Trump and Diplomacy: Time to Eat Some Spinach

President-elect Donald Trump at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

By Elizabeth N. Saunders and James H. Lebovic.

In the wake of the election—and Barack Obama’s last overseas trip as president—Donald Trump and the world are confronting the reality that he is the new face of American foreign policy. But despite all his talk of making deals, Trump rarely talks about diplomacy—the work of building relationships with leaders and officials around the world.

Just as Trump sees the decaying US infrastructure as an economic liability that requires fixing, he must come to see diplomacy as part of the global political infrastructure that must be maintained. Allowing the diplomatic infrastructure to fall into disrepair—not striking “bad deals” with foreign nations—poses the far greater threat to US national interests in the long run.

Diplomacy seldom involves splashy “deals” or even headlines. Instead, it is a world of routine, norms, and protocol. Even high-level diplomacy—including visits abroad by the president or Secretary of State—follows predictable patterns. In our research on these visits, we find that presidents and secretaries, of both parties, tend to travel most regularly to countries that reflect strategic interests, such as allies, trading partners, and big military spenders.

In other words, it’s about the patient cultivation of relationships with leaders and governments and keeping abreast of developments within their countries. In times of crisis, our analysis found that presidents and secretaries tend to turn to countries to which those officials travel in more normal times. Despite the popular image of flying to meet your adversary eye-to-eye to strike deals, US leaders tend to go to London, Paris, or Geneva when things get tough.

This kind of diplomacy isn’t dramatic, but it is important. It also seems to play little role in Trump’s foreign policy.

Indeed, on Thanksgiving Day, Trump’s campaign manager and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway tweeted, “Kissinger & Schultz [sic] as Secs of State flew around the world less, counseled POTUS close to home more.” But our data show that, for their time, both Kissinger and Shultz traveled extensively on a bilateral basis. The Secretary of State made only 38 visits to foreign countries in the Johnson administration and 69 such visits in the (one-term) Carter administration. By contrast, the secretary made 212 visits to foreign countries in the Nixon-Ford administrations and 185 such visits in the Reagan administration, largely due to the travels of Kissinger and Shultz. In their own ways, they helped construct the post-Cold War model of the traveling secretary. They knew that making deals required logging miles.

Before such visits can happen, however, incoming administrations must invest in reinforcing the routines and relationships central to US diplomacy. Trump, however, has injected a major dose of uncertainty into the underpinnings of US foreign policy, starting with his own diplomatic team. The wide-ranging opinions (and in some cases, lack of qualifications) of candidates floated for the position of Secretary of State hardly build confidence that the administration will act on a coherent world view. Trump’s announcement of an Ambassador to the United Nations before naming a Secretary of State—likely to be the most publicly visible member of his cabinet—did little to answer basic questions surrounding the direction of US policy.

Trump’s treatment of allies and short-circuiting of protocol may also undermine useful relationships and traditional rules of the game. During the campaign, Trump’s advisers kept US allies at arms’ length. While most campaigns keep in contact with allied embassies, the Trump campaign rejected the invitation of European diplomats to meet. Shortly after the election, Trump granted one of his first post-election visits to a foreign politician—Nigel Farage, the interim (and former) head of the UK Independence Party who was a leading figure in the Brexit movement—and not to a foreign leader. He took telephone calls from foreign leaders by the rule of who could reach him first, tweeted that he thought Farage would “do a great job” as Britain’s ambassador to the US, and when finally reached by British Prime Minister Theresa May reportedly told her, “If you travel to the US you should let me know.” These breaches of protocol and routine would be problematic even without reports of Trump discussing business dealings in his contacts with foreign officials.

Although Trump’s campaign ran on a platform denouncing “business as usual” in Washington, diplomatic rules do not merely benefit elite diplomats. Cooperation survives on the basis of routines which, as our data show, presidents and secretaries from both parties have invested in significantly through high-level diplomatic travel. Protocol, courtesy visits, symbolic meetings, and ongoing consultations allow the United States to weather crises, negotiate fruitful agreements, and operate in a predictable environment.

The problem is that Trump is involved in diplomacy whether he likes it or not. Apart from breaches of diplomatic protocol, the president-elect’s words and actions carry symbolic weight. The phone conversations with foreign leaders were apparently held without input from the State Department.  Briefing materials are not merely a formality: they would allow him, through tone and substance, to communicate the right, and avoid the wrong, messages. Countries may even draw conclusions from the order in which the calls took place.

Alliances and diplomacy, when they function well, have few observable benefits: they prevent bad things from happening and/or invisibly allow good things to happen. Indeed, they are easily taken for granted. While it is true, then, that the existing rules of the game do have costs, they are small compared to the benefits. In moments of crisis, or in the avoiding of crisis, the investment in routine, in networks, and in relationships pays off. The loss of these benefits would be readily apparent should they give way to the concentrated costs of a world shorn of US diplomacy.

The diplomacy at issue is not splashy; it is eat-your-spinach stuff, not fast food. In the diplomatic realm, the president-elect must play against type. He must embrace the boring.

Elizabeth N. Saunders is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, a Visiting Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a regular contributor at Political Violence @ a Glance. James H. Lebovic is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

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