Published July 25, 2018 in The Washington
From the ambassadors representing the Italian City States to Castlereagh and Henry Kissinger, a nation’s international relations were managed through representation abroad. Over centuries understandings evolved, including sanctuary for the visitor. While there weren’t any specific rules attached to diplomacy, protocols evolved. Discretion subtlety and delicacy were part of the attitudinal stance.
Until now. Without placing value judgments on contemporary diplomacy, I would argue President Trump is different. Exchanging threats with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and earlier with Kim Jong-un, Mr. Trump has his own style. Needless to say, it is a style that alarms the political establishment. However, the end game is not yet approaching, and the president’s methods may prove to be more effective than traditional approaches.
This is indeed a unique moment in history. For example, Mr. Trump’s predecessors explained to NATO members that their contribution to defense preparation was generally well below the 2 percent of GDP to which individual nations had agreed. Mr. Trump made the same pitch, but in his case came a threat: If member states do not live up to their obligation, NATO could collapse. The message was clear, unfiltered and certainly lacking subtlety. Its effect remains to be seen.
Part of this assessment is that the president uses Twitter to communicate. This may be the 21st-century knowledge transmission belt, but it is constrained by word limitation. How does one exchange the intricacies of national interest and security to Russian President Vladimir Putin by Twitter?
Now it may be that this shorthand conveys an easily understood message. After all, new models of political behavior are emerging. There is little doubt that those diplomats trained in our schools for this profession find this unprecedented.
At meetings I have attended at the Council on Foreign Relations, there is an ongoing debate about this issue. As noted, the proof is in the pudding. After less than two years, it is impossible for any conclusions to be reached about Mr. Trump’s diplomatic approach.
But if the president can point to success on the international stage, he may shatter the protocols for generations to come. While the former secretary of State has his critics, his opening to China and balancing act with Russia might be seen as models of contemporary diplomacy. Mr. Trump could be observed as the anti-Kissinger, even though there are members of the White House who worked for the erstwhile secretary.
Foreign policy is not a front-burner issue in the upcoming campaign season. However, it would be a mistake to discount it. If the Trump team gains an actionable effort at denuclearization from Mr. Kim, that headline may be a three percent gain in Republican fortunes. The problem is that most of the assertions in this diatribe are speculative. Politics was and remains unpredictable. Any comments made about the president are not designed to undermine his office, but rather offer texture for an administration different from others.
Is Mr. Trump an outlier — one of a kind and entirely idiosyncratic — or has he broken the mold giving diplomacy new meaning for the future? This is not a trivial question since the artfulness of diplomats follows the lead of the president and they in turn shape opinions abroad.
It is instructive that American ambassadors have a tremendous role in shaping foreign opinion abroad. For them it is fewer presidential proclamations and more the narrative of the campaign. Developing a line of argument consistent with the campaign and credible is not an easy task, but one indispensable for our representatives dispersed through the globe. Perhaps diplomacy has a new future; perhaps it will return to a pattern of the past. Either way, America has gone through a “fire drill,” and its diplomatic position will be regarded as an extension of a national agenda.