Trump and the Impending Foreign-Policy Crisis
Given Trump’s tendency to shoot from the hip, is it possible that Putin took away similar impressions that he has a free hand in some key areas? Is it a coincidence the Russian backed separatists in eastern Ukraine are now declaring an independent state? We just don’t know.
All of these factors will affect the president as he deals with his first foreign-policy crisis. For the sake of the country, let us hope he recognizes the difficult situation he finds himself in and takes some concrete steps to prepare for it.
Here are our recommendations:
First, Trump should not decimate the State Department as he seems inclined to do. He is not the first president to assume office skeptical of State and the Foreign Service. But he will quickly learn, as his predecessors have, that diplomacy, particularly in a crisis, is critical. He has assembled a strong national-security team at the cabinet and National Security Council level and needs to rely on them and not undercut them with tweets. He has not filled most of the key positions at the subcabinet level at State and the Pentagon. He should move quickly to appoint persons to those positions who have deep knowledge and experience with the issues and regions.
Second, Trump must make a sustained and serious effort to reassure U.S. allies that he is genuinely committed to U.S. alliances and the principles that underlie them. He has made some efforts to repair the damage he did early in his administration. But first impressions matter—in diplomacy as in life—and our allies must wonder if his efforts are genuine.
Third, he must acknowledge that the Russians interfered in the U.S. election with the goal of trying to influence it. This does not mean admitting to collusion—that is being investigated—but the overwhelming conclusion of the intelligence community is that the Russians tried very hard to disrupt the election and undermine U.S. democracy in the process. His actions in merely asking Putin whether he did it are inadequate at best. He should have said, “We know you did it and you have to pay the price.” America simply cannot “move on” and forget it.
Fourth, he must embrace the intelligence community and stop criticizing their conclusion about Russian meddling. Every time he questions the conclusions of the intelligence community, he undermines American and allied confidence in their work, depresses the morale of countless professionals who seek to tell him the truth, emboldens the Russians and puts him on very thin ice if he has to seek the nation’s support for his decisions in a crisis.
Fifth, he should—if he has not already done so—participate in several rigorous “war games “of the most likely crises. The U.S. government is very good at developing war games to test the country’s ability to respond. These “games” help leaders understand how a crisis might develop, what resources we have (and don’t have) to respond, how our allies will react and what steps we must take to respond.
Trump has had no relevant experience to deal with a foreign-policy crisis. He must do all he can to prepare himself and his team for the crisis that will surely occur. When the phone rings at 2 a.m., what will he do? He cannot tweet his way out.
Jeffrey H. Smith, a Washington attorney, previously served as the General Counsel of the CIA and as an assistant legal adviser at the State Department. Kenneth Yalowitz is the director of the Conflict Resolution Program at Georgetown University and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.