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Herbert London: Diplomacy

From the ambassadors representing the Italian City States to Castlereagh and Henry Kissinger, a nation’s international relations were managed through representation aboard. Over centuries understandings evolved, including sanctuary for the visitor. While there weren’t any specific rules attached to diplomacy, protocols evolved. Discretion subtlety and delicacy were part of the attitudinal stance.

Until now. Without placing value judgments on contemporary diplomacy, I would argue President Trump is different. Exchanging threats with President Rouhani of Iran and earlier with Kim Jung-un, President Trump has his own style. Needless to say, it is a style that alarms the political establishment. However, the end game is not yet approaching, and the president’s methods may prove to be more effective than traditional approaches.

This is indeed a unique moment in history. For example, Trump’s predecessors explained to NATO members that their contribution to defense preparation was generally well below the two percent of GDP to which individual nations had agreed. President Trump made the same pitch, but in his case came a threat: If member states do not live up to their obligation NATO could collapse. The message was clear, unfiltered and certainly lacking subtlety. Its effect remains to be seen.

Part of this assessment is that the president uses twitter to communicate. This may be the twenty-first century knowledge transmission belt, but it is constrained by word limitation. How does one exchange the intricacies of national interest and security to President Putin by twitter?

Now it may be that this shorthand conveys an easily understood message. After all, new models of political behavior are emerging. There is little doubt that those diplomats trained in our schools for this profession find this unprecedented.

At meetings I have attended at the Council of Foreign Relations, there is an ongoing debate about this issue. As noted, the proof is in the pudding. After less than two years, it is impossible for any conclusions to be reached about President Trump’s diplomatic approach.

But if the president can point to success on the international stage, he may shatter the protocols for generations to come. While former Secretary of State has his critics, but his opening to China and balancing at with Russia might be seen as models of contemporary diplomacy. President Trump could be observed as the anti-Kissinger, even though there are members of the White House that worked for the erstwhile secretary.

Foreign policy is not a front burner issue in the upcoming campaign season. However, it would be a mistake to discount it. If the Trump team gains an actionable effort at denuclearization from Kim, that headline may be a three percent gain in Republican fortunes. The problem is that most of the assertions in this diatribe are speculative. Politics was and remains unpredictable. Any comments made about the president are not designed to undermine his office, but rather offer texture for an administration different from others.

Is Trump an outlier, one of a kind and entirely idiosyncratic or has he broken the mold giving diplomacy new meaning for the future? This is not a trivial question since the artfulness of diplomats follows the lead of the president and they in turn shape opinions abroad.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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