Foreign Policy Blogs

Op-ed: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature: Why Trump is gutting American Diplomacy

In the 2019 edition of Great decisions, Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns outlines the impoverished state of American diplomacy in the
Trump era, as well as the severe cuts and reductions endured by the State
Department. The diplomatic corp of the United States, Burns argues, is not able
to fully carry out its vital functions in protecting the citizens of the United
States and furthering America’s international interests due to a stark lack of
interest in the very concept of diplomacy. Despite already being a catastrophe
or two behind, as is often the case when writing about Donald Trump’s erosion
of American institutions, Burns’ argument that the State Department is being
undercut has clear applications to the current budget and wall crisis we are
currently witnessing. The disenfranchisement of the professional bureaucracy is
a danger to the United States, as a people and a functioning democracy. It is
by all means, a fantastic article written by one of the best minds and staunchest defenders of
multilateralism in foreign affairs today.

But why is this happening?

The root cause can be found in the shutdown
crisis over a political promise that was never more than rallying cry (full disclosure: this post was written prior to the President’s
speech scheduled for January 8th). It can be found when the President throws up
his hands and says “You know what, it’s yours, I’m leaving,” and abandons an entire region of people to the hands of tyrants
and butchers. It’s also why National Security Advisor John Bolton, who in rare
form has broken with Trump to try and slow the surrender of Syria and protect
the Kurdish militias in the region, can’t seem to get a meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan.

The root of these problems is that they are the
results of a leader who rules on whims, not the product of the tireless civil
servants described by Burns. And this centralization of authority is present in
every action taken by the Trump administration on foreign policy. It’s why we
are here, now, in this interminable dilemma, and thousands of hard working
federal employees have not been paid since the holidays.

Carefully laid policy can and often does go
awry; miscommunications exist in every hierarchical structure. However, clear
channels of communication, and department wide coordination accomplishes what
individual actors cannot. To refer back to Burns’ examples, the Marshall plan
and the creation of NATO were massive successes for the United States that
brought prosperity and security for decades. They were also the result of
countless hours spent by thousands of members of the American foreign service,
tirelessly working to create the intricate system that helped prevent another
great power military conflict for decades.

Trump is not interested. The wall, a reactive
and regressive idea if there ever was one, would not be such a legislative
impossibility if arguments for its existence were clearer. If it was a
carefully formulated plan worked on by analysts, engineers, and experts, the
administration could point to things like a definite cost estimate, or a way to
fund construction of the wall, or even fact-based benefits of having a wall in
the first place. But no, the only ones to workshop this idea are supporters who
 attend Trump rallies. To the public at large and not the red-hatted
converts, the only math shown for why the wall should exist is done on an
applause-o-meter. Campaign advisors Roger Stone and Sam Nunberg have already said as much.

In regards to trade and economics, the situation
is roughly the same.  Peter Navarro, who is the trade advisor to the White
House, told Bloomberg early last March:  “My function, really, as an economist is to try to
provide the underlying analytics that confirm [President Trump’s] intuition,”
 Ripples of this approach were felt in the stock market in
late December 2018 when Jerome Powell and the Federal Reserve increased
interests rates against the vocal protestations of the President. When it
appeared that Powell’s job was at risk, market volatility created the Dow
Jones’ worst week for markets since 2008. Laissez-faire capitalism and banking independence, two drums
long beat by Republican legislators, seemed to be in the same danger as the
State Department. Volatility only decreased when the White had reassured the
public that Powell and the independence of the Fed was safe, but the overall
impression remains clear: If the President wants to do something else, he will
try to force his way, and there is not much that can dissuade him.  

By allowing this accumulation of executive power
to continue, be it in foreign policy or the economic sector, the members of the
U.S. government become less effective. Well, the ones who are still employed,
anyway. For example, why would Erdogan bother negotiating with an advisor when Trump is already willing to give Turkey everything they
want for free?
Kim Jong Un has also
realized that dealing with underlings like Mike Pompeo is unnecessary because what the current Secretary of State is offering and
demanding don’t necessarily reflect what Trump wants, and may ultimately be
pointless when North Korea can get so much more with a military parade and a
weekend of schmoozing. And this does not even begin to approach the difficulty
of enacting consistent policy against Russia and China, two powerful global
rivals whose dealings with Trump have become more opaque and complicated with
every intimation of collusion and favor-trading. Every snub weakens the Foreign Service, every sudden pivot
strengthens Trump and his ever-shrinking circle of power, and authoritarians
who would strain against the international code of conduct gets a free pass.
For every Jamal Khashoggi, there is an equal and opposite Jared Kushner.

R. Nicholas Burns is optimistic that change will come soon, that bipartisan defense of our institutions will come, and eventually the State Department can be restored. Americans should consider themselves fortunate that someone as astute and experienced as Burns has found reason to be hopeful in the face of such intentional sabotage. In tumultuous times, one thing is certain: Change will eventually come, one way or another.

Written by Adam J. Camiolo, who is the Director of Membership for the Foreign Policy Association. He currently oversees the FPA Associates program, as well as numerous lectures, conferences, and events in New York City. He also works on building strategic partnerships, various task forces, and research conducted by the FPA.

Mr. Camiolo has a Master’s
degree in Public Administration with a concentration in International Economic
Policy and Management/International Politics from the School of International
and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University, as well as a BA in History
from SUNY Geneseo.

 

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