Spreading the good news: Trump’s diplomacy by individual cash payment

The Trump administration transcends international diplomatic niceties in its use of individual payments, but geopolitical love is not always bought

Jeremy Shapiro
Research Director (on sabbatical)
The White House CC0

In its diplomacy, the Trump administration is famously not bound by stuffy protocol, tired bureaucratic logic, or even the harsh tyranny of common sense. So, when US officials found themselves in late August trying to stop a tanker of Iranian oil from delivering its cargo, the old solutions would not do. More traditional administrations probably would have built a legal case against the ship and appealed to allies for help with enforcement, or maybe undertaken a daring naval operation to seize the tanker. But, for the Trump team, the first option is too tedious; the second, too dangerous.

Instead, Trump officials reached for an innovative approach that reflects the president’s image as a dealmaker: they offered to pay off the ship’s captain. “I am writing with good news,” began an email directly to the captain, Akhilesh Kumar, from Brian Hook, the senior US State Department official in charge of Iran policy. Hook offered the captain several million dollars to bring the ship to a country that would impound its cargo – and threatened him with personal sanctions if he did not. Kumar was probably having trouble with his internet connection or something and didn’t respond to the US offer. But that little setback should not obscure the fact that the Trump administration has stumbled upon a new approach to American diplomacy. Let’s call it “individual cash payment” (ICP).

If the Trump administration seizes on the idea, ICP might revolutionise American foreign policy. After all, every diplomatic problem has people at its core. And, as Donald Trump knows from experience, people really like money. The mind boggles at the possibilities. A few vignettes show the potential of ICP to guide America through many a tricky diplomatic impasse:

  • Minjun Choi, a missile control officer in the North Korean military, was not having a good day. Yesterday’s missile test went awry when the chewing gum that Minjun had used to seal what seemed a tiny fuel leak blew out in mid-flight. The missile turned end over end and wiped out a local party leader’s summer house. Then, at the height of his despair, an email arrived from US Special Envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun. “Good news,” it said, “the United States will pay you $15 million if you keep chewing gum during missile tests.” Minjun’s bad day just got a lot better.
  • Times were tough for Colonel Carlos Montilla of the Venezuelan presidential guard. The grocery stores were empty, the inflation rate was 905 percent, and even his prime connections could no longer get him affordable access to the imported single malt Scotch that made things bearable. Life in the permanent revolution sucks. Just then, an email arrived: “Good news, I am the US Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. The US can offer you $11 million to join the next coup against President Maduro.” Let the Glenfiddich flow.
  • It sucks to be in the Islamic State group (ISIS) these days. Marwan Mughrabi particularly hated it. He had been living in the Western Iraqi desert for months, longing to see his family or just have a bath. He was facing another long day of making deep-fake beheading videos when the email arrived. “Good news, America will pay you $13 million for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s GPS coordinates. Best, James Jeffrey, US Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS.” Marwan lived in a cave and didn’t know that the US already had a $25 million bounty on Baghdadi, so he thought this was a great deal.

 The Trump administration has stumbled upon a new approach to American diplomacy: “individual cash payment” (ICP)

What’s a little bribery between friends?

Despite the possibilities, the nattering nabobs of negativism continue to dismiss the idea, much as they do with all the Trump’s administration innovative departures from traditional practice and common sense. Such critics have not been shy in doing so when it comes to the administration’s approach to Kumar. Many see the effort to pay him off as bribery, a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or even an American version of the famous Nigerian email scam. In fact, the payment to Kumar would have been authorised under a State Department programme called Rewards for Justice, which provides money to individuals who help the US prevent terrorist attacks or catch perpetrators. The US government designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation in April 2019, providing American agencies with access all sort of counter-terrorism authorities, including Rewards for Justice.

Ideology, loyalty, and even morality all matter in the world, even if they don’t cut much ice in the White House.

Hook’s email to Kumar coincided with an announcement that US government will expand the scope of the programme to offer up to $15 million for information on the IRGC. The novelty in that effort comes less from the payment itself than from what the US would be paying for. As Hook explained separately, the Trump administration will now offer rewards for information that will help the US government disrupt the IRGC’s financial operations rather than just terrorist attacks. In this context, the vignettes above represent only slight expansions of this idea, requiring just a designation of certain Venezuelan and North Korean government entities as terrorist organisations (ISIS has, of course, already been designated).

While the Trump administration’s effort to expand Rewards for Justice into a full-fledged ICP programme may not be illegal, it is certainly stupid. It reflects an overall Trump administration effort, epitomised by the plan to treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a largely economic problem, that sees greed as more powerful than politics or ideology. But, as the failure of that effort and the failure to convince Kumar should demonstrate, money can’t always buy you geopolitical love. Ideology, loyalty, and even morality all matter in the world, even if they don’t cut much ice in the White House. Worse, such policies promote the idea that the US no longer believes in any ideology beyond greed and its own immediate national interest.

It is nice to see that Trump administration officials are willing to think outside the box and transcend traditional diplomatic niceties. Looking at their terrible new ideas, however, one is reminded of why we have the box in the first place.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.


Jeremy Shapiro
Research Director (on sabbatical)