In early December, President-elect Donald Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, breaking decades of diplomatic protocol and sparking an angry condemnation from the Chinese government.
The fiasco was only the latest shocker to come out of Trump Tower — and that’s before the 45th president takes his oath of office. Trump has already named ExxonMobil Chief Executive Rex Tillerson to be his secretary of state — despite the fact that Tillerson, who has spent over 40 years hammering deals around the world on behalf of the petroleum giant, has zero diplomatic experience and questionable ties to Russia.
Trump also named South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants and a woman with no foreign policy experience, as U.S. envoy to the United Nations. On Dec. 7, he announced that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad would be the new U.S. ambassador to China. And he’s tapped retired Gen. Michael Flynn — a known Islamophobe who has spread false conspiracy theories online — as the next U.S. national security adviser. (Two other retired generals have been named to head the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security; other prominent Cabinet members include wealthy business executives.)
The appointments of Tillerson and Flynn are proving to be the most controversial in foreign policy circles. Beyond his lack of government experience, Tillerson is expected to face an uphill confirmation battle in the Senate, where he’ll be grilled on his decades-long friendship with Vladimir Putin. As ExxonMobil chief, Tillerson clinched deals with Moscow worth billions of dollars and opposed sanctioning Russia over Ukraine because it hurt the energy company’s investments.
Some Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have expressed reservations about the choice, particularly in light of allegations that Russia directed hackers to meddle in the U.S. election to boost Trump’s chances. Others, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), praised the oil executive as a shrewd global powerbroker who has worked in hotspots from Yemen to Nigeria to Venezuela.
Tillerson “would bring to the position vast knowledge, experience and success in dealing with dozens of governments and leaders in every corner of the world,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a statement.
Others point out that Tillerson is in the business of making money for his shareholders, not navigating thorny diplomatic dilemmas such as humanitarian crises in the Middle East or tensions in Asia.
Steve Coll, author of “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power,” called the decision “astonishing,” given that Tillerson has spent his life pushing the interests of a global conglomerate that sometimes wields more influence than national governments do.
“In his career at ExxonMobil, Tillerson has no doubt honed many of the day-to-day skills that a Secretary of State must exercise: absorbing complex political analysis, evaluating foreign leaders, attending ceremonial events, and negotiating with friends and adversaries,” Coll wrote in a Dec. 11 New Yorker piece. “Yet it is hard to imagine, after four decades at ExxonMobil and a decade leading the corporation, how Tillerson will suddenly develop respect and affection for the American diplomatic service he will now lead, or embrace a vision of America’s place in the world that promotes ideals for their own sake, emphatically privileging national interests over private ones.”
Likewise, Flynn has been a lightening rod for criticism. Trump’s choice for national security advisor is a longtime intelligence officer who has been been praised for rooting out terrorist networks in Iraq and Afghanistan, but criticized for his abrasive management of the Defense Intelligence Agency, where subordinates complained he became obsessed with Iran and Islamic terrorism at the expense of other threats such as Russia.
Haley and Branstad’s nominations have evoked far less fear, although they’ve raised a few eyebrows as well. Haley in particular is likely to face a steep learning curve at the U.N., whose sprawling bureaucracy will require diplomatic arm-twisting and knowledge of everything from Syria’s civil war to obscure conflicts in Africa; her predecessors were all well versed in issues ranging from genocide to the Middle East.
But the two-term South Carolina governor, who has led seven overseas trade missions, has also proven herself to be a deft political operative and a rising star within the GOP Party. In a statement announcing his U.N. decision, Trump praised Haley as “a proven dealmaker, and we look to be making plenty of deals.”
Branstad, meanwhile, cited his ties to Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he met during an official visit of Chinese business executives to the Hawkeye State in 1985.
“I believe that the respect and admiration built over a decades-old friendship between President Xi and I give me an opportunity to help the president-elect and serve Iowa, the United States and the world for the better,” said Branstad, 70, in a statement.
The Protocol Playbook
Granted, presidents routinely appoint people with unorthodox backgrounds to top positions. Past U.S. ambassadors to China, for example, include former senators, governors and commerce secretaries.
The practice of presidents hiring big campaign contributors and political allies to key positions in the diplomatic corps is almost as old as the presidency itself. Barack Obama was no exception, doling out about 30 percent of ambassadorships to political bundlers, sometimes with less-than-stellar results (also see “In U.S., Selling Ambassadors to Highest Bidder Has Long History” in the March 2013 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Yet the question of how much experience an ambassador or Cabinet-level official really needs has never appeared to be more urgent than now, given Trump’s own lack of diplomatic finesse and his propensity to value loyalty and his own business interests above all else. Trump unnerved world leaders with his inflammatory rhetoric on the campaign trail — from the infamous wall he’d build to keep Mexicans out to his fawning admiration for Putin.
And he continues to keep everyone guessing by throwing out the protocol playbook. The president-elect has eschewed State Department talking points and intel briefings, leading to off-the-cuff exchanges with world leaders such as Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, who Trump called a “terrific guy,” saying he’d love to visit such “a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people” (much to archrival India’s horror). He met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his gilded Trump Tower headquarters with his daughter Ivanka by his side. He has refused to divest himself of his myriad business interests around the world. And his schizophrenic Twitter proclamations have veered from criticizing Boeing for the supposed costs of building a new Air Force One to convoluted explanations over who initiated that Taiwan call. Did Trump blunder in taking the call, unaware that he was breaching a decades-old policy that has maintained a fragile peace with both China and Taiwan? Or was it a calculated, shrewd masterstroke to throw Beijing off-kilter? It all depends on who you ask.
While Trump revels in his freewheeling, unpredictable style, experts fear it could have unintended consequences — alienating America’s second-largest trading partner, for one thing, or even inadvertently sparking an actual war.
“Provocative tweets might satisfy a political base, but they do nothing to advance the national security interests of the United States. On the contrary, such missives could lead to serious misunderstandings with our allies and potential conflicts with our adversaries,” wrote Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in a recent USA Today op-ed.
But the effects may also be subtler. World leaders may no longer trust what the president has to say, given Trump’s constant flip-flopping and aversion to facts and nuance. They may smell blood in the water if Trump stacks his team with policymaking novices, taking advantage of unseasoned players in delicate diplomatic negotiations, for instance. Or, as his supporters argue, Trump could signal to the world that he intends to radically rewrite the global rules in America’s favor, forcing allies to shoulder more of the burden and playing hardball with economic competitors such as China. The truth is, no one knows.
“It’s all going to be based on what’s good for Donald Trump,” speculated Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique (1993-96) and Peru (1996-99) under the Clinton administration. “You can forget the idea that human rights or democracy is important, because it won’t be.”
Jett, an unabashed critic of the president-elect, didn’t mince words when it came to some of Trump’s nominations, including his pick for secretary of state.
“It is not the worst appointment Trump has put forward, but it is troubling. Trump, having no experience in government, thinks running one is like a reality television show. Never has the nomination of someone for secretary of state become such a tactless, public spectacle,” he told The Diplomat via email.
“Tillerson has close ties to Putin, reinforcing the idea that Trump is repaying the man who did the most to get him elected. No one knows what Tillerson thinks about the many international issues with which he will have to contend, but he will no doubt have little impact on Trump administration policy. That will be left to Gen. Flynn, a man suffering from a severe case of Islamo-paranoia, and the impetuous president who cannot stop shooting from the lip and tweeting untruths. It will be a truly frightening four years.”
Asked if he had any advice for Trump, Jett replied: “I wouldn’t advise him because I want nothing to do with him.” He called Flynn “a total ideologue and a complete lunatic” and said he couldn’t think of a worse person for national security advisor.
“It’s almost like a monarchy, where Trump’s most trusted advisors are his family, and where he rewards people who are loyal to him and ignores everybody else,” he said.
High Costs of Diplomacy
Jett, who also served in Argentina and Israel, is now a professor at Penn State’s School of International Affairs. The author of “American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats,” Jett has seen plenty of ambassadors, good and bad, come and go — long before Trump’s surprise victory in November.
He told The Washington Diplomat that for the last 50 years, there’s been an unwritten rule that 70 percent of all overseas ambassadorships should go to career Foreign Service people, with political appointees comprising the other 30 percent. But that’s only a tradition, he said.
The Foreign Service Act of 1980, Jett explained, “was enacted in the wake of corruption in the Nixon administration, where they were selling ambassadorships.”
In one famous incident, campaign contributor Ruth Farkas was told she could be ambassador to Costa Rica for $250,000. “She said that’s an awful lot to pay for Costa Rica,” he recalled. Farkas went on to become ambassador to Luxembourg.
Since then, the price has gone up dramatically. Jett co-authored a paper called “What Price the Court of St. James’s? Political Influences on Ambassadorial Postings of the United States of America,” which estimated that plum postings to places like Luxembourg now cost $3.1 million in political donations, while London goes for roughly $1.1 million.
So how much will ambassadorships cost under Trump?
“Trump is such a non-traditional kind of person, he could go 100 percent either way,” said Jett. “He could even name 90 percent Foreign Service professionals to compensate for the fact that he doesn’t know anything about foreign policy.”
Under the Reagan administration, 38 percent of ambassadors were political appointees, while Obama has averaged about 29 percent political appointees over his eight years in the White House, said Jett.
“We’ve survived a lot of bad ambassadors,” he noted. “Reagan sent a number of hopelessly incompetent and corrupt people overseas. The big bundlers go to Western Europe, and others go to the Caribbean — mostly minorities and women. In both cases, it doesn’t do so much damage. In Western Europe, the relationships are so thick and dense that if the ambassador is a complete fool, it’s easy to work around that person. And in the Caribbean, if the ambassador sinks the island he or she is on, nobody in Washington is going to notice or care.”
He added: “The Dominican Republic is an interesting example. Up until 20 years ago, it was all career people serving there. But then it became too nice of a place with good beaches, so ever since, it’s been a political appointment.”
Some political appointees have crashed and burned. Obama’s pick for ambassador to Luxembourg, campaign bundler Cynthia Stroum, was found to be so noxious that her senior officers volunteered for service in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. Others prove to be successful managers despite having no foreign policy credentials. Business leaders in particular often bring fresh, outside perspective to the job — and access, if they enjoy close ties to the president.
But even the next secretary of state — the ultimate diplomatic post — is now going to be a businessman with scant foreign policy experience.
P.J. Crowley, the former U.S. assistant secretary for public affairs, argues that even in such a case, the winning candidate would be supported by a career diplomatic bureaucracy.
“Policy doesn’t advance in a vacuum. Gaining international support for what America wants to do is all about politics,” Crowley wrote in a guest editorial for the BBC, pointing out that America’s relationships with key allies are driven by long-standing interests. “As successful elected officials, their political skills can serve them well. Many leading international diplomats are politicians, although their skill and knowledge can vary widely, from the profound to the profane.”
Crowley, now a professor at the George Washington University, added: “While bureaucratic heft matters — the views expressed by the secretary of defense, secretary of state, director of central intelligence and chairman of the joint chiefs carry weight in the White House Situation Room — access matters more. Recent experience bears this out. During the Obama administration, those with the strongest relationship with the president had outsized influence.”
Trump seems to be surrounding himself with military men and fellow billionaires. The treasury secretary nod went to Steven Mnuchin, a hedge fund financier formerly with Goldman Sachs; commerce secretary went to Wilbur Ross, a private equity billionaire known for buying up failing companies; education secretary went to billionaire Amway heiress Betsy DeVos; and labor secretary went to fast-food chain CEO Andrew Puzder.
On the security front, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis is Trump’s selection to be secretary of defense. Another widely respected retired Marine Corps general, John Kelly, has been tapped to head the Department of Homeland Security. Flynn, meanwhile, is a retired Army general who doesn’t need congressional confirmation to serve as Trump’s national security advisor.
Former diplomat Edward “Skip” Gnehm Jr., who teaches at the George Washington University, said that as an American, he’s concerned about the number of military officers suddenly being named to key positions, “and that’s only because I have a strong belief in civilian control of the military,” he said.
“I grew up in a town with a lot of military people and have tremendous respect for them, but when you put military men in the White House as security adviser and secretary of defense, that alarms me,” said Gnehm, who was U.S. ambassador to Kuwait from 1991 to 1994 and U.S. envoy to Jordan from 2001 to 2004.
Like Jett, Gnehm said he is particularly worried about Flynn and his comments about Muslims.
“That can be quite a complication for us having to deal with the region and its problems. He appears very biased,” said the professor. “On the other hand, I have been around a number of Gulf diplomats and friends, and they’re not unhappy with Trump’s election — partially because of his views about the Iranian nuclear agreement, which falls closer to how they feel about it.”
Trump has also vowed to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in an effort to finally recognize the holy city as Israel’s capital. According to a recent poll conducted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 49 percent of Israelis believe Trump would fulfill that promise, with 26 percent giving it a high chance and 22 percent saying there’s no chance it’ll happen.
“If he does it, there will be a major reaction throughout the region, and it will be pretty intense, but I don’t think it will go beyond that,” said Gnehm. “I don’t see a new intifada breaking out, because the region is coping with too many other issues. It depends on what he does and how he does it.”
If, for example, the Trump administration moves the embassy to a site in West Jerusalem, said Gnehm, “he could always argue that’s not making any political statement on the occupied territories.”
A much more serious problem, says the former diplomat, is Trump’s Syria policy (also see story “Experts Warn Road to Syria Resolution Goes Through Both Russia and Iran“).
“This idea of working closely with the Russians in the Middle East is a disaster. Look at the way the Russians have been dealing with us over whether or not we’re willing to discuss the movement of rebels out of Aleppo. I think they’re playing us, and will continue to do so.”
Whether Trump will actually move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or renege on the Iran nuclear deal remains to be seen. Far more likely to be carried out is his threat to roll back the Obama administration’s opening with Cuba, says Jett.
“The Bush administration, upon taking office, made study abroad programs in Cuba almost impossible, and now I think Trump will do the same because it’s a cheap throwaway gimmick that costs him nothing,” said Jett. “If I were advising the Cuban government, I’d tell them to start talking about a Trump Hotel in Havana very quickly.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.