The Trump administration has taken a casual and dismissive view toward cooperation with and leadership of other countries. “America First” is in practice “America Alone.”
IN his first speech to the United Nations, President Donald Trump this week threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea whose leader he called “Rocket Man.” In January, in her introductory remarks at U.N. headquarters, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley warned our allies: “For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names.” A Trumpian foreign policy doctrine is thus emerging, and it consists of bellicosity and bullying. It is not a sign of strength, as supporters of the doctrine seem to think, but serves only to isolate the United States and diminish our influence in the world. The president needs to go in a different direction and rely on the diplomatic expertise that is available to him.
Instead, the Trump administration has taken a casual and dismissive view toward cooperation with and leadership of other countries. “America First” is in practice “America Alone.” A small example: In a penny-wise-pound-foolish effort to be “good stewards of taxpayer dollars” (words of U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert), the State Department severely cut back its representation at the U.N. General Assembly this year. According to The New York Times, State Department specialists sent to New York from the Africa bureau (in which I served for 10 years), for example, were slashed from 30 to three, and U.S. delegations on topics such as human rights and foreign assistance were eliminated altogether.
Make no mistake, no nation stands to benefit more than the United States from this annual conclave of world leaders and diplomats. As a global power, the U.S. has interests in each of the 193 countries represented at the U.N. and a stake in virtually all the issues under discussion ranging from nuclear proliferation to international human trafficking. To defend and promote our interests we need to take an active part in hundreds of formal and informal meetings that are held in the course of the General Assembly. While President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are certainly essential players in this effort, it is career State Department professionals who have built the lasting relationships we depend on to push our agenda year after year with counterparts from around the world.
However, spokeswoman Nauert, noting the high cost of hotel rooms in New York, told the press last week: “ … there will be some support staff who will not be going [to the U.N.] this year because we recognize that there is a thing called technology, there’s this thing called email.” Renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow (of Skagit County and Washington State University) addressed that type of thinking more than 50 years ago when he said: “The really crucial link in the international communication chain is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact — one person talking to another.” Murrow did not know email, but he did know the difference between merely transmitting information and influencing somebody with it. The goal of diplomacy is to influence.
And to influence we need to be present. Today, only two of the nine senior positions in the State Department below the level of secretary have been filled. The administration has proposed a cutback by nearly a third in the international affairs budget and a corresponding increase in military spending. As Defense Secretary James Mattis said in 2013, while Commander of U.S. Central Command, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
We have seen before what happens when we rush headlong toward military “solutions” and give short shrift to diplomacy. This is not a time for the United States to turn its back on and retreat from the community of nations. Rather, we should reclaim our leadership position by working with others to attain shared goals. And we won’t get there by name-calling or issuing threats.