By Sun Chenghao
American diplomacy has seen a series of changes since President Donald Trump came in office more than two years ago, generally shifting from Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” to the current “America first”.
A closer look would reveal that the Trump administration hasn’t achieved much on the diplomatic front and “much cry but little wool” is an awkward fact it must face. Its misjudgment of international situation, estrangement of allies and chaotic decision making system make any diplomatic achievement difficult.
The Trump administration’s judgment of the international situation put American diplomacy on a wrong footing from the very beginning. According to its first National Security Strategy report, Washington has a similar perception of international situation and major country competition to that in the Reagan period - competition is the world mainstream and major country game and geopolitics have made a full comeback. It also emphasizes “Peace Through Strength”.
It’s clear that although it’s already the 21st century, the US has left its mind in the Cold War period of the last century. Its judgment of world trend stems from its engrained mindset of “power politics” and represents an undisguised resumption of such ideas as the jungle law of “survival of the fittest”.
It is a diplomatic reflection of America’s pursuit of absolute interests, which, when translated into diplomatic tactics and maneuvers, highlights competition over cooperation. Such a perception goes counter to the trend of the time and is bound to meet the universal opposition of the international community.
The Trump administration’s attitude toward its allies is equally puzzling. On one hand, Trump holds up high the banner of “America first”, demands its allies not to “take a free ride on America”, and even launches tariff wars against them; on the other hand, he hopes the allies can pull together and take America’s side in major-country competition to jointly cope with the imaginary enemies.
A just cause enjoys abundant support while an unjust cause finds little support. Washington’s self-contradictory policies have irked and repelled its allies. Europe, which has been very close with the US after WWII, is forced to draw a clear line between them after the Trump administration has repeatedly disrupted international order and undermined global governance by withdrawing from one international convention after another. It is even considering how to maintain the current multilateral landscape in the absence of the US.
The chaotic foreign decision making mechanism of the country only makes things worse.
First of all, positions for main foreign decision makers are filled very slowly ever since Trump came into power. In July 2017, for instance, 39 high-level positions at the State Department were empty, including the Assistant Secretary of State, while many other important positions were filled by “proxy” professional diplomats. In August 2017, only 15 high-level positions at the Department of Defense were filled in comparison to the Obama administration’s 22 over the same period.
Second, the change of high-ranking officials in Trump administration is so fast and frequent that America’s foreign policies are not consistent enough. A report recently issued by the Brookings Institution found that 51 of the 65 White House positions have turned over, including 16 of those positions that have seen two or more turnovers. For instance, Trump has recently appointed his 4th national security advisor, a record high number.
Third, Trump’s casual decision-making style deprives American diplomacy of foresight and strategy. He is not only deeply influenced by a small circle of confidants and henchmen, but also susceptible to mass media. He likes to circumvent the formal decision-making procedure and seek suggestions from an individual staff on significant issues, which will likely result in one-sided and extreme foreign policies.
Now Trump’s first term has come to the second half. Instead of bringing any positive change to American diplomacy, he has been straining its strategic credibility. It seems that the diplomatic adjustment under the “America first” philosophy is not going to lead to “The Art of the Deal”, but will only push America to uncharted waters.
(The author is an assistant researcher at the Institute of American Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations)