As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to usher in a new era of U.S. foreign relations, promising to put “America first,” his tweets directed at foreign powers, his skepticism of U.S. intelligence briefings and his aversion to following long-standing diplomatic protocols have already rocked an area of government steeped in decades of tradition and formality.
Since winning the election, Trump has drawn scrutiny for bucking a number of diplomatic conventions — he spoke by phone with Taiwan’s president despite the U.S. cutting diplomatic ties with the nation under the Nixon administration, he praised Pakistan’s prime minister in a phone conversation despite the U.S.’s strained relationship with the nation over national security interests, and he met at Trump Tower with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe without assistance from the State Department, which usually irons out all the details of a foreign dignitary’s meeting with U.S. officials to avoid any misunderstandings between the leaders.
Foreign policy experts and presidential scholars say it’s too soon to predict what long-term impact Trump’s freewheeling style will have on U.S. diplomacy, but his actions have already spurred reaction from foreign diplomats.
Chinese officials, in an article posted in China’s state-run newspaper, warned Trump against engaging in “Twitter diplomacy,” after he tweeted critical remarks about the country’s economic policies. South Korea’s foreign minister created a new office charged with monitoring Trump’s Twitter account, saying the 140-character posts were “the most effective insight into policies of the incoming administration.” Meanwhile, numerous foreign diplomats turned to outgoing State Department officials to express their concerns about Trump’s trustworthiness, according to multiple news reports.
A poll of foreign ambassadors currently stationed in the U.S. that was taken before the November election by the market research firm Ipsos found that nearly 25 percent of respondents did not trust Trump “to adhere to international agreements at all.”
“Trump’s rejection of protocols leaves other nations with a concern that, in freely breaking the rules, he is impulsive and unreliable,” said Bruce Miroff, a political science professor at University of Albany, who specializes in presidential studies.
Trump’s bypassing diplomatic guidelines that have been in place for decades may help him domestically by supporting “his image at home as a straight shooter who is not intimidated by the constraints that typically come with the presidential office,” but could hinder the U.S.’s relationship with other foreign governments, Miroff said.
Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington, said part of the reason Trump’s rapid-fire tweets and “let’s make a deal attitude” have unsettled the diplomatic community is because “foreign policy is far more incremental to change.”
“That’s partly because of U.S. politics, but it’s also partly because foreign policy is a delicate business,” said O’Mara. “The U.S. does not stand alone; it is linked economically and politically in this world system. . . . The foreign policy of the U.S. has had a significant impact on the rest of the world the way the policies of other countries have not had an impact on the U.S. — it’s a very unbalanced relationship. So people who have spent their entire lives in the foreign diplomacy or intelligence communities are justifiably concerned about Trump just coming in and doing his own thing.”
O’Mara said it’s too soon to know how Trump will alter U.S. diplomatic relations in the next four years: “We’re not fortunetellers here, we can only look at the patterns from the past and try to learn from them.”
Trump — who has come under fire from Republicans and Democrats alike for questioning the U.S. intelligence community report of Russian hacking, and for recently ordering all U.S. ambassadors appointed by the Obama administration to vacate their foreign embassy posts on Jan. 20, despite past administrations typically providing them a grace period — is not the only president who has had a level of distrust of such agencies, said Thomas Alan Schwartz, professor of history and political science at Vanderbilt University.
Schwartz noted that Republican Richard Nixon “never trusted” the State Department or the CIA, and like Trump, relied on personal relationships in the business community to establish back-channel communications with foreign leaders, such as relying on former PepsiCo president Don Kendall to talk to Russian leaders on his behalf. Trump has tapped former ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson, who shares a friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as his secretary of state.
“Richard Nixon was a very conventional type of American politician, but on foreign policy he had some nonconventional ways,” Schwartz said. “Particularly, he loved the use of back channels to deal with people, using his then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger particularly, to directly communicate with state leaders, to go outside of the State Department, which he did not trust. . . . So this idea of distrusting the bureaucracy in place, it’s not as surprising on one level. Except with Nixon, at the time we didn’t know as much about these things until they came out much later, but Trump does so many things so publicly.”
For decades, the Oval Office has relied on the State Department’s Office of Protocol to ensure that visits and communications between the president and other heads of state run smoothly to avoid any cultural faux pas that could erupt into international incidents. Two of the former heads of the office say they hope the incoming administration recognizes the importance of following diplomatic protocols.
Mary Mel French, who served as chief of protocol for President Bill Clinton, said she hoped Trump will come to appreciate that all the diplomatic codes in place have been developed and fine-tuned over years to cut down on misunderstandings between nations.
“Technology has given us wonderful opportunities, but it’s also relaxed our standards,” French said in a phone interview. “He’s compromised clarity with his online messages. It increases the chance of people misunderstanding what he wrote, and assigning their own interpretation; in the world of protocol, that can be disastrous.”
Donald Ensenat, who served as chief of protocol for President George W. Bush, said some of the uproar over Trump’s meeting with Abe was overblown because until he is sworn in, Trump is a “private citizen who can meet with whoever he wants.” However, he stressed the importance of protocol once the administration is in office.
Ensenat added: “Without protocol, it becomes a free-for-all.”