3 key problems with Trump’s style of functioning

The removal of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State (who was replaced by Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA) reiterates three key problems in US President Donald Trump’s style of functioning: First, his inability to get along with members of his team; second, impulsive decisions driven excessively by ‘optics’ and personal chemistry between leaders; and, finally, his inability to work in a system even where it is necessary.

Tillerson, who had differences with Trump on issues ranging from the Iran Nuclear Deal (which Trump has been wanting to scrap, though his stance was moderated by Tillerson) to the handling of North Korea, is not the first member (earlier senior individuals to be sacked are, amongst others, Michael Flynn, who was National Security Adviser, and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon) to exit hurriedly. Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council, quit recently after opposing the US President’s tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium.

The US President tweeted this decision:

Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!

The US President admitted that Tillerson’s style of functioning was very different from his own (alluding to the latter’s more nuanced approach on complex issues).

Interestingly, the US President did not even consult any of his staff members, including Tillerson, before agreeing to engage with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un. The South Korean National Security Advisor, Chung Eui Yong, had met with Trump and put forward the North Korean dictator’s proposal of a Summit.

The US President agreed to this proposal. Commenting on his decision to engage with Kim Jong Un, Trump tweeted:

Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!

While Chung stated that the Summit would take place before May 2018, White House has not provided any specific dates.

There is absolutely no doubt that, at times, bold steps need to be taken to resolve complex issues like North Korea. Trump’s impulsive nature, however – refusing to go into the depth of things or seeking expert opinion – does not make for good diplomacy.

In fact, a number of politicians and journalist have expressed their skepticism with regard to where North Korean negotiations may ultimately lead. Ed Markey a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, stated that Trump “must abandon his penchant for unscripted remarks and bombastic rhetoric to avoid derailing this significant opportunity for progress.”

In a column for the Washington Post, Jeffrey Lewis makes the point that there is a danger of Trump getting carried away by the attention he receives. Says Lewis in his column:

Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.

All Trump’s interlocutors have realized that while he is unpredictable, one thing which is consistent is the fact that he is prone to flattery. During his China visit, for instance, Trump was so taken aback by the welcome he received and the MOU’s signed with Chinese companies that he started criticizing his predecessors.

Finally, while Trump, like many global leaders, has risen as a consequence of being an outsider to the establishment, with people being disillusioned with the embedded establishment, the US President has still not realized that one of Washington’s biggest assets has been strategic alliances like NATO and multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA. The United States has also gained from globalization and strategic partnerships; it has not been one way traffic.

It remains to be seen how Tillerson’s removal will affect relations with key US allies. If Trump actually goes ahead with scrapping the Iran nuclear deal (2015), it will send a negative message not just to other members of the P5 grouping, but also India. In the last three years, India has sought to strengthen economic ties with Iran and has invested in the Chabahar Port Project. New Delhi is looking at Iran as a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. If Tillerson’s successor just plays ball, and does not temper the US President’s style of conducting foreign policy, there is likely to be no stability and consistency and even allies would be skeptical.

Japan on its part would want its concerns regarding the abduction of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang’s agents, decades ago, to not get sidelined in negotiations with North Korea. (13 Japanese individuals were abducted in 2002, 5 have returned but the fate of the others remains unknown.) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made the return of the abductees a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and his low approval ratings due to a domestic scandal could use the boost that is usually associated with the plight of those abductees.

The removal of Tillerson underscores problems with Trump’s style of functioning as discussed earlier. The outside world has gotten used to the US President’s style of functioning and will closely be watching what Tillerson’s successor brings to the table.


India-US relations and engaging with Trump

Ivanka Trump jointly inaugurated the GES Summit in Hyderabad (November 28-29) along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and she lauded the latter for his phenomenal rise. Modi had invited Ivanka during his US visit in June 2017. The US President’s daughter and Adviser was quick to accept the invite, and tweeted:

Thank you, Prime Minister Modi, for inviting me to lead the U.S. delegation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in India this fall.

During her address, Ivanka also highlighted India’s economic achievements in recent years, while also praising the country’s democratic credentials.

Said Trump:

‘You are celebrating it as the world’s largest democracy, and one of the fastest growing economies on earth…Through your own enterprise, entrepreneurship, and hard work, the people of India have lifted more than 130 million citizens out of poverty – a remarkable improvement, and one I know will continue to grow under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi.’

Why India reached out to Ivanka

By reaching out to Ivanka Trump, India has done the right thing, given the fact that all countries – including China, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea – have realized the importance of business interests, as well as personalized diplomacy with Trump.

Every country has to recognize its own interests, and the Trump Administration has been quite vocal on a number of issues including its tough stance on terrorism emanating from Pakistan, as well as a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific. The US President, during his recent visit to Asia used the expression Indo-Pacific on more than one occasion (as opposed to the earlier expression Asia Pacific), while US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also spoken for a greater role for India in Asia Pacific. China took strong exception to the usage of ‘Indo-Pacific’ as opposed to Asia Pacific.

It is important however to bear a few points

First of all, while those who support Trump praise him for being a realist, at times what is dubbed as his transactionalism is a bit too simplistic. The US President is also not just unpredictable, but fickle. While some unpredictability is good, there are limits to this. Trump’s approach towards China, as well as other serious issues is a strong reiteration of his fickleness. While during his election campaign he used harsh language for Beijing, said Trump during an election rally in 2016:

‘We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what we’re doing.’

The warm reception he received in China was enough for Trump, to not only praise the Chinese, but even criticize previous US governments. While he lambasted Pakistan in a speech in August, a few weeks later he was all praise for the Pakistan army, after it helped in rescuing an American-Canadian couple who had been kidnapped by the Haqqani terrorist network. While rigidity is not good in diplomacy, and election campaigns do not translate into policy actions, it is important to understand the broad thrust of the US foreign policy.

It is not just policy issues, but even his relations with key members of his cabinet which are important to watch. The latest instance being of Rex Tillerson, the aforementioned Secretary of State who has tried to adopt a more realistic stance on issues like Iran. If Tillerson is changed as is being speculated, other countries who have built a strong rapport with him and sought to understand his orientation will need to now start from scratch.

Second, Trump is more inward looking than earlier Presidents, and that is advantageous for China in the strategic sphere, especially in the context of Asia.

While the Chinese will humor him through sweeteners such as FDI commitment, and this will help in influencing not just Trump, but even some of his key advisers like Jared Kushner, ultimately Beijing will have the last laugh in the strategic sphere, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. A number of countries in ASEAN have already subtly expressed their reservations with regard to Trump’s isolationist approach towards not only Asia but the rest of the world.

Third, unlike his predecessors, including Obama, Trump has no strong convictions with regard to democracy. While it is true that every country should see its own interests, a lot of countries have been more comfortable with the US because of the emphasis it places on democracy and civil liberties. During his recent visit to Myanmar for instance, Tillerson did refer to the Rohingya Issue, and the need for the NLD government to ensure the well being of the Rohingya committee.

Democracy and plural values drive the bilateral relationship between many countries , and in the context of India and the US, these should not be kept out. If Trump is totally indifferent to the nature of regimes, there is not much to distinguish the US from China, and American indifference towards issues such as democracy and civil liberties will only reduce an important component of its Soft Power.

What India needs to do

It is thus important for India to use innovative ways for reaching out to Trump, but also have a clear stand on key foreign policy issues. The Quad alliance (US, Japan, Australia and India), for instance, is important with Japan and Australia taking a clear stance against Chinese expansionist tendencies. While the US is part of this alliance, it is tough to predict whether the Trump Administration will really play a pro-active role, especially if Beijing objects to the alliance.

Similarly, India is doing the correct thing by maintaining an independent stance on Iran given its own strategic and economic interests. The Chabahar Port Project, which India is funding, is India’s gateway to Central Asia and Afghanistan, and by going ahead with the project even with the souring of ties between Washington and Tehran it has sent a clear message that it will not blindly tow Washington’s line.

In conclusion, while New Delhi has to see to its own interests, and explore synergies with the Trump Administration, there are likely to be some significant challenges given Trump’s simplistic approach towards complex issues, and the lack of any sort of consistency.

Trump and Tillerson Could Save Our Bacon

If Trump is anything like the deal-maker he claims to be, and if Tillerson can translate the expertise and connections he gained as CEO of a gigantic international corporation into diplomatic skills, we could be spared from a nasty confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia.

Putin is not a nice man. His incursions into Crimea and Ukraine are inexcusable. But he does have a rationale for his claim of aggressive threats from NATO, and this has served hun well in diverting attention away from the drastic declines in liberty and prosperity in Russia. As this article indicates, the West promised not to expand NATO into Eastern Europe but did so anyway, even threatening to include Ukraine and Georgia, which are geographically Russia’s underbelly. How would we like it if the Soviet Union had proposed including Cuba in the Warsaw Pact?

Trump and Tillerson should make a deal with Putin. It must give Putin incentives to pull out of Ukraine and perhaps Crimea, although the latter was historically Russian and Tatar. It must give him something to brag about to his people.  This in contrast to Obama, who declared Russia to be merely a regional player.  Who could blame all Russians for taking this as an insult? He should have praised Russia as a major international player, capable of great contributions to world peace, while taking quiet steps to keep them from making trouble.

The Baltic states are indefensible. Neutralization has worked well for Finland and it ought to work well for the Baltics and Ukraine. Putin could be given a green light to take over Belarus, a socialist basket case that is ethnically very similar to Russia. He could even be invited to join NATO.  This may not be so crazy given that Russia and the West share Christian roots and a common threat from Islamo-fascists.

Some would bring up Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler. Skillful negotiations should be able to avoid that trap. The stakes are high, and right now Trump and Tillerson are our best hope of avoiding a possible catastrophe.