In his first six months in office,President Obama went on a kind of “apology tour” of the Middle East. It was a mea culpa for America’s “imperialist” actions overseas. His tour set the tone for his administration’s position toward the region and its policy of nonintervention.
Instead of an apology tour, the Trump administration has spent the last week on what could plausibly be called a reassurance tour. Its mission? To walk back the bombastic comments candidate—and now president—Donald Trump has made about our allies and enemies abroad. This, too, sets the tone for Trump’s presidency. But what it predicts is the ongoing chaos of unpredictability.
Allies Need Assurance the U.S. Will Be Trustworthy
Since he was a candidate, Trump has made countless comments overturning the foreign policy status quo. He has repeatedly referred to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as “obsolete” and has called into question whether the U.S. would honor Article V of NATO, requiring member states to consider an attack on one ally as an attack on all the allies.
Trump’s praise of President Putin, along with his noncommittal comments about holding Russia accountable for its actions in Ukraine, have made such dismissals of NATO particularly concerning for European leaders. They worry that Russia will act with impunity without the U.S. to back up the alliance.
Trump has spoken unexpectedly about South Korea and Japan getting nuclear weapons so they can defend themselves, and has said that if we were going to go to Iraq, we should have at least “taken all the oil.” On the economic front, he’s made disparaging remarks about the European Union, openly cheering the Brexit vote last summer.
Cooler heads know that our allies need to be given some assurances that the U.S. isn’t making a radical shift in foreign policy—and that they won’t be left in the lurch. So, the Trump administration has sent two of their top men on Operation Cleanup: Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Mattis and Pence Reassure European Allies
First, to Europe. After meeting with NATO defense ministers last week, Mattis said that the U.S. commitment to the alliance was “rock solid.” Similarly, at last week’s Munich Security Conference, Pence told European leaders that the United States would be their “greatest ally” and would “stand with Europe.” They made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the United States is committed to its security agreements with Europe, most importantly, with NATO. He also spoke of working together to fight terrorism, something both continents have struggled with since the rise of ISIS.
On Monday, Pence was in Brussels meeting with European Union officials. There, he declared America’s commitment to its European partners, both economically and in the fight against terrorism. He also spoke of a continued promise to hold Russia accountable, especially as concerns Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its meddling in Ukraine. This echoes Gen. Mattis’ comments at NATO headquarters that the U.S. is “not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level” with Russia.
Europeans have worried that Trump’s avowed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin would get in the way of America’s duty to defend NATO member states. On this, our allies require much reassurance.
Mattis Seeks Diplomatic Damage Control In Iraq
Pence, in particular, seemed at pains to make clear that his message to Europe was also Trump’s, saying he was acting on behalf of the president. He understands the absolute necessity of demonstrating to European allies not only that the U.S. is 100 percent with them, but that this is the official stance of the administration. Pence needs to project that he and Trump are a unified front, that America won’t leave its allies guessing, and that there will be no surprises.
What an undertaking.
Meanwhile, Gen. Mattis headed to Iraq this week to assess the fight against ISIS and work on a plan to defeat the terrorist organization. U.S.-Iraq relations, however, have soured recently, largely over Trump’s executive order that temporarily banned travel to the U.S. from seven countries, including Iraq, our ally in the region. This gave Mattis more to do than just strategize. He also had to do diplomatic damage control. On Monday, he said that the U.S. is not in Iraq “to seize anybody’s oil” and reassured Iraqis that it’s his understanding that any future executive order on immigration would include a provision for Iraqis who have served with the U.S. military.
Tillerson Will Now Be Put to the Test
But it’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who will bear the bulk of the load trying to walk back Trump’s off-the-cuff foreign policy. Although generally keeping a low profile, Tillerson met last week for the first time with his counterparts at the G20 summit in Germany, reportedly leaving them relieved to find him a serious man. Foreign ministers from several countries were cautiously encouraged that Tillerson seemed open to diplomacy and wasn’t just interested in the use of military force. Tillerson, like Mattis and Pence, found it necessary to reaffirm U.S. commitment to a cessation of hostilities in eastern Ukraine before lifting sanctions against Russia.
Most diplomats, defense secretaries, and secretaries of state spend their time finding common ground between the U.S. and foreign powers and repairing cracks in those relationships. But usually those cracks aren’t directly caused by the President.
One comment from a senior EU diplomat showcases perfectly the difficult position in which Trump administration officials find themselves. He said he was reassured by Pence’s comments in Brussels, but that such statements are only credible “until the next tweet” from Trump. He is right. No one, not even his second in command, knows what Trump will do next.
Will Trump’s Drive-by Policymaking Hurt America?
For Trump’s foreign-policy surrogates, it must be like trying to walk up an escalator that’s going down. No matter how quickly they step, they can’t seem to make any progress. At some point, their credibility will begin to be damaged. And that’s a dangerous proposition.
Throughout the presidential race and during the transition period, Republicans like Reince Priebus kept insisting that once he became president, Trump would calm down and conform to presidential norms. But that hasn’t happened yet. After all, his comments on taking Iraq’s oil were made at a speech at CIA headquarters the day after his inauguration.
If this continues, Trump’s drive-by policymaking will prove to be a huge distraction for his top foreign policy surrogates. And more importantly, it risks America’s signals getting crossed with our allies and enemies alike, sowing chaos across the globe. Any student of history knows how disastrous that can be.