US foreign policy: Who is in charge?

Nearly eight months into the Trump administration, and amid a North Korean nuclear crisis, experts talk of a chaotic foreign policy process, and at its core, a mercurial leader without a set vision.

Stephanie Keith/Reuters
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, delivers remarks in a UN Security Council meeting on North Korea on Sept. 11 in New York City.

The North Korean nuclear crisis has challenged the Trump administration and its formation of coherent and effective foreign policy like no other.

And like no other international issue, North Korea has demonstrated why nearly eight months into Donald Trump’s presidency, many are still wondering who is in charge of US foreign policy – and what its guiding vision is in the era of a president elected on a slogan of “America First.”

After President Trump’s promise of “fire and fury” over the North’s ever-more threatening long-range missile tests, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was forced to glumly reassure Americans that they could “sleep well.”

After the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, hailed unanimous approval in the Security Council of what she said were the toughest sanctions ever on North Korea, Trump this week contradicted his New York envoy, dismissing the diplomatic victory as “not a big deal” and adding that “those sanctions are nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen.”

Many factors are contributing to a lingering sense of an ad hoc and chaotic foreign policy process, say diplomats, experts, and longtime observers of US foreign policy.

Among the factors are the upheaval – even in the administration’s short existence – in the foreign-policy team, and a secretary of State who has often seemed absent and who has shown no interest in using his high office to be the voice of American foreign policy.

Also important, say former diplomats in particular, is the administration’s perspective that the nation’s corps of diplomats and foreign-service officers, far from being the civilian counterparts of those defending the nation’s security in the military, instead constitute a “swamp” to be drained.

Not a chart, but a vortex

But above everything else, what explains the image of a scattered foreign policy with no clear guidelines directing it, these experts say, is that the man ultimately in charge is mercurial, runs hot and cold on issues, and doesn’t appear to have a set vision guiding his foreign-policy pronouncements.

“We’re dealing with something we haven’t seen before – a far less structured administration, out of which can come all sorts of things that are unfathomable, because it’s the chief executive who is the least disciplined of the group,” says Wayne White, a retired diplomat and specialist in Middle East intelligence who is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“You get the sense,” he adds, “that rather than an administrative chart, what you have in this administration’s foreign-policy team is a vortex.”

The fault lies with the Oval Office and with the president’s lack of a “worldview” to guide the administration’s policymaking, says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“The question of foreign policy is a straightforward one. Most presidents – like them or not – have a guiding vision, what it is they stand for, and that signals to foreign countries what we will and won’t do and it forms the framework that guides the national security adviser and the secretary of State and others in the policymaking process,” Ms. Pletka says. “But I didn’t see any worldview after the first 100 days of this White House, and I don’t think there is one now.”

Matt Dunham/AP
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaches out to begin a handshake with Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at the end of their press conference after their meeting on Libya at Lancaster House in London on Sept. 14.

Some of Trump’s top advisers, notably Mr. Tillerson, have insisted to allies, for example, that “ ‘America First’ does not mean ‘America alone.’ ” But then why would the president choose the height of tensions with North Korea to savage South Korea’s trade deal with the US and threaten to nix it?

Or why make a point of traveling to Poland, a NATO ally on the frontlines of Europe’s tensions with Russia, to make a speech that asked if the West has the “will to survive” even as it downplayed the threat of Russian interference in Western elections, including in the US, as Trump did in July?

“Poland is about the last place you’d want to make that kind of statement, given the deep fear there of Russia,” says Mr. White. “But it leads to all kinds of doubts and insecurity and confusion about what US policy really is in places well beyond Poland.”

Other diplomatic experts say they do see the makings of an effective foreign-policymaking team in the Trump administration – as long as that team is not constantly blindsided by the president.

“I don’t agree with those who say there is no normalcy whatsoever” in the foreign-policy structure, says Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

'Super-powered' team

What he sees taking shape is a “super-powered national security team” – comprised of Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster – that he says has already demonstrated effective policymaking.

The Trump national security team is even showing better coordination and unity than did the Powell-Rumsfeld-Rice team that served President George W. Bush, says Dr. Feaver, who served as a special adviser on national security strategy in the Bush White House.

The team works well as long as the three are allowed to “be in charge and run things,” he says. Where things go awry, Feaver adds, is when Trump doesn’t like what the three come up with – or when he makes a spontaneous statement that contradicts the policy the three have crafted.

“The risk is that when the three powerhouses come up with a policy the president isn’t comfortable with – the best example to date is probably Afghanistan – it misfires,” says Feaver. He notes that an Afghanistan plan was first presented to Trump in March – but then was hashed out for another five months over the president’s distaste for the plan.

The other wild card the national security team has to deal with is Trump’s habit of tweeting or making off-the-cuff remarks in public that veer away from discussed policy. “Things can seem settled, and then a new unscripted statement from the president can drive policy in a new direction,” Feaver says.

But for many foreign policy experts, the picture of a strong three-man national security team obscures the problem they see of a weak secretary of State who has willingly ceded his role as voice to the world of US foreign policy.

Division of labor?

Tillerson’s focus on State Department reform – really a hefty downsizing – has won him suspicions among the department’s domestic and overseas staff and critics on Capitol Hill. Indeed, Congress seems unlikely to allow the reform plan, which was to be unveiled Friday, to ever fully see the light of day.

Tillerson’s absence from the public stage has opened the way for Ambassador Haley, a polished politician and former governor of South Carolina, to emerge as the administration’s strong voice on issues like North Korea. Some say it’s simply a neat division of labor between Tillerson and Haley given each one’s talents, but others say the US is not well-served by a secretary of State who does not have a strong global presence.

“Certainly it matters that we have a secretary of State who is perceived by friends and enemies alike as the chief representative of US foreign policy and who is capable of multitasking in his own job,” says Pletka.

Tillerson’s low profile and incessant rumors about a distant relationship with the president have many in the foreign policy community and the media waiting for the former ExxonMobil chief’s departure.

'Waiting for Godot'

But Feaver says that expectation fits a pattern of many diplomats and others in the foreign policy community waiting for the administration’s rocky initial months to settle down and yield a more conventional presidency, including a more traditional foreign-policymaking process.

“It’s something of a ‘Waiting for Godot’ kind of scenario,” he says, ticking off the many moments over the Trump campaign and then presidency when pundits and others predicted a shift to more normal operations.

“There’s a lot of talk and expectation, but what they’re waiting for never arrives.”

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