One month into the Trump presidency, a trio of high-level U.S. officials—Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defence James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—arrived in Europe for various high-level meetings at NATO, the European Union and the G-20. They brought with them a clear message: pay no attention to the President of the United States.
President Trump has said that NATO is obsolete. But don’t worry, Mattis assured nervous NATO partners; the United States is deeply committed to an “enduring transatlantic bond”, and NATO has its “full support”.
And while Trump has told a German newspaper that the EU is simply a vehicle for German interests, his vice president informed the EU’s assembled leaders that the United States has a “strong commitment … to continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union.”
Finally, Trump’s associates in Washington might be planning to offer Russia a new sweetheart peace deal on Ukraine. But fear not, Tillerson told the allies at the Berlin G-20 meeting; America will stand up for the interests and values of allies, and expects Russia to honour its commitment to the existing Minsk agreement.
Europeans were variously relieved, sceptical and confused by the linguistic pirouettes performed by Trump’s cabinet. But, in the end, what should they make of a US administration whose President regularly tweets out bile against U.S. allies, but whose cabinet officials seek to calm alliance gatherings with the dulcet tones of the foreign policy establishment?
Only the President makes foreign policy
The main point to remember is that only the President can make foreign policy. The U.S. foreign policy process is essentially an advocacy system in which the institutional interests of the agencies fight with each other over policy. The various departments reliably represent distinct positions—where you sit is where you stand.
So the Defence Department represents the views of the armed services; the State Department supports the cause of good relations with allies; the Commerce Department promotes the interests of business abroad, etc. The president sits atop this squabbling mass of bureaucracy, injects a healthy dose of domestic politics into the mix through the White House staff, and arbitrates the result.
If this or any president absents himself from the process or simply fails to decide, the result is not that foreign policy gets delegated to the Vice President or the Secretary of Defence. It is that there is no coherent foreign policy at all.
The very existence of the president and his capacity to reverse bureaucratic decisions encourages all sides to refuse to compromise with each other and to try to gain his attention and support. President Trump is only peripatetically involved in such arcane matters as the maintenance of U.S. alliances. But his tendency to make policy from a weird mixture of boredom, dyspepsia, and the last person he talked to means that every bureaucratic entrepreneur in the government can dare to hope that his wild idea will soon become the law of the land.
Tonight’s off-the-cuff remark or tomorrow’s 3am tweet might undo a week of careful diplomacy in Brussels
This week, he appeared to give his cabinet in Europe hardly a thought while he spent the weekend whipping up the faithful at an early re-election rally in Florida. He has said practically nothing about his underlings’ efforts in Europe to contradict his policy pronouncements. But this very detachment undermines the idea that the sober sounding gentlemen on the other side of the Atlantic can credibly commit America to any given foreign policy.
So, tonight’s off-the-cuff remark or tomorrow’s 3am tweet might undo a week of careful diplomacy in Brussels. This weekend’s unexpected victim was that hapless hotbed of criminality, Sweden. Tomorrow, it could be the innocent Caribbean republic of San Escobar, which despite not existing, has nonetheless faced more than its share of diplomatic crises lately.
To be fair to the President, he has over the last eighteen months – indeed, over the past three decades – espoused a fairly coherent set of foreign policy principles, if not policies. One of the most important such principles is that the United States gets a raw deal from its allies, and that U.S. alliances need to be renegotiated to put America first. He is unlikely to have found humility on this point through winning the presidential election.
All this means that the reassurances of even the most senior officials in the administration amount to very little. Unfortunately, we have to pay attention to the President of the United States. Indeed, when you think about it, it is very surprising that this even needs to be said.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.