Unfortunately, the European leg of President Trump’s first overseas trip did not go well at all, as CNN reported Monday:
“Germany’s foreign minister launched a scathing criticism of Donald Trump on Monday, claiming the U.S. president’s actions have ‘weakened’ the West and accusing the U.S. government of standing ‘against the interests of the European Union.’
“Just 24 hours after German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Europe could no longer completely rely on traditional allies such as the United States and Britain, the country’s top diplomat, Sigmar Gabriel, went a step further. ‘Anyone who accelerates climate change by weakening environmental protection, who sells more weapons in conflict zones and who does not want to politically resolve religious conflicts is putting peace in Europe at risk,’ Gabriel said.”
In previous months, Trump’s rhetorical and policy screw-ups were customarily followed by his foreign policy cabinet cleaning up the mess. In this case, however, 48 hours after Merkel vocalized her distrust of the Trump administration, nary a word had been heard from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Instead, the columns explaining why this is really bad just keep proliferating.
What’s truly impressive about this silence is the apparent lack of comprehension by Trump’s foreign policy team about why Merkel would have fired these shots. Trump’s ignorant rhetoric and brash demeanor virtually guarantee that elected leaders in large advanced industrialized democracies will benefit from resisting Trump.
The Economist offers a similar explanation for Merkel’s comments over the weekend:
“Mrs. Merkel’s … most important audience was the wider German electorate, which goes to the polls on September 24th. The poll surge enjoyed by Martin Schulz, her social democratic rival, is collapsing. But … the chancellor is taking no chances. Among Mr. Schulz’s more resonant talking points are Germany’s internationalist, European vocation — he defines himself as the anti-Trump — and his opposition to Mrs. Merkel’s insistence that German defense spending eventually hit the NATO target of 2% of GDP. Her words today buttressed both flanks. They emphasized that Mrs. Merkel is keenly European but that the country cannot afford to depend indefinitely on the military shield of wayward Anglo-Saxon allies. They reframed and helped disarm two of her opponent’s most potent arguments before the election campaign has even started.”
One would think that America’s chief diplomat might be aware of these subtleties, but I’m beginning to wonder. It seems apparent that Tillerson devotes little attention to anything happening in other countries. Recall Tillerson’s decision to skip the annual human rights report — a break from tradition for the comments that typically are watched around the world. Or consider Tillerson’s remarks earlier this month to the State Department, in which he took pains to distinguish American foreign policy from American values. To be fair to Tillerson, those remarks stressed that the distinction between interests and values happened only “in some circumstances.” Outside the Syria missile strikes, however, American values do not appear to be visible at all in the last four months.
Finally, there’s the latest from Reuters:
“Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has declined a request to host an event to mark Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, two U.S. officials said, apparently breaking with a bipartisan tradition in place with few exceptions for nearly 20 years.”
Since 1999, Republican and Democratic secretaries of state have nearly always hosted either an iftar dinner to break the day’s fast during Ramadan or a reception marking the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of the month, at the State Department.
One can detect a disturbing pattern to these actions — nonactions, really. The striking thing about Tillerson’s State Department to date is the degree to which it seems to care only about other governments, as opposed to other societies.
There’s a very vulgar brand of realism that would be consistent with such an approach. This kind of crude realpolitik argues that states are the only important actors in world politics. Therefore, a state’s diplomatic resources and attention should focus on interactions with foreign governments. Focusing on substate actors or societies could be interpreted as intrusions of sovereignty. And as Trump said in Saudi Arabia, “We are not here to lecture. … We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship.”
The problems with this kind of worldview are so manifest that even realists would be leery of such a narrow vision. One obvious problem is that all governments need to think about their domestic troubles first. If Trump is going to articulate an “America First” strategy, then other countries will reciprocate in kind. Indeed, this benefits the leaders of those countries, particularly if Trump provides the easy out with his bullying behavior.
The other big problem with this form of vulgar realism is that it ignores recent history. Middle Eastern states have fallen apart, and democracies have been repeatedly surprised by election outcomes. Completely neglecting the domestic politics and civil societies in other countries is a surefire way for the State Department to get ambushed by surprising social movements.
Tillerson is trying, in his own way, to act as America’s chief diplomat. But it seems increasingly clear that he possesses a stunted vision of American foreign policy.
Given that Trump is president, it is possible that even the most talented diplomat alive would be flailing as secretary of state. It is possible that, even if James Baker took the job again, the department’s influence over foreign policy would still be waning.
At this point, however, it’s an experiment worth running.
Daniel Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He wrote this for the Washington Post.