Fresh from his world order wrecking tour of Europe in July 2018, President Donald J. Trump has clarified what diplomatic culture is by displaying the countercultural variant at every turn. At his prizefight in Helsinki, he delivered the final blow to the essence of diplomacy which former American Ambassador Chas W. Freeman calls: “the processes and institutions by which a country represents itself and its interests to the rest of the world.”Standing next to America’s long-time national foe, the President of the Russian Federation, the President of the United States repudiated the findings of the American Intelligence Community, verified by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Department of Justice, that Russia had attacked American democracy in 2016.
As a commissioned Foreign Service Officer (retired) with nearly three decades of diplomatic service, I had never even contemplated the idea that an American president could express such disdain for American institutions of government while standing on foreign soil in a summit press conference. Trump lay down in Helsinki. Whether he was untrained or outmatched, he did not defend the United States as expected by Americans, Russians or international society more broadly. He attacked his own government. So great was the cultural trauma among the American National Security community watching the bout, that several, including the former Director of Central Intelligence, John O. Brennan, called it rigged and nearly treasonous. If the bedrock diplomatic principle that national leaders will act to defend their national interests is so flagrantly violated, diplomacy is not in play.
It should have been obvious that the main event was fixed. Trump’s usual early morning, “let’s intimidate the opponent” Twitter style was absent here. Instead, perhaps by trying to set up an “I alone can fix it moment,” President Trump began the morning of his summit with Putin by tweeting: Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted the tweet responding: We agree.
Trump was instantly owned.
The major task of diplomacy is to manage international relationships and minimize misunderstandings and miscalculations that give rise to conflict. Aristotle’s call for self-interested friendship should be heeded. But diplomats use words to portray capabilities, convey intentions in order to shape the calculus of foreign partners and opponents, and cause them to make desired changes in their policies and behavior. By using the global stage as a springboard to rally his domestic base and impact national politics instead, President Trump’s performance was anything but diplomatic.
How should international society have read the varied and contradictory signals President Trump sent while bashing and bruising his way around the European summit circuit? In my research on diplomatic language for the Sage Handbook of Diplomacy published in 2016, I traced diplomatic language’s evolution, its purpose, its codes and signals and how — using their constructed language — diplomats have created, constituted, and maintained the international states’ system by building in the elasticity needed to manage relationships of affinity as well as enmity on the global stage.
By eschewing diplomatic language that lubricates, rounds off sharp edges, and creates the space for possibility, the American president used flagrant and unbridled speech to disrupt, upstage and humiliate all of his European interlocutors, save Putin. He is not the first antidiplomat, of course. In the 1960 UN General Assembly meeting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table in reply to a Philippine assertion that the Soviet Union had swallowed up Eastern Europe. Fourteen years later, Chairman Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization waved his pistol while speaking before the U.N. General Assembly and called on the world community to decide between an “olive branch or a freedom fighter’s gun.” A dozen years later as chronicled by the New York Times, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela sarcastically assailed President Bush before the UN General Assembly calling him “the devil” who thinks he is “the owner of the world.” What is different this time is that the unruly performer is president of the dominant power who behaves as though he wants to subvert multi-lateral organizations and international society his nation helped build.
Because the diplomatic process employs both public and private, both verbal and nonverbal communication, it is a political performing art. The world was certainly treated to a performance in Helsinki, and earlier in Brussels, England and Scotland. But, it was not a diplomatic one on the part of the American president. President Trump does not even attempt to speak or behave in the polished, sophisticated way that American presidents normally do. He, no doubt, hears diplomatic language as “politically correct,” and considers the diplomatic community with its own expertise and domain of knowledge to be representatives of the despised global elite he and his base hold in contempt. The evidence lies in the president’s willful deconstruction of the institution and processes of American diplomacy. A depopulated Department of State under its second secretary, empty ambassadorial chairs and deep cuts to the foreign affairs budget are proof of his intent to ravage the implementing institution and symbol of America’s commitment to diplomatic culture. There is no Trump Administration policy process. Foreign governments don’t know what American policies are because U.S. foreign policy officials don’t know either. President Trump candidly states that he does not need diplomats: “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be,” he declared in a Fox News interview. “You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly.” Indeed we have, in his withdrawing the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), The Paris Climate Agreement, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Agreement).
Does diplomacy have a viable future when the president of the world’s current preeminent power willfully violates diplomatic language and culture? Surprisingly perhaps, it does. All three multilateral agreements continue in force without American participation. Withdrawal from international agreements, as citizens of the UK well know in the age of Brexit, provide an expanded space within which diplomats must work to resolve problems their politicians have created. Ultimately, and hopefully, it just may be that President Trump does not have the power to bring an undiplomatic world into being.
Let’s end ironically with Donald J. Trump’s Orwellian advice given at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. on July 24, 2018: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
This article was first published by King’s College London.
Donna Marie Oglesby taught as Diplomat in Residence at Eckerd
College, in St. Petersburg, Florida 1997 -2017, following her retirement from a twenty-five
year career in the U.S. Foreign Service that culminated as Counselor of Agency
(USIA), the ranking career position (1993 – 96). While in the Foreign Service, Donna served abroad in Latin America, Europe, and Asia.