Trump’s ‘Deterrence Bounce’ and the Dangers of Shock-Jock Diplomacy
The first 50 days of the Trump administration haven’t been a total disaster. But the president could undo all the good work, unless he gets a few things straight.
We have just passed the halfway mark of the first 100 days of President Donald Trump’s administration, and amid the chaotic, confusing onslaught of policy pronouncements, rollouts, resignations, and investigations — some good, some bad, some ugly — one thing at least is certain: We have entered a new and dangerous era of shock-jock diplomacy.
The problem is not the absence of a foreign-policy doctrine. There is, in fact, a Trump doctrine. The president has repeatedly stated, perhaps earlier and more succinctly than his predecessors, his worldview — summarized by the slogans “America First” and “Make America Great Again.”
We are living in a dangerous and disrupted world. Today, this includes 15,000 nuclear weapons and materials stockpiled in more than two dozen countries; rising, falling, and failing powers; aspiring nuclear-capable rogue states; a besieged European alliance in the wake of Brexit and the Ukraine crisis; and a resurgent post-Osama bin Laden terrorism threat. In the thick of this disorder, the unstable, erratic conduct of foreign policy by the world’s most powerful leader is as important as the policy itself. While the country and the world immediately recognize that this president does things differently, in the art of diplomacy, words matter.
The Ronald Reagan administration is our stark example that a disruptive U.S. foreign policy, breaking with the long-standing policies of its immediate predecessors, is not, in and of itself, a bad thing for America or the world. Reagan’s deliberate turn away from détente with the Soviet Union, the “evil empire,” precipitated a major increase for defense spending. His decision to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe and launch the Strategic Defense Initiative sent shock waves through the U.S. and global foreign-policy communities. But it also gave Reagan an immediate “deterrence bounce” — leaving adversaries and allies alike wary of taking actions that might have poked an unpredictable president and positioned him to seek better relations with our major adversary. In the end, these moves hastened the fall of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War.
Right out of Reagan’s playbook, Trump has pledged to disrupt the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. He has dramatically challenged its underlying assumptions, making the case for the overreliance on U.S. financing for our allies’ security, positing the belief that a united Europe may not be in our — or Europe’s — interest, and suggesting that our allies might develop their own nuclear weapons. He has pledged to increase defense spending, protect the American homeland from immigrants entering illegally and terrorists with new and drastic measures, and negate trade deals he has deemed unfair. And he hasn’t been shy to identify the greatest threat to the United States as “radical Islamic extremism.” Trump has called for an about-face to improve relations with Russia to meet this challenge.
President Trump has attacked these 21st-century “evils” — globalization, trade, open borders, radical Islamic extremism — with a verbal sledgehammer, announcing rapid-fire policies such as the travel ban and an increase in defense spending. Shock waves are reverberating among allies and adversaries alike, similar to the early days of the Reagan administration.
President Trump may be having a similar “deterrence bounce” — creating opportunities to solve important outstanding regional and global challenges with legacy solutions, including broad-based immigration reform, significant nuclear arms reductions, and successful coalitions to combat the terrorism threat. Iran, along with many other nations, is waiting to see policy before responding to presidential tweets or press statements. Meanwhile, Europe is moving to increase its share of NATO defense spending and is increasing its focus on terrorism. Already, there has reportedly been a significant decrease in illegal border crossings into the United States. And the business community has been responding with a long overdue step-up in responsibility to create domestic jobs to help offset the ravaging of American communities that have suffered as a result of global trade.
But the president’s undisciplined and unwieldy conduct of foreign policy threatens to undermine all this potential progress. His shock-jock diplomacy has included discursive tweets, unfiltered statements in press interviews, freewheeling phone calls with world leaders, critical national security decisions made over dinners, and meetings with foreign leaders without the engagement of the State Department.
This has caused widespread confusion within the U.S. government, among allies whose support we need on a broad range of issues and among adversaries who may dangerously misunderstand our intentions. Most importantly, it has undermined U.S. leadership as a beacon for democracy and individual freedoms at a time when the greatest challenge to our values comes from authoritarian, autocratic regimes. Perhaps one of the lowest points over the past 50 days was the president’s remark equating U.S. actions with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s murderous thuggery.
Dangerous at any time and by any standard, this type of undisciplined and unwieldy approach to American diplomacy risks cataclysmic miscalculation by friends and foes. At best, this undisciplined conduct of policy can only result in a loss of respect for Washington’s leadership, leaving a vacuum for more nefarious actors to fill. At worst, it can result in the increased spread of weapons of mass destruction among allies, as well as foes, and miscalculation raising the risk of conflict and escalation to an unthinkable nuclear conflict.
Thus, a top agenda item for the president and his national security advisors at this halfway point to 100 days must be to bring structure, order, and discipline to their conduct of foreign policy.
Two essential components of that approach include, first, a National Security Council process that is rigorous, inclusive, and comprehensive — engaging all of the U.S. government players on the development and implementation of these policies. Second, there needs to be a strategic, deliberative approach to public diplomacy.
The president is, more than likely, not going to stop tweeting. Frankly, it is not necessary that he put the phone down. Tweets can be very effective messaging, as we have seen. But public statements by the president need to be deliberative, coherent, and consistent with the strategy and goals of wider policy.
It is also incumbent upon his national security cabinet secretaries to more fully engage in public diplomacy. The State Department and the Defense Department have very important public diplomacy roles to play; interaction with the press is at the forefront of explaining administration strategy, goals, and tactics to the American public and abroad.
A dangerous, disrupted world demands coherent U.S. leadership. And this must start and end in the White House.
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