Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Bullies Don't Win at Diplomacy

| June 08, 2018

President Donald Trump is learning that, just because the United States is powerful, that doesn't mean it can push other countries around.

foreign policy requires combining the various instruments of national power to produce a desired positive outcome. Because each state coexists with many others, in practice this means using those instruments to persuade both allies and adversaries to act in ways that will further the state’s own interests. Thus, an effective foreign policy depends on an accurate understanding of other states’ preferences and how they are likely to respond to one’s own initiatives.

U.S. diplomat George Kennan’s vision of containment is an apt example. Containment correctly identified the critical objective — keeping the industrial power of Western Europe and Japan out of Soviet hands — and Kennan understood that nationalism was a more powerful force than Marxism and that the states that were threatened by Soviet power would be powerfully inclined to balance with the United States. Kennan also foresaw — again, correctly — that the Soviet Union would eventually “mellow” if it were denied meaningful opportunities to expand. And that is pretty much what happened.

By contrast, the George W. Bush administration’s ill-fated decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was based on a complete misreading of the situation it faced and the likely response of other key actors. Not only did the administration overstate the U.S. ability to re-engineer a foreign society, it failed to recognize that other states (and nonstate actors) would join soon forces to oppose the U.S. effort. Instead of sparking a democratic transformation of the Arab and Islamic world — as its architects naively foresaw — the occupation became a costly quagmire and made the terrorism problem worse.

The point is that success or failure in foreign policy depends in good part on whether one’s strategic choices are based on an accurate view of the world and the key forces at play within it. If government officials misread others’ preferences, or simply don’t understand the forces that will determine how other states will respond to whatever actions they take, their policies are likely to fail.

Which brings me — naturally — to the Trump administration.

Although it is tempting to interpret President Donald Trump’s erratic, impulsive, and self-absorbed approach to U.S. foreign policy as essentially a not-very-entertaining form of reality TV — that is, as a deliberate series of casting changes and cliffhangers intended to hold attention and keep viewers tuning in — there are two consistent themes to his approach to the rest of the world.

The first theme is a tendency to view relations with other countries on a purely bilateral and transactional basis, and to judge success or failure solely by whether the United States is getting the better end of the deal in each case. In Trump’s mind, you’re either the con man or you’re the mark, and a successful foreign policy is one where every bilateral relationship works out better for the United States than it does for the other side. If both sides gain equally, or if both sides gain a lot but the other side gets a bit more than the United States does, then it is by definition a bad deal, even if it America better off in absolute terms. Like any good huckster, Trump always wants to get something for nothing, and to be able to tell the American people that he’s somehow persuaded foreigners to make tons of concessions without giving them anything in return. You know: like promising that Mexico will somehow pay for a wall that it doesn’t even want.

The second and closely related theme is a propensity for bullying. Whether he is threatening to tear up existing deals, rain “fire and fury” down on an enemy, or impose tariffs on friend and foe alike, Trump’s diplomatic modus operandi rests on the belief that the United States has a nearly infinite capacity to impose its will on other states by issuing threats. If Trump refuses to reaffirm Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, other states will pay the United States to defend them. If he denounces NAFTA and threatens to leave it, Canada and Mexico will quickly give in to whatever U.S. negotiators demand. If he threatens China with a trade war, President Xi Jinping will leap to do whatever it takes to make Trump happy. And if he tears up the Iran nuclear deal, the ayatollahs won’t dare to resume enrichment and move closer to Russia and China. If he treats longstanding U.S. allies with contempt, ignores their earnest pleas on the Iran deal, and then slaps tariffs on them too, they’ll just meekly accept the humiliation and quietly back down.

To be fair, one can see why someone like Trump might think this way. After all, the United States is still very powerful, and it still has the world’s largest and most important economy. The dollar is still the world’s reserve currency, which gives Washington unusual leverage on global financial dealings. No major power wants to be cut off from the U.S. economy — even a little — and no corporations or foreign banks want to be denied access to the U.S. financial system. The United States is also in an extremely favorable and secure geographic position, with no serious enemies nearby, which means that most of its allies need it more than it needs them.

Add to these advantages the fact that many states are accustomed to depending on Uncle Sam for their security and are fearful that U.S. protection might be removed. America’s European allies worry about having to defend themselves without a lot of U.S. help, and they worry even more about the possibility that inter-European rivalries would intensify if the “American pacifier” were gone.

The bottom line, therefore, is that few, if any, states are eager to invite the ire of the United States, or even to get into a long, bitter, and protracted arm-wrestling match with it. Like the majority of Americans, current U.S. partners are mostly hoping that Trump will prove to be an unhappy but short-lived moment in U.S. history, rather than a fundamental historical turning point. This would seem to lend credence to Trump’s foreign-policy-by-browbeating approach.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Bullies Don't Win at Diplomacy.” Foreign Policy, June 8, 2018.

The Author

Stephen Walt