Trump’s Diplomacy: Putting National Interests Front and Center

This U.S-centric approach opens up diplomatic possibilities not anchored in ideology, but rather in the critical intersection of our values and our interests.

EspañolTo some, diplomacy and Donald Trump is an oxymoron similar to “controlled chaos,” “open secret “or “organized mess.” Certainly, President Trump does not appear diplomatic in the sense of being tactful or subtle. He projects a brashness that challenges conventional diplomatic protocols.

Diplomacy relies on misdirection and ambiguousness. Recall, for example, that during the Vietnam conflict a reporter asked, then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger how long he thought the war would last. To which Kissinger replied, “We are not at war in Vietnam.”

The dumbfounded reporter countered. “How can you say we are not at war? Nearly 50,000 Americans have been killed.”

“We are not at war until Congress declares war,” Kissinger replied.

Clearly, by the reporter’s definition of war, we were at war in Vietnam. By Kissinger’s slight of hand definition we were not. Such is the oblique language of diplomacy.

Diplomacy is defined as the practice of negotiation to secure foreign policy objectives without resorting to force. It was not until 1796 that British parliamentarian Edmund Burke coined the term diplomacy to identify what was then simply called negotiation or négociation continuelle, in the term used by Cardinal Richelieu, the legendary First Minister of French King Louis XIII. In other words, the activity of negotiation represents the most important function of diplomacy. Thus, an administration’s diplomacy should be assessed, not on its rhetoric, but on its results in advancing U.S. foreign policy goals.

In a recent article, I argued that President Trump’s foreign policy would not embrace the traditional political orthodoxies of Idealism or Realism. That is, it would not be a foreign policy in the Idealist approach of military interventions or nation building designed to foment freedom and democracy throughout the world. Nor would it be a foreign policy of pursuing national interests devoid of moral principles as in the Realist tradition. I then labeled the new foreign policy approach U.S.-Centrism.

Two recent overt military actions by the administration substantiate my argument.  First, the attack with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from U.S. warships, on the Al Shayrat airbase, home of the Syrian warplanes that had carried out chemical attacks against civilians. The attack was timely, focused and proportional.

And, in eastern Afghanistan, of the BBU-43, or Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB) that targeted an ISIS tunnel and cave complex. According to military analysts, the BBU-43 was precisely the right weapon for that target.

President Trump, in his remarks on the Syrian attack, straddled the Realist and Idealist arguments noting in Realist fashion that:  “It is in the vital national interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” and adding, in Idealist language, that “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

Independently of their military efficacy, both of these actions signal a U.S-centric approach that, while in line with our values, does not commit U.S. resources beyond what is necessary to protect our national interest and to make a point. Most importantly, these actions frame the future diplomatic efforts of the new administration.

The obvious message of these military actions is that the administration is prepared to act independently, and will not be shy about using military means. The more subtle message is that it will act under the guidance of U.S.-Centrism. That is, it will do what it needs to do to protect U.S national interests and no more than that.

This U.S-centric approach opens up diplomatic possibilities not anchored in ideology, but rather in the critical intersection of our values and our interests. It will not be a foreign policy that will put fear in the minds of oppressive regimes as some had hoped. Dictatorships offend our values, but not necessarily our national interests. However, the equation changes when U.S. national interests are threatened.

Thus, diplomacy in the Trump era is likely to be misunderstood and unsatisfying to the usual constituencies. It will be a diplomacy that emphasizes negotiations, unbounded by ideological conceptions of good and evil, but responsive to the requirements of U.S. national interests.  It will be an undiplomatic diplomacy.

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