Get Foreign Policy Out of DC

John Moulton Barn, Grand Tetons, Wyoming. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Jon Sullivan, PD Photo

If Trump seeks a rapprochement with the Kremlin, one lesson is clear: Get away from Washington.

U.S. diplomacy is in for a change. Gone are the barong tagalogs, the translucent smocks made of pineapple fiber and silk that President Obama and other world leaders wore at the 2015 APEC summit in Manila. Gone too are the chamantos, the chunky ponchos worn by President George W. Bush and others at the 2004 APEC summit in Santiago. President Trump is unlikely ever to attire himself thus, and not simply due to sartorial prudence. Instead, Trump may skip the APEC meetings altogether—and those of the East Asia Summit, NATO, UN General Assembly, G7 and G20 as well.

The incoming administration has already said it will focus on bilateral deals with individual countries, instead of on the multilateral gatherings favored by the last two administrations. This is a sea change from the previous decade’s diplomacy, a looming “G-Zero” moment according to Ian Bremmer, yet it is not one without precedent or opportunity. Most of all, the Trump administration’s planned bilateral bonanza holds the best chance yet to return U.S. foreign policy both to core American national interests and to Americans outside of Washington, DC.

Jackson Hole

There was a time before the 2000s when U.S. diplomacy was conducted beyond the Beltway, and it worked. In 1989, for example, Secretary of State James Baker decided to meet with his Soviet counterpart, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, not in Washington but in Wyoming.

“I had believed that moving our talks from the bureaucratic environment of Washington to the rugged grandeur of the American West might forge a new spirit of cooperation, openness, and mutual trust between us and our staffs,” Baker explained.

He was right. The remoteness of Jackson Hole fundamentally shifted his relationship with the Soviet foreign minister, beginning with the flight there. The cramped, noisy cabin of the DC-9—the usual 707 being too large for Jackson Hole’s runway—forced conversation at close quarters, which cracked the hard formality that had existed between the two men. “It was a turning point in our relationship,” Baker said, “because from that point on, we tended to speak ‘informally’ in all our one-on-one sessions. . .”

Wyoming was a success, with agreement reached on an array of issues including arms control. “I’d like to think that the Tetons towering nearby, the Snake River running past us, and the rustic openness of Jackson Lake Lodge facilitated much of it,” Baker later reflected. In fact, the few days among the Rockies were “more productive than most of the meetings between American and Soviet foreign ministers in recent years,” the New York Times reported.

Yet this surge of productivity was not just a reaction to the lofty landscape. It was also the result of forcing the participants to break diplomatic routine, and to do so away from Washington or Geneva or Moscow or New York. Jackson Hole removed the temptations that favored protocol by rote. It also excluded the typical retinue of political hangers-on and influencers jockeying for favor. Instead, the semi-remote, unusual and difficult setting imposed intentional, shared constraints and a strictly managed informality, amounting to a kind of Oulipian diplomacy. All of these elements created the conditions that set in motion a new working confidence between the Americans and Soviets.

In a reciprocal meeting the next year, Shevardnadze followed Baker’s lead, holding talks not in Moscow but in Irkutsk in Siberia. By Baker’s own account, this “spirit of Jackson Hole,” reinforced in Irkutsk, was what allowed the Bush administration days later to secure Moscow’s joint statement against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. It was a rare and important display of unity between the superpowers. It was, Baker explained, the moment in which the Cold War “breathed its last.” Without this “spirit of Jackson Hole” already in place, the cautious, prudent and now-lauded response of the Bush administration to the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly thereafter is pretty much impossible to fathom.

Jackson Hole, then, is a strategy ripe for emulation. If Trump seeks a rapprochement with the Kremlin, one lesson is clear: Get away from Washington.