Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said that a week is a long time in politics. After months of Donald Trump’s foreign policy being something of a mystery, Secretary of State Rex Tilleron’s glob-trotting journey has made things a lot clearer.
The language of American foreign policy has changed significantly under Trump and Tillerson via-a-vis Obama/Clinton and Kerry. Ideology is and a kind of heavy handed but at times, surprisingly cordial pragmatism is in.
Here are the five ways this has manifested itself.
1. No More Lectures
The Obama administration had a tendency to lecture other nations about how they ought to run their countries, using diplomatic avenues to deliver the message. Diplomacy is not about speaking down to other nations but about speaking respectfully to others in the pursuit of cooperation and understanding in areas of mutual self-interest.
In both cases, Tillerson used the language of good will, cooperation and respect in order to emphasise the nature of the relationship.
This is a stark contrast to the Obama administration who often offered provocative and disrespectful remarks to China and who consigned Turkey to the realm of an unimportant, distant regional player. Although, Turkey’s regional role has been overwhelmingly negative, it has nevertheless been very prominent. Turkey cannot be ignored, even though Obama tried his best to ignore it.
Obama’s approach was both foolhardy and objectively wrong. China is a superpower and the US depends economically on China far more than many in the west let on. If anything, China has the upper hand in future negotiations with the US.
Therefore approaching China with anything other than a position of respect is insulting to this key superpower. Obama’s approach was the antithesis of diplomacy.
In respect of Turkey, Washington and Ankara no longer see eye-to-eye in Syria. Turkey lists the Kurdish forces in Syria as terrorist groups while the US now firmly backs them both in their fight against Salifism and more importantly, in their ambitions for Kurdish autonomy inside Syria or moreover for a Kurdish state carved from legitimate Syrian territory.
In spite of these diametric differences, Tillerson’s language in Ankara was that of cooperation and friendship. Although not entirely honest, diplomacy is about rhetorically minimising differences rather than exaggerating them. In this sense, perhaps Tillerson has learned from Russian diplomats who in spite of vast differences with Turkey, always refer to the Turks (and not just the Turks) as partners.
2. No More Russian Bear-baiting
During the Obama years, Russia was the consistent target of double-standard laden lectures and overt provocations. Making matters worse, the Obama administration participated in the overthrow of the legitimate President of Ukraine, installing the current fascist regime in its place.
Under Trump, the lectures have mostly stopped. Apart from a few attempts by Nikki Haley to do her best impersonation of Samantha Power, when it comes to Tillerson and Trump himself, the insults directed towards Russia have stopped.
The fact that South Korea, China and Turkey have taken precedence for Tillerson is not a sign that Russia is unimportant, but instead it is a sign that the Trump administration is willing to ‘live and let live’ with Russia. Any more substantive diplomatic talks may have to wait until the rapidly disintegrating ‘Russiagate’ fake-scandal dies down.
That being said, rumours of Rex Tillerson visiting Moscow persist and yesterday Putin gave a clear indication of where and when he is ready to meet his US counterpart.
By allowing Russia to slip on the diplomatic back-burner, Trump is easing relations by omission, his only realistic option given the anti-Russian domestic political climate in Washington.
3. The Big Stick Is Back
Although Rex Tillerson’s bellicose language against North Korea was highly inappropriate, especially as it was delivered in South Korea, it is an indication that under Trump, the US is more concerned with their perceived views of the ‘balance of power’ than about using ideology to frame, shape and form geo-political relations.
Washington and Pyongyang have for decades engaged in cat and mouse rhetoric, but even the most paranoid war-hawks on the Korea issue, privately concede that reviewed violence on the Korean peninsula is a remote possibility at best.
Tillerson’s Korean remarks were part of Donald Trump’s ‘tough guy’ approach to perceived threats. Thus far, it is all big stick rhetoric, probably designed for domestic US consumption and to assuage hawkish parties in Seoul.
4. All Quiet On Russia’s Western Front…sort of
The sheer amount of remarks by key US officials on Donbass and Kiev’s conflict has gone remarkably down. Whereas for Obama’s state department, one got the feeling that the US was prepared to risk wider world war to prop up the disgraceful regime in Kiev, Trump’s people increasingly seem to just want to totally ignore it, as though to wish the headache away.
Against this backdrop, the US Congress has cut funding to Kiev.
The NATO troops ordered to Poland and the three Baltic states under Obama are still there, but Trump’s remarks to Angela Merkel about NATO members needing to pay up, again confirms that Trump does not possess the ideological zeal for a heavily armed, anti-Russian Europe that his predecessor was more or less obsessed with.
5. Leaving Assad Be
Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley have, in less than 24 hours, confirmed that regime change in Damascus is no longer an avowed US policy. The US still has designs for Syria involving Kurdish separatism, but the direct threat of removing President Assad through force, is now off the table.
Clarity is emerging in respect of Donald Trump’s foreign policy. It was never going to be ideal, but in more ways than one, the diplomatic language of Rex Tillerson is all ready far preferable to that of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.