Commentary: The danger of Trump's mood-based diplomacy

Donald Trump doesn’t practice traditional diplomacy. As in domestic policy, but with a thicker fog of ignorance, Trump treats each issue of foreign policy or engagement as a separate event, and reacts to it according to his mood.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 17, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

This behavior is unlikely to change. If it does not and Trump’s presidency continues, the world, including the important part of it he governs, will become more dangerous. The considerable good that Americans do abroad will shrink. And the rule-based systems which the United States seeks to police will decay and be replaced with more regional and national confrontations and more failed states.

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Trump’s shifting moods have produced several notable flip-flops. Most prominent has been that on Russia, in part because he praised President Vladimir Putin again and again from mid-2013 to February this year. That stopped after the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack in early April, at which point Trump promised retaliation and switched from admiration to distrust of Russia, Syria’s main ally. 

It was a double switch – on Russia, but also on intervention. Trump ordered a missile strike on the base from which the Syrian planes staged their attack. He had vowed not to intervene in foreign quarrels, and had appeared indifferent about Assad remaining in power.

After criticizing China for manipulating its currency and destroying U.S. industry with cheap imports for much of his campaign, Trump changed his tone after an apparently friendly weekend with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Florida resort. He had grumbled before meeting Xi that relations between the two countries had to be radically adjusted. After the meeting, and after receiving some encouragement for his view that China would put pressure on a North Korea threatening nuclear war, Trump shifted once more, asking rhetorically why he would be rude to China on currency manipulation when it was assisting him on North Korea.

For some in the foreign policy establishment, hostility toward Russia and cautious overtures to China was a return to the natural order of things, underpinned by the president's discovery that NATO was not obsolete after all. There's something in that view: Russia was never going to remain a favoured nation of America for long, and as early as his January meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump had appeared to agree when she told journalists that he was “100 percent” behind NATO. But to say he's become a “normal” foreign policy president is a stretch. 

The basis of mainstream U.S. diplomacy has historically been a warm attitude toward traditional close allies, cool-to-aggressive toward opponents, and sometimes critical of authoritarian states with which business can or must be done. These postures are full of moral gulches and vast hypocrisies – many were exposed in WikiLeak's publication of U.S. State Department cables – but everyone knows how the game is played. Trump isn't like that. He makes no secret of his dislike of some close allies and appears to admire, rather than tolerate, authoritarian leaders.

In their first White House meeting, Trump pressed German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the United States' most important European ally, to meet NATO’s military spending target, and in an awkward quip repeated his claim that he had been wiretapped by the Obama administration. He abruptly terminated his call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after Turnbull asked Trump to honour the Obama era commitment to take over 1000 migrants from an Australian detention camp. Trump received Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau more politely, but a few weeks later blamed Canada for trade violations. He held Theresa May’s hand as they walked through the White House Colonnade, but soon after criticized her secret services for spying on him, with no proof on which to base such a colossal charge.

By contrast, the president appeared to relish the first round success of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, whose political lineage is racist, anti- Semitic, contemptuous of Muslims and intent on isolating France from both the European Union and the global economy.

He congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the narrow and possibly manipulated victory in a referendum on increasing his power – which will likely lead to the newly empowered Erdogan arresting and detaining more government officials, military officers, journalists and academics.

Trump treated Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, much more brutal with internal enemies than his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, whom he helped remove, like a long lost friend

Trump’s attitude to his southern neighbour, Mexico, has alienated the country’s political class. President Enrique Pena Nieto cancelled a visit to Washington as Trump repeated his campaign promise to build a wall between the two countries and deport millions of Mexicans deemed to be illegal immigrants.

This is not mainstream diplomacy. It is, to adapt the president’s customary designation of the press, lamestream diplomacy: lamed by lack of strategy, experience and often, common politeness, his preferences proceeding from a worldview which prizes displays of strength and is contemptuous of liberal allies.

Will this change? Of course – and in every which way. Flip-flops, switches and change make up the one unchanging theme of Trump’s diplomacy.

(Editor’s note: A previous version of the column misidentified the outlet that published the U.S. State Department cables.)

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror”. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.