President Donald Trump’s early foreign interactions show a feel for the enigmatic.
That could be good or bad, depending on the results. Clearly the goal is to project strength. Realpolitik and tough-guy poses are in style, as is holding cards close to the vest. Carrot-and-stick and good-cop, bad-cop are timeworn tactics.
On Monday, the White House and the State Department sounded as if they were singing different tunes in response to a constitutional referendum in Turkey. The changes expand President Tayyip Erdogan’s executive powers.
International observers said the vote occurred in an environment where “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.” The State Department’s statement reflected such concerns, noting “an uneven playing field during the difficult campaign period.”
At the same time, Trump called to congratulate Erdogan, and they reportedly talked about Syria. Erdogan starts out with an interesting cordiality with the new president.
Five years ago, for example, daughter Ivanka Trump tweeted: “Thank you Prime Minister Erdogan for joining us yesterday to celebrate the launch of #TrumpTowers Istanbul!” During last year’s campaign, Erdogan paid Michael Flynn, then advising Trump on national security, more than $500,000 to lobby for his interests in the U.S., among other contacts.
So the question becomes which message carries more weight — Trump’s call or the State Department’s. Perhaps the very point is to send mixed signals.
Missile test-happy and isolated, North Korea draws the more urgent headlines. On one hand, Vice President Mike Pence warned Kim Jong Un not to test U.S. resolve, citing recent air attacks in Syria and Afghanistan. The bombing in Syria contrasted sharply with Trump’s hands-off position during the campaign.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said: “I think that the action that he took in Syria shows that when appropriate, this president will take decisive action.” But he later cautioned reporters not to “make too much” of an analogy between Syria and North Korea.
Trump warned that North Korea has got to “behave.”
Much has been made of China’s potential role in reining in North Korea, but Russia has shown on-and-off cordiality with Kim Jong Un in the past.
Only three years ago, the Kremlin agreed to write off $10 billion of North Korea’s Soviet-era debt. There was talk of a mutually beneficial oil pipeline there, but since then, Russians have termed it unlikely.
Sooner or later, the nature of these nation-to-nation relationships will become clearer — by military intervention or peace agreements, continued status quo, or more shifting and ambiguity.