President-elect Donald Trump’s forays into foreign policy since the election have been controversial, to say the least.
Mr. Trump’s first meeting with a foreign official after the election was with the British politician Nigel Farage, a diplomatic slight to British Prime Minister Theresa May and exacerbated by Mr. Trump’s suggestion that Farage be appointed Britain’s Ambassador to the United States. Making matters worse, Trump spoke to nine world leaders before getting on the phone with May, including taking a congratulatory call from Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. When he met with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, he was accompanied by his daughter Ivanka, who’s’ trying to finalize a deal with a Japanese business owned largely by the Japanese government. This, among a host of other Trump business pursuits, raises serious conflict of interest questions. Meanwhile, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte claimed that Mr. Trump endorsed Duterte’s violent campaign against drugs that has taken thousands of lives so far.
And most recently, Mr. Trump has upended decades of precedent underpinning stability in U.S.-China relations by talking with Taiwan President Tsai-ing Wen, precipitating a potential international crisis before he has even taken the oath of office.
These are unorthodox – and sometimes dangerous – foreign policy interactions. Mr. Trump’s freewheeling and often careless style illustrated by these events highlight the dangers awaiting him – and the United States – when he takes office.
During presidential transitions there is varying precedent for how the new president-elect should deal with foreign counterparts. Some teams rely on the State Department for background materials and talking points, but others haven’t. But the one constant across the years has been that there is one president at a time, and that these initial calls with foreign leaders are meant to be purely congratulatory and superficial.
Once in office, a careful and intentional process guides the interactions between U.S. presidents and foreign leaders to ensure that the call is most useful for the president.
When a call or meeting is initiated, the process begins: The National Security Council works with the State Department and other agencies to flag topics the foreign counterpart might raise. Agencies will look across the bilateral relationship to determine if there are issues stuck in the bureaucracy that a conversation between the two leaders can knock loose. And officials will sometimes conduct lower-level conversations with counterparts from the other country to determine topics that might be most useful for the leaders to discuss, and also to ensure that the other side is prepared for the issues that the U.S. president will raise. Then a detailed “call sheet” or briefing document will be developed, providing background information, context, and suggested talking points.
The White House Situation Room will connect the call and confirm the source of the call and the speaker on the phone before the president picks up. During the call, presidential aides will listen in and take notes and then write up a formal private readout to share with other government officials.
Both sides will coordinate the respective readouts to the press. While each side will often describe the calls the way they want, the most fundamental ground rule is that a country does not describe what the other leader said explicitly on the call. Sometimes the two sides will agree in advance on how to describe a certain issue to ensure there is no public confusion. One side characterizing what the other side said without agreement will result in an unhappy follow-up call.
These bureaucratic gears help make these conversations productive. After all, these are calls between two people representing their entire countries. Details matter.
While there is little formal protocol for calls during a transition period, the problems emanating from Mr. Trump’s exchanges so far make very clear how important it is to treat calls with foreign leaders – even short, congratulatory calls – with seriousness.
First, who you talk to matters. As with all things in diplomacy, symbolism is important, and the leaders one chooses to talk to early in the transition sends strong signals about a president-elect’s priorities. Mr. Trump’s call with Tsai-ing Wen is the best example here: the very fact of a call between a U.S. president-elect and a president of Taiwan, no matter what was discussed, is a potentially enormous shift in U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Trump’s tweet defending the call as unimportant – “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” – itself missed the point.
Second, presidents-elect don’t conduct foreign policy. Calls during a presidential transition should be short and superficial, filled with platitudes like “thanks for the call!” and “I look forward to working together to strengthen our partnership…” The reason is there’s only one president at a time – otherwise things can get very confusing (see again the Taiwan call and the Obama White House having to defend existing U.S. policy on Taiwan). A series of flaps so far mean that the Obama administration has to clean up Mr. Trump’s mess for the next month and a half.
Third, the haphazard approach to these phone calls raises concerns about Mr. Trump’s style and his ability to conduct an effective foreign policy. In setting up these calls, did Mr. Trump know what he was doing talking to the president of Taiwan? Did anyone on Mr. Trump’s team iron out with foreign counterparts ground rules for the readouts of the calls in which foreign governments quoted Mr. Trump? So far, it appears not. Following Trump’s call with Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s readout seemed to quote Trump verbatim:
“As I am talking to you Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities,” the readout said.
The concerns for U.S. foreign policy with this shoot from the hip approach are potentially disastrous. Going forward, will Mr. Trump and his advisors seek the input of the State Department and career officials for advice and input on interactions with foreign counterparts? Will they provide readouts of Mr. Trump’s calls to relevant U.S. government officials, which is a vital part of ensuring the U.S. government does not send mixed messages to other countries? Will conflicts of interest influence what Mr. Trump raises with foreign leaders (and will there be enough transparency to know whether this is occurring)?
If Mr. Trump’s current approach doesn’t change, a minefield awaits. The initial response of China’s Foreign Minister to Mr. Trump’s call with Tsai-ing Wen actually played down the issue, acting as though Mr. Trump didn’t know what he was doing and blaming the call on Taiwan. It’s a sad – and dangerous – day when foreign counterparts believe that the U.S. president doesn’t know how to do his job. Since then, China has asked Washington not to let the Taiwanese president pass through the US next month as she travels to Guatemala, Reuters reported. This could be a signal that China isn’t about to let this one go.
There are thousands of professional experts across the agencies of the U.S. government that will soon work for Mr. Trump and can provide advice and assistance. They’re waiting for his call. All the rest of us are desperately hoping that’s one call he actually does make.