Diplomacy is in part transactional. How is Trump’s different?

Why We Wrote This

Give-and-take is a normal part of diplomatic relations between countries and at the core of realpolitik. But problems arise, say analysts, when the transactions become personal.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the InterContinental New York Barclay hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 25, 2019.

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Pursuing a transactional foreign policy that relegates notions of American values such as human rights and democratic governance to the rear while favoring interests such as security and prosperity is nothing new.

Think Nixon to China – or even President Donald Trump overlooking Kim Jong Un’s extreme human rights violations against his own people in the interest of ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Trump declared his preference for transactional diplomacy before he became president. Candidate Trump spoke of striking better trade deals and getting more bucks for America’s defense alliances. It intensified when he named former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson his first secretary of state.

So why is that approach now a problem?

“All diplomacy in some respects is transactional,” says Bruce Jentleson, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “But Donald Trump is transactional in a way that is not so much about what’s good for American interests, it’s what’s good for Donald Trump personally and financially – and in the case of Ukraine, what’s good for Donald Trump’s personal political interests.”

At one point in the now-famous July 25 White House phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the young Ukrainian president shares a bit of information that seemed sure to go over well with his interlocutor: When last in the United States, he lodged in one of Mr. Trump’s properties.

“I stayed in New York near Central Park, and I stayed at the Trump Tower,” Mr. Zelenskiy says.

It’s a tidbit in a conversation, as detailed in a summary of the call released by the White House, that in other regards may determine the fortunes of an American president.

It’s Mr. Trump’s response to the Ukrainian leader’s request for additional arms to battle a menacing Russia – “I’d like to ask you a favor, though,” he says, before pressing Mr. Zelenskiy to deliver dirt on potential 2020 political rival Joe Biden – that lies at the heart of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into the president.

But at the same time, Mr. Zelenskiy’s mention of his use of Trump properties underscores both the transactional nature of Mr. Trump’s personal brand of diplomacy – and how world leaders have learned the ropes of currying favor with the “Art of the Deal” U.S. leader.

It may also suggest how what analysts say is Mr. Trump’s tendency to see America’s relations with the world not just in transactional terms, but about him personally, has gotten his presidency in trouble.

“All diplomacy in some respects is transactional, but Donald Trump is transactional in a way that is not so much about what’s good for American interests, it’s what’s good for Donald Trump personally and financially – and in the case of Ukraine, what’s good for Donald Trump’s personal political interests,” says Bruce Jentleson, a professor of political science and international relations at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

“The presidents I’ve worked for didn’t like the term ‘transactionalism’ because it sounds too values-free,” adds Professor Jentleson, who served in the State Department under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “That’s what makes Donald Trump very different from any other president.”

Trade-offs are nothing new

Pursuing a foreign policy that relegates notions of American values such as human rights and democratic governance to the rear while favoring interests such as national security, domestic prosperity, and big-power relations is nothing new. Think Richard Nixon to China – or even Mr. Trump overlooking Kim Jong Un’s extreme human rights violations against his own people in the interest of ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons.

“Transactional diplomacy is practiced on the basis of ‘I don’t care about human rights abuses, I don’t want to muddy things up by insisting on American values, I just want the deal I want,’” says Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts.

“I think our realpolitik friends would be comfortable with that,” he adds.

For Professor Jentleson, it’s about the pragmatic but often necessary “trade-offs” that diplomats make to get things done.

“Look at Henry Kissinger with China; we agreed to reduce our relations with Taiwan in exchange for formal relations with the bigger and more important global power,” he says.

More recently, President Obama traded sanctions relief for Iran’s entry into a nuclear deal that removed the imminent threat of an Iranian breakout as a nuclear-armed country. (Some would also point out that Mr. Obama – shamefully to some eyes – ignored grassroots anti-regime demonstrations in Iran in 2009 in the interest of reaching a nuclear deal.)

Attention to a Trump style of transactional diplomacy started during the 2016 campaign, when Mr. Trump the candidate spoke of striking better trade deals and getting more bucks for America’s defense alliances. And it intensified when President Trump named former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson his first secretary of state.

“What Trump wants in return”

But for the Fletcher School’s Professor Drezner, none of that necessarily portended Mr. Trump’s particular brand of transactional diplomacy.

“What’s different under Trump,” says Mr. Drezner, “is not that there’s an asking for something in return, but rather, as the Ukrainian president has learned, that what Trump wants in return has to do with Trump.”

Another example of this surfaced last month when it was revealed that Mr. Trump used a recent phone call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to press for information that could assist Attorney General William Barr in his probe aimed at discrediting the Mueller investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections.

Responding to reports of Mr. Trump’s efforts to enlist Australia’s assistance in Mr. Barr’s investigation, an Australian government spokesman confirmed both the phone call and Mr. Morrison’s “readiness” to “help shed further light on the matters under investigation.”

Those comments resulted in a political firestorm in Australia – and by this week Mr. Morrison appeared to backtrack, saying that providing a foreign government with Australia’s diplomatic communications “would be a very unusual thing to do.”

“Australia would never do anything that would prejudice our national interest,” Mr. Morrison said in a TV interview.

Impact on U.S. diplomats

One question now is how the revelations of Mr. Trump’s personal diplomatic efforts and his pressuring of foreign leaders to deliver for him personally could affect U.S. foreign policy.

For some, the biggest impact is likely to be on the career diplomats whose job it is to develop and implement policy – but who now see their efforts sidelined.

“If you’re an expert in a country or on a particular issue and you prepare briefs that time and again the president never reads, after a while you start wondering, ‘What value am I contributing?’” says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration who is now a senior fellow in defense and national security policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Seeing the president’s personal priorities crowd out efforts at policymaking based on professional assessments “demoralizes the people who have spent their lives trying to do the right thing for our country,” he says.

At the same time, other countries’ leaders are likely to operate with the U.S. on the assumption that the only guy who really matters is the president himself.

“If I’m country X or Y and I have important issues to take up with the United States, am I going to pay any attention to the [U.S.] ambassador or the chief of mission when I know the president makes up his own policy?” Mr. Korb says.

Pragmatism, and caution

Of course pragmatic world leaders, from Germany’s Angela Merkel to Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, are going to continue working with the U.S. of President Trump. Even as the impeachment inquiry consumes Washington and embroils the State Department of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in domestic politics, countries still need relations with the world’s largest economy and greatest military power.

But those relations – and any White House phone calls that take place as part of those relations – are likely to be undertaken more carefully now, some foreign policy analysts say.

“While it’s unrealistic to just not deal with Trump and his team, countries will be even more wary about his requests and more resistant to his pressures,” says Duke University’s Professor Jentleson. At the same time, he says, world leaders are going to pursue pragmatic relations with the Trump administration, working under the assumption that Mr. Trump could certainly win his reelection bid next year.

He cites Australia as an example – noting that Prime Minister Morrison happily accepted a state dinner at the White House last month that highlighted the U.S.-Australia alliance, even as he ramped up military relations with China by welcoming a Chinese navy port call in Sydney.

“What we see there is a leader trying to be responsive to the things Trump gets worked up over,” he says, “even as he generally goes about pursuing his country’s interests.”

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