Saturday, April 29, 2017

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

P. J. Crowley,

Image (not from article) from [see highlight at the end of entry]

The Trump administration’s foreign policy pronouncements are all over the map. But it’s far more than a messaging problem.

The United States shares a 4,000-mile mainland border with Canada. The two countries do more business with each other than with anyone else. There are synergies — cars are exported north and oil south. There are rivalries—Washington and Ottawa are still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs, although both will be challenged to prevent Pittsburgh from winning again.

But notwithstanding the close proximity, shared commerce and culture, deep friendship and occasional friction, it appeared that when the leaders of the two countries, Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau, spoke earlier this week, they were not just on different pages, but parallel universes. Or so it seemed from the divergent written readouts released from both capitals.

The White House acknowledged the call and little else. “The two leaders discussed the dairy trade in Wisconsin, New York State and various other places. They also discussed lumber coming into the United States. It was a very amicable call.”

The terse statement did not mention that the United States had just imposed a 20 percent countervailing duty on Canadian softwood lumber, the latest round in a longstanding trade dispute going back to the early 1980s. The lumber tariff was retaliation for recent changes in Canada’s pricing of domestic ultra-filtered milk that greatly reduced the market for U.S. exports from northern tier states—think Wisconsin—that were crucial to Trump’s presidential victory.

Written readouts of presidential calls, usually filled with benign language that stresses the importance of a bilateral relationship and shared interests, are a staple of American public diplomacy. Hundreds of them were issued by the Obama White House over eight years. They were generally longer than the Trump statement and tended to emphasize areas of agreement and the prospect of joint action.

And Canada isn’t the only example where the Trump White House has issued unusually curt statements. Days before his call with Trudeau, Trump spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—and the White House said only that the two men had “addressed a range of regional and global issues of mutual concern.” One would have had to peruse the Japanese government’s website to know that the true subject of the call was “an in-depth exchange of opinions on the North Korea situation” and that the two leaders agreed to “strongly urge North Korea … to exercise self restraint.”

Abe’s statement also noted that Japanese naval forces were conducting joint exercises with the USS Carl Vinson, an American aircraft carrier. Over several days, the Trump administration gave conflicting accounts of the actual location of the Vinson carrier group, which is now finally within range of the Korean Peninsula.

While the White House has been steadily ratcheting up its rhetoric on North Korea since taking office, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took diplomatic brevity to a whole new level after Pyongyang launched another intermediate range ballistic missile. “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea,” the secretary suggested in a written statement. “We have no further comment.”

Amid a burgeoning diplomatic showdown with Pyongyang that has many Americans on edge, it’s puzzling that the White House wouldn’t want to share even the barest outlines of its discussions with U.S. allies about how it is tackling the problem.

Again, White House readouts have never been fulsome, novelistic accounts. As a general rule, diplomats prefer to make critical comments in private while using more constructive language in public. Discerning audiences are usually able to read between the lines: Where a disagreement is clear, they allude to “a frank and candid exchange of views.” Diplomatic practice is to put the best face on even the toughest of meetings, although leaders’ body language can speak volumes, as occurred between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, or more recently between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Words can’t mask reality in all instances.

In the case of Canada, there was of course far more to the call and the potentially disruptive Trump trade policy behind it than the White House’s “amicable” label. In a Roosevelt Room meeting with the secretary of agriculture and a delegation of farmers, with television cameras on hand, President Trump said that “Canada has been very rough on the United States… they’ve outsmarted our politicians for many years.” He vowed that “we’re not going to put up with it.”

As for Prime Minister Trudeau, while he reiterated the importance of the U.S.-Canada trade relationship and agreed to maintain a dialogue with his American counterpart, he returned fire, highlighting that the dairy trade between the two countries is heavily weighted in favor of the U.S. Its concerns about lumber are “baseless” and its retaliation “unfair.” Canada, Trudeau said, will “vigorously defend” its interests.

Both countries are experiencing political whiplash. Just two months earlier, Trump and Trudeau met at the White House and pledged to work together to create more jobs on both sides of the border. At the time, Trump’s trade tirades were directed at Mexico, and his solution was a great wall and a tax on Mexican imports, or perhaps on Mexican migrants’ remittances sent home from the United States. Trump still wants to build the wall, although it’s unclear whether Congress, never mind Mexico, will pay for it. And he has evidently abandoned the border adjustment tax in favor of a broader reduction in the corporate tax rate.

It’s not hard to find other examples of this sometimes muted, frequently conflicting and always chaotic messaging from the White House. On Syria, North Korea, China, Russia—or pretty much any major foreign policy problem you can think of, really—the Trump administration is all over the map. So what is going on?

Some of this can be attributed to the Trump administration’s slow start at actual governance. Cabinet officials, particularly in the national security realm, are home alone. Yes, they are backed by a highly qualified career force, but the White House and its political appointees generally view such “holdovers” with suspicion. As a result, the circle of advisers that the White House trusts and listens to is still remarkably small as it passes the quarter pole of its first year. The so-called deputies process by which policy ideas bubble up from the bureaucracy, are ratified in the Situation Room, and then communicated back down the chain for implementation is nowhere near up to speed.

The absence of an adequate Trump national security team, particularly a bench of mid-level staffers, slows the completion of necessary reviews and decisions on what the actual Trump policies are. Without a team, a process and a policy, it’s hardly surprising that the Trump administration has failed to generate a coherent and consistent message.

But the ultimate source of the problem is clearly the president, who lacks a strategic foundation and the discipline to stick to a coherent set of ideas, even if he had them. There are strategic thinkers around him, but he is driven by political impulse. His regular Twitter storms—and his careless pronouncements on the world, like his candid admission Friday that he won’t speak again with the president of Taiwan because it would anger his new friend Xi Jinping of China—are cases in point.

Fundamentally, Trump is not serious about the world. His presidency is a reality show where politics, not policy, is the priority. He keeps coming back to the issues that dominated his presidential campaign—trade, the wall and the Muslim ban foremost among them—in the process passing off tough rhetoric as results. So far, his base continues to cheer him on.

Consider what happened this week: Trump was apparently poised to formally withdraw from the North America Free Trade Agreement—a move that would be hugely disruptive, and likely deeply harmful to the U.S. economy—as the crowning “achievement” of his first 100 days in office. He was persuaded to renegotiate instead, but not because it would put a substantial dent in the administration’s fanciful economic growth projections. He reversed course because it would hurt many of the states that helped elect him. All presidents govern with an eye on the electoral map, but Trump is waging a permanent political campaign.

On Thursday, in his interview with Reuters, even as he acknowledged the growing danger of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea, he inexplicably questioned why the United States should have to pay for South Korea’s defense. Then came another blast, not at Kim Jong Un, but at the U.S. free trade agreement with South Korea, which he called “a horrible deal” and “a Hillary Clinton disaster, a deal that should never been made.”

There it is again, the campaign he won, but can’t seem to move beyond. So what if this leaves the world confused. As the president said more than once on the campaign trail, he actually wants to be unpredictable. Well, mission accomplished!

P.J. Crowley is a former assistant secretary of state. He is now a professor of practice  [JB: ? ] at The George Washington University and author of Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing States.

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