Somehow the word “diplomacy” doesn’t seem to fit with soon to be President Trump’s persona.
The word has a generic meaning which includes the synonyms “ sensitivity”, “discretion”, “subtlety”, and “finesse”. Oh well. But in government, it simply describes the official interactions between representatives of various nations so in that case, maybe there’s more room for a variety of approaches.
Still, the styles described by the generic descriptions have infused the international diplomatic process for decades if not for centuries. Understatement in pursuit of the non-committal or “subtle”, has created a kind of long term “diplomatic speak” that looks sure to be subjected to some “shock and awe” among the diplomatic traditionalists who now are thrust into the arena with the Twitter prone and unabashed President Trump.
Diplomats who are engaged in negotiations that don’t appear to be going anywhere describe themselves as “cautiously optimistic”. In today’s epidemic of terrorist violence, representatives of sympathetic governments, simply “condemn” the terrorist acts, an over used and essentially meaningless phrase of disapproval. For the most heinous of terrorist acts these same governments my take the bold step of “condemning the acts in the harshest possible terms.” But what are the “harshest possible terms” and shouldn’t the terrorists hear them?
On a recent and “historic” trip to the battleship Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered his "sincere and everlasting condolences" for his country’s attack which brought the U.S. into World War II, destroyed the U.S. battleship fleet and took the lives of 2,403 Americans. “Condolences”? Of course the Japanese are “diplomatic” to a fault and there exists in Japan a nationalist element which doesn’t condone apologies, even for 75 year old acts of war.
There are occasional exceptions to this formality. Secretary of State John Kerry departed from abstraction and sensitivity in his defense of the Obama Administration’s failure to veto the recent UN Security Council Resolution which declared Israel’s construction of settlements in the West Bank occupied territories as a “violation of international law”.
Emboldened by the fact that both he and his boss would soon be searching the “help wanted” ads of the Washington Post, Kerry, an advocate of the “two state solution” took a parting shot at Israel’s government.
In an unprecedented personal attack on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Kerry he called the current government the "most right-wing" in Israel's history and claimed its agenda is "driven by the most extreme elements." He continued with “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic. It cannot be both.”
Kerry’s over simplification of the highly complex Israeli/Palestinian conflict and his departure from anything near traditional diplomatic support for America’s lone democratic ally in the volatile Middle East was not lost on the also diplomatically challenged President-elect. Trump immediately entered the fray with an un-nuanced Tweet: “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.”
He followed with another Tweet directed at the house of diplomacy itself: The UN is "just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!"
These short and disdainful comments, while containing elements of truth, indicate a distinctly different approach to the formality and caution, and indeed the special jargon that characterizes traditional diplomatic exchange.
There is a downside to Trump’s abrupt, “tell it like it is” approach, and his over use of Twitter gives the appearance of simplistic, knee-jerk reactions to events without the usual and prudent discussion with competent advisers. The formerly conservative political pundit David Brooks, in this case correctly outlines the potential problem. Speaking of the role of all Presidents in diplomacy he says:
“He’s the top piece of a big system, and his ability to create change depends on his ability to leverage and mobilize the system. His statements are carefully parsed around the world because presidential shifts in verbal emphasis are not personal shifts; they are national shifts that signal changes in a superpower’s actual behavior.”
Thus when made aware of North Korea’s recent claim to be ready to test an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, Trump tweeted:
“North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!”
The long term complexity and history of U.S. unsuccessful efforts to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions make Trump’s assertion either naive, or to some, threatening. In either case it deserves not more nuance, but more details.
If Trump has a new, more bold, or simply more efficacious approach, it needs clarification, especially for the states most concerned with the problem, South Korea, China, and Japan. Such clarification would be better served if it was delivered by foreign policy officials and by more than a 140 character Twitterspeak.
Still, in some circumstances, Trump’s instinct to cut through the obfuscation of normal diplomatic niceties can clarify his positions or simply stimulate a “reality check” in policies overly cluttered by political theater.
A recent example is the “incident” regarding a phone call he received from Tsai Ing-wen the President of Taiwan (Republic of China) it was a five minute call in which mutual congratulations were offered for the successful 2016 elections by both parties.
Although since 1979, the U.S. has had a “One China Policy” which essentially recognizes that there is only “one China”. This a legal concession demonstrated by the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Taiwan. But the political reality is that Taiwan self identifies as The Republic of China and has since 1949 maintained and independent status with its own democratically elected government.
U.S.-Taiwan relations are governed by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 which incorporates references to trade and security totally separate from relations with China.
The Chinese government (PRC) demands a ritualistic level of diplomatic sanitation when it comes to references or communications with Taiwan which the world’s professional diplomats are careful to observe. Thus Trump’s direct communication with Taiwan’s president, a first for a U.S. president or president-elect since 1979, caused gasps of consternation among Obama’s loyalists and Trump haters. Liberal pundits proclaimed that serious consequences would follow. One even suggested that a new level of hostilities between Trump’s administration and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) signified by the phone call could lead to “nuclear war”.
The original Chinese government,[ response was this:
“We have noticed relevant reports and lodged solemn representation with the relevant side in the United States.", said China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
This might actually mean something in Chinese, but whatever it might mean in English, it doesn’t sound too threatening.
In point of fact Trump has made introductory phone calls to a number of foreign leaders including Philippine President Duterte, Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif, and British Prime Minister Teresa May , which the distressed Democratic gurus of diplomatic procedure found to underlay dark motives, signals of unintended shifts in policy or dangerous outcomes, in spite of the fact that nothing serious was discussed in any of the brief conversations.
Thus the “bad news” of Trump’s unconventional, Twitter and phone diplomacy is still hypothetical. He will no doubt be a bit of a “bull in the carefully arranged and allegedly fragile diplomatic “china shop”. But the “good news”, which is also primarily based so far on the absence of major faux pas, is also that the clarity and efficiency of getting to the heart of policy positions might actually seem to be a refreshing change to foreign leaders who have sometimes struggled to actually know what positions the current American president and diplomats are taking.
Time will tell and because Trump’s foreign relations learning curve is steep, he will probably make mistakes which will need “clarifying” but hopefully there will be no more phony “red lines”, contradictory and inconsistent positions towards our allies, or flaccid diminution of threats to American interests or security.