OPED: Translating Trump for foreign nations

Kara Alaimo
Tribune News Service

The Trump administration's unorthodox approach to foreign policy has world leaders baffled. Donald Trump's unusual moves — from his controversial early call with the president of Taiwan, to having his daughter, Ivanka, occupy his seat during a July G-20 meeting — break with decades of diplomatic protocol.

It can also be difficult to interpret his statements. The president sometimes contradicts himself and his own State Department, as when he tweeted that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was "wasting his time" trying to negotiate with North Korea.

It doesn't help that Tillerson doesn't always step in to clarify. Compared with past secretaries of state, he doesn't often speak to reporters or deliver policy speeches. And understaffing at the State Department doesn't help. As a source identified as a "senior European diplomat" told The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins, because there are hundreds of unfilled posts at the agency, foreign ministries can't address issues with the U.S. at the "working level." According to Filkins, the source said that "the overwhelming perception of American foreign policy among European governments was chaos, that there was no way to know what the Trump administration wanted to do."

So how should other countries interpret the signs from this mercurial administration? Hagar Chemali, a former spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the United Nations who now consults for foreign governments on communications, says other leaders should take Trump's words "seriously but not literally." For example, when Trump says North Korea will face "fire and fury," it means that he's incensed with the nation — not necessarily that he's going to drop bombs on the country.

Trump's track record shows that he rarely follows through on his worst threats, such as his tweet in September that the North Korean president and foreign minister wouldn't "be around much longer" and his August statement that he would consider a "possible military option" to quell the chaos in Venezuela.

When Trump and the State Department contradict each other, P.J. Crowley, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs, recommends putting more faith in Trump. "Presidential statements and tweets are much more important," he says. "The role of the secretary of state is understated in this administration." He also warns that other State Department officials may ultimately have little influence.

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"The dilemma is that if you're talking to an acting assistant secretary, that person probably doesn't speak for the Trump administration and may or may not have an ability to shape administration approaches," he says.

How can diplomats figure out what policies the U.S. is likely to pursue? Crowley advises foreign leaders to look back at Trump's 2016 campaign promises. On a host of issues — from his pledge to withdraw from the Paris climate accord to his undermining of America's nuclear deal with Iran — they've turned out to be good measures of what he's done as president. "He sees himself as pursuing an electoral mandate," Crowley says.

When communicating with the U.S., Chemali suggests foreign states accept that Trump doesn't follow traditional diplomatic protocols. Rather, he thinks and acts in a transactional way. This means there's room for some unconventional proposals.

"Trump looks for a deal even with unlikely players, and that's not what we're used to in the U.S.," she says. "We're used to thinking about our shared history or set of values with other nations. But that's not part of his equation. He thinks about what we can do to achieve x, y and z — what other states can give him."

Chemali says Trump's transactional way of thinking also means that countries should present things to the administration as "win-wins." They should be specific about exactly how what they are proposing will benefit the U.S. For example, during a visit to Washington in July, Saad al-Hariri, then the prime minster of Lebanon — a country which relies on U.S. aid, which the Trump administration proposed cutting — stressed that it is in U.S. interests for his country to remain stable.

That tactic appears to have worked: The Trump administration agreed to provide $140 million more humanitarian assistance during his trip, and pledged an additional $29 million in September. Chemali says Trump's limited foreign policy experience and the numerous vacancies in the State Department also create openings for foreign leaders to craft proposals for Trump and allow him to present them as his own.

Nine months into the Trump administration, a new diplomatic playbook is starting to emerge. The first rule: None of the previous rules apply.

— Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University. She previously served in the Obama administration.