘de-escalate violence in the Ukraine’ but also to ‘return Crimea’. The announcement came just one day after the National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, resigned his position over the allegations of unauthorised, repeated contacts with the Russian ambassador in Washington. Mr Flynn not only had these conversations before assuming office but also – as he put in his resignation letter – briefed his superiors with ‘incomplete information’ about them.
Despite Flynn’s resignation questions abound as media inform that other officials might also have been involved in similar contacts, with Trump’s knowledge. To make matters worse the White House reportedly tried to influence an ongoing investigation of this issue. These allegations led some pundits to assume that the controversial actions taken by the president both domestically and in foreign relations since Mr Flynn’s departure serve primarily to deflect public attention from a potentially disastrous political scandal.
Given all that, how can we answer the initial question posed by Zbigniew Brzezinski: Does America have a foreign policy right now? If we define ‘foreign policy’ simply as a sovereign state’s interaction with other sovereign states, then obviously not much has changed. If, however, as Brzezinski himself said back in November ‘America needs to have a vision for the world’, ‘deeply steeped’ in the principles to which Americans have been committed, then the answer one may give can only be negative.
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