Foreign policy by tweet

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Foreign policy by tweet

In a truly brilliant piece in the New York Times, David Brooks provides the best explanation of Trump’s governing style that I have seen to date. Whatever we think of our politicians, they typically operate in a common way across the advanced industrial democracies, Korea and the U.S. included. Executives and ruling parties come to office with policy proposals, they deliberate on these policies to get them passed through legislatures, and they rely on the bureaucracy to implement.

Executives occupy offices that are bound by institutions: by courts, by legislatures and ultimately by voters and public opinion. There is a clear sense of accountability: politicians are trying — however imperfectly — to respond to constituent demands.

Trump does not operate or think like this. His “government by Tweet” is not connected with any well-elaborated policy proposals. They spring from impulse and mood. Given their 140-word length, they are Delphic and hard to interpret. Moreover, he may or may not even mean them. They could simply be connected with some personal spat: with Clinton, with Obama, with the Washington elite, with his own psychological ghosts.

As a result, Brooks concludes that we should not worry too much about what Trump tweets. Rather, we should focus on who will ultimately rule if Trump proves to be the holographic president: the president who is not really there. Will it be the conservatives in Congress, the special interests in his cabinet, the bureaucracy or perhaps even his family?

Given these considerations, it is hard to know if any of Trump’s recent tweets with relevance to Asia have any meaning or not. But on this point, Brooks misses the risks. While analysts may be dismissing the president-elect’s Tweets, foreign governments certainly are not.

Let me take three examples, starting with his telephone call to Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen and subsequent tweets about the One China policy. Since 1979, the U.S. has pursued a complex and nuanced policy on Taiwan. On the one hand, the U.S. acknowledges that China thinks there is only one China. But the U.S. has not exactly said what it thinks that “China” is. U.S. presidents have also said that we do not care how cross-Strait relations evolve, but only so long as they evolve peacefully and without coercion.

By saying that the U.S. should not be bound by acknowledgement of China’s claims at all, Trump is sticking his finger directly into Xi Jinping’s eye, perhaps in the hope that he can use it as leverage on other issues including North Korea. But China has not taken Trump’s statements lightly at all, and is gearing up to put pressure on Taiwan that the U.S. will then need to counter. In the worst-case scenario, U.S.-China relations could rapidly unravel if the Trump-Xi battle becomes a test of nerve.

On nuclear weapons, Trump tweeted that “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” What does that mean? The U.S. is currently bound by the so-called New Start treaty with Russia, which limits both warheads and delivery systems. President Obama has committed to modernizing the nuclear force. But is Trump implying that we will go beyond modernization to break New Start limits or even move toward testing?

No one knows, but both Russia, China and North Korea are paying attention. Why should they moderate their behavior if the U.S. is going to upset the status quo?

Finally on North Korea, Trump responded quite quickly to Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech. Interestingly, the North Korean coverage of the speech in English did not mention Kim Jong-un’s threat to test an inter-continental ballistic missile. But the speech certainly suggested such a test was coming.

Trump responded, “It’s not going to happen!” But what if it does? So-called red lines are dangerous. You either have to have a strategy for preventing the given action from happening or you need to respond in a robust way if it does.

What does Trump have up his sleeve? South Korean officials hopefully interpreted Trump’s tweet as a stern warning and show of support. But what if the test goes forward? What exactly will the U.S. and South Korea do in response? And if they do not respond to a test, will Kim Jong-un conclude that Donald Trump is a paper tiger? What if that evaluation proves wrong?

Trump is a masterful self-promoter, as all politicians must be to some extent. But impulse is not a way to govern, and certainly not a way to run the foreign policy of the United States. Some analysts think that Trump’s style may provide the U.S. advantages by introducing uncertainty into the minds of adversaries. But if Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang come to the conclusion that Trump’s tweets can simply be ignored, the U.S. and its allies will be weaker not stronger. Indeed, we may end up ceding the field to revisionist forces in world politics.

It’s time to shut down Trump’s twitter account and return to running foreign policy the old-fashioned way: through deliberate statements of intent backed by the capabilities to implement them.

*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at

Stephan Haggard
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