But is there anyone in the administration cut out to win friends and influence enemies?
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
In the world of international politics, if you believe that hard power, hardheaded calculation, the absence of perfect information, and the lack of a central authority to enforce peace combine to drive much of international politics and foreign policy, that makes you a realist. That would serve as an adequate description of the harsh worldview summarized by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, in a much-derided op-ed a couple of weeks ago. As readers here know, I happen to think this basic view of international affairs has much to commend it. States do care a lot about relative power; they typically make decisions in a cold-hearted and self-interested way; and even highly principled individuals in leadership positions will do immoral things under the pressure of circumstances. To ignore these features of international politics is to deny a lot of what makes the conduct of foreign policy difficult.
But as Paul Yingling noted in a guest column at Foreign Policy, McMaster and Cohn made major errors when expressing their realism — namely, they expressed it at all. They gave voice to truisms that top officials shouldn’t admit, making it sound like they welcomed the tragic situation they were describing and ignoring those elements of global affairs that don’t fit neatly into that bleak Hobbesian framework. Beyond governments’ calculations of self-interest, there are important social dimensions to global affairs, and these elements can impel or constrain what governments — especially democratic ones — attempt to do when dealing with their counterparts. Sometimes it is the interplay of interest groups, corporate actors, or minorities within a polity; sometimes it is the attitudes, preferences, and perceptions of the public at large, and even autocracies sometimes have to take such forces into account (for example, when Middle East dictators take positions designed to appease the “Arab street”).
This observation got me thinking about the mechanisms governments can use to win and build support in other societies. I’m not talking about making deals with foreign leaders via the usual give-and-take of international diplomacy; I’m thinking about what governments can do to win the goodwill of another country’s people. Sometimes it is through acts of generosity — as with the Marshall Plan or through humanitarian assistance after a natural disaster. Sometimes it is through propaganda and other explicit forms of “public diplomacy.” And sometimes it is by using emissaries who are admired abroad and who can visit foreign powers and reinforce a sense of “we-ness” between both societies.
We should not underestimate the long-term benefits of such ties and the costs that can arise when these positive associations erode. When one people holds another in high regard, it becomes easier for governments to cooperate and make sacrifices on behalf of each other. By contrast, if a country or its leaders are regarded with disdain, hatred, suspicion, or contempt, it will be harder for the governments to collaborate, and ambitious politicians may discover they can win support by turning their backs on the despised foreign power instead.
I got a firsthand glimpse of this phenomenon back in 2014, when I spent a couple of weeks lecturing in Australia. My trip happened to coincide with a royal visit from Prince William of England; his wife, Kate Middleton; and their infant son, Prince George. By most accounts the trip was a splendid success: William and Kate were beautiful, tactful, and popular; little George was somewhat cheekily described as having given a “masterclass in being a successful royal”; and the visit reinforced the bonds of Commonwealth that still link these two sovereign nations despite the passage of time and the vast distances between them. The royals were related to Queen Elizabeth, who still serves as Australia’s head of state, but their visit had nothing to do with hard power or strategic calculations, and it’s not like William or Kate spent any time mapping out foreign-policy priorities with Australian officials. But based on the crowds I saw and my reading of Australian newspapers, the visit boosted public support for intimate connections between the two states, undermined any latent pro-republican sentiments there, and smoothed relations between the two governments as well.
This memory led to a further thought: What — or, more precisely, who — could the United States dispatch abroad to repair the damage the Donald Trump administration is causing with its erratic, tone-deaf, serially incompetent, bull-in-a-china-shop approach to international affairs? The evidence of eroding popular support is piling up everywhere. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a party meeting that Europe must now take its fate in its own hands, and she’s clearly not worried that this independent stance will cost her support among German voters. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has made similar statements that no doubt reflect a broader disenchantment with the direction the United States is now taking. And since November, Trump’s endorsement has become the kiss of death for democratic politicians in several countries, including Theresa May in the U.K. and Marine Le Pen in France. Trump’s ham-fisted suggestion that South Korea be forced to pay for the THAAD anti-missile defense system that the United States convinced it to deploy may have helped elect a new president who argued that South Korea had to say “no” to Washington more often.
Britain has the advantage of having a royal family whose members have no role in policy and can therefore play a symbolic and apolitical part in smoothing ties and reinforcing favorable public perceptions. Lacking a royal family (Trump’s dynastic pretentions notwithstanding), it’s not clear there is anyone from the United States who could be sent abroad to try to shore up the country’s “soft power.”
To repeat: I’m not talking about finding senior officials whom Trump can dispatch to meet with their foreign counterparts; for those tasks he has Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, McMaster, and others. I’m talking about people he can dispatch on foreign visits who could reach out to the broader public and win them over through displays of empathy, charm, sensitivity, and a common touch. (In theory, American ambassadors and diplomatic staff could do some of this work, except that Trump is busy gutting the State Department as well.)
Obviously, Trump himself is not the answer; he may not be welcome to visit the United Kingdom these days, and lord only knows what sort of damage he might do if he did. Tillerson is not the answer either, as the middle-finger reception he got in New Zealand makes clear, and a guy who doesn’t like the press and avoids his own embassies when traveling abroad is not exactly the person you want doing public outreach in foreign countries.
What about Melania Trump? She may be looking for reasons to get out of Washington soon, but thus far her conduct as first lady doesn’t convey much personal enthusiasm for an active public role. Ivanka Trump or Jared Kushner? Get real. They may act like royalty, but I can’t quite imagine them either embracing this job or being very good at it. Among people close to Trump, in short, I’m just about out of names.
To be clear: America’s eroding image abroad is not likely to be fatal to U.S. global influence. The United States is still a superpower, still the world’s most important economy, still connected to others through bonds of commerce, treaty ties, intelligence sharing, and many other important mechanisms. Other states will swallow their concerns and irritations because they still want U.S. help, even if they continue to wonder what has gone wrong in the Land of the Free. But the steady erosion of public regard for Uncle Sam will exact a price. At a minimum, U.S. officials will face more of an uphill fight when they try to get others to join forces with us. And they will sometimes discover — as George W. Bush did in 2003 — that foreign leaders will listen to their publics and deny our requests for help.
Of course, one person would be really good at bolstering the U.S. image with the global public — maybe not everywhere, but in most of the places that matter — and the good news is that he is currently between jobs and has a lot of time on his hands. He happens to know a lot of world leaders, and most of them like him, and the ones who don’t like him much aren’t necessarily our best friends anyway. Even better, he seems to like foreign travel and gets a warm welcome when he goes abroad. But for some reason I just don’t think Trump is going to ask Barack Obama to bail him out.
Photo credit: Carsten Koall/Getty Images