As a former U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), perhaps I should not complain. The Trump administration is doing an able job of handling that relationship. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with the 10 ASEAN ambassadors in Washington, and Vice President Mike Pence visited the association’s headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia last week. Of great significance to ASEAN members and U.S. allies in Asia was the fact that Pence on his visit announced that President Donald Trump would attend the annual U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia Summit in the Philippines on November 14. To win over Asia, Trump will need a strategic economic initiative to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that he summarily rejected — but so far, so good on an important Asia relationship.
Yet, as an American and a foreign policy professional, I am quite worried. While it is gratifying to see the work of my former mission continue, I fear the victories will be pyrrhic unless the administration fixes two larger problems. My broad concerns are, first, that because of process deficiencies, the United States will accidentally or purposefully take actions that cause or worsen a major crisis, and next, that American global leadership is falling off a cliff. These are interrelated.
The White House is process challenged, to put it mildly. As most readers will know well, the United States has many entities involved in national security, including the State and Defense Departments, the intelligence community, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. mission to the United Nations, and sometimes Commerce, Homeland Security, Treasury, and others. The National Security Council’s role is to bring every agency with equities together for meetings at the working, deputies, and then principals levels.
A simplified version of the process goes something like this: Once the working-level interagency has done the initial analysis and discussion, first the deputies and later the heads of their various agencies come to the Situation Room in the White House to hash out differences and sign off on policy recommendations for the president. The national security advisor then presents the president with the recommendations of the principals, the president makes a decision, and the agencies each do what was agreed, with everyone on the same page and everyone understanding the various roles.
Recent incidents have shown that there is something very wrong with the foreign policy process in this White House. We witnessed the U.N. ambassador, the national security advisor, and the secretary of state saying remarkably different things about the ultimate goal of U.S. Syria policy in the days following the U.S. missile strike on April 7. Then Trump boasted that the Carl Vinson carrier strike group, which he called an “armada,” was barreling toward the Korean peninsula when it was headed in the other direction. And rather than learning Asian history from his own team, he needed to learn it from Chinese President Xi Jinping. As a friend in government remarked to me, “Their decision-making reminds me of Kazakhstan.”
By all accounts, National Security Advisor General McMaster is very capable, as are many on his staff. But he got off to a slow start, coming in to replace General Michael Flynn, who was fired for lying about his Russia connections. Moreover, McMaster does not have authority over White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, or Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who go straight to the president with their views. Those end runs, the astonishing lack of appointees at many national security agencies, and the stress generated by the administration’s misguided attempts to thwart the investigation into its Russia ties all put big strains on coherent policymaking. If the administration can overcome these hurdles, the question remains whether the president will be able to accept a disciplined system to assist him.
The United States can muddle through for now, though the missteps are damaging U.S. credibility and the confidence of U.S. allies. But it is imperative that the administration irons out its process soon, before a real crisis hits. When the U.S. government has to react quickly, if there is no clear national security process in place, and if the players are not comfortable with their counterparts and their roles, it will be much harder to avoid mistakes that cost lives.
The other troubling aspect of a future crisis is that it is hard to imagine the Trump White House leading a concerted, regional or global response, which is usually what major crises demand — think Ebola pandemic, Syrian refugees, South Sudan, disputes in the South China Sea, North Korea, and unaccompanied children at the U.S. border, to name a few.
Trump is a boss, not a leader. He knows how to tell people what to do. But he has not shown he has the tendency or skills to persuade those over whom he does not have direct authority. In that category falls every other country. That is why the “America first” fantasy is so appealing — it’s an excuse not to deal with other countries that the White House cannot compel.
But we need them, as the Trump administration will learn. Every foreign-policy issue consequential to the wellbeing of Americans, and every foreign policy crisis, requires a multilateral solution. The forces that can kill Americans at home — terror attacks, virulent viruses like bird flu, severe weather events caused by climate change — all require international coalitions to fight. America, and only America, has the capacity and credibility to lead those. The country has done so because if it did not, the world would have been less safe for Americans as well as others.
I worry that it will be too late by the time Trump realizes these truths. The Trump administration’s disrespect, dishonesty, lack of principles, stinginess, and transactional worldview will have caused other countries to reject U.S. leadership.
When I was an ambassador, my mission was able to rally countries around a cause because of four qualities. First, I could explain to my fellow diplomats that the U.S. goal or strategy was backed up by solid logic and clear principle. Second, I could explain how the goal the U.S. sought would be beneficial for the country in question, and the region, not just the United States. Third, I could tell the other country what actions, usually significant, that the United States was itself taking to solve the problem. Finally, I was honest. It helped that the United States was widely admired for its tolerance, openness, individual freedoms, justice, and opportunity.
Today, it is unclear what U.S. policy or strategy is, even on the most pressing issues like global climate change, Middle East peace, Syria, Iran, and North Korea’s nuclear programs. To the extent the U.S. has policies, it is unclear whether principles undergird them. The administration has vowed to reduce American contributions to global problem solving. And other countries, like America, cannot count on the truth from the White House. Meanwhile, the administration’s immigration ban, retreat from climate change, maligning of the press, and copious self-dealing are tarnishing America’s reputation.
As a patriot, I want to be wrong about all of this. But I fear that four years hence, we will have a very deep hole to dig ourselves out of. The question is how deep it will be. We still have time to avoid the worst.
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