If it works, it works, however much diplomacy shudders at the methodsby Simon Jenkins / May 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The antics of Donald Trump over Iran and Korea raise two questions. One concerns his capacity for coherent thought, the other is whether the antics might just work. Might the madcap mix of bombast and blather, willy-waving and mouthiness just achieve foreign policy goals that are beyond up-market diplomacy? If so, a lot of textbooks are going to need rewriting.
In the light of the seemingly-shambolic anti-diplomacy on Iran, it is already easy to forget the remarkable shift from screaming abuse to hugs and kisses in Korea. A logjam has loosened, and timber is flowing down- stream. As I write, at least, there is détente. Washington must be reckoned part of the cause. Even where Trump appears bent on vandalism, as with the Iran deal, he is more concerned with posturing as a troublemaker than driving through a consistent policy. To risk opening a hot war in the Middle East and threatening to bomb Iran seems extreme, but if we’ve learnt one thing, it’s to not take Trump’s words at face value, but await the consequences of what he has (or as often has not) actually done.
Trump’s arrival at the White House was novel and alarming. His foreign policy amounted to off-the-cuff slogans, apparently untutored by aides or think tanks. Some of it was mad, such as the outrageous views on immigration. Some was vengeful, such as the promise to tear up Obama’s signature deal with Tehran. But Trump could also sound refreshing. He told Nato it was out of date and must “rethink its core purposes.” He wanted the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan. He at least claimed to oppose the failed era of western interventionism, and described George W Bush as “a liar and war criminal.” His only idea on Syria was to “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” He was fed up with Chinese export-dumping and thought the UN useless. As for Vladimir Putin, Trump was embarrassingly eager to move on from confrontation.
A reasonable person might agree with most of that. This was not Trump the rampant neocon, but the conventional Republican isolationist. The difference was the absence of tact, diplomatic obscurantism and disdain for his own State Department. He said what he thought, as his son said, “like a blue-collar worker with a bank balance.” One of his campaigners rephrased it as: “He’s our kind of idiot.”
Like the proverbial war plan, Trump’s plan didn’t survive contact with the enemy—in this case reality. The short-circuiting of his own foreign policy apparat with pre-break- fast White House tweets led to chaos on Korea. Abusive exchanges with Kim Jong Un gave diplomacy a new vulgarity. He ordered a fleet to sail towards China and it wisely went in the opposite direction. Yet Kim backed off, and agreed to the love-in with Seoul’s President Moon. Perhaps it takes two vulgarians to recognise each other. Trump’s handling of Iran involved blatantly breaking America’s word, and casual disregard for its allies. To what end? The hope must be that it’s a prelude to some sort of revised or improved deal. That may sound far-fetched, but no-one can yet tell—and, after Korea, who can be sure?
The economist Joseph Schumpeter advocated “a gale of creative destruction.” Today’s hipster capitalists like to “move fast and break things.” Past diplomacy has seen similar waves of disruption, some effective. Nixon touted his mental unreliability to scare the Soviets, and ended the US engagement in Vietnam and opened China to the west.
Reagan’s star wars were crazy, but unsettled the Russians at a crucial moment. Atatürk used trauma politics to modernise Turkey, as did the ayatollahs, to de-modernise Iran. A classic instance of disruptive diplomacy is Brexit, a Trump-scale mega-tweet, hurled at the EU. Its outcome is “Trumpist”—wholly unpredictable. Things could go wrong, but could it lead to a more sensitive, less arrogant EU Britain could re-join? If so, thank you disruption.
Trump’s sabre-rattling looks dangerous. But diplomacy can be equally dangerous in papering over cracks and concealing strains rather than resolving them. Perhaps Trump can bludgeon his way through today’s “new cold war” and pin down a deal with Moscow. It is conceivable (barely) that he could frighten Iran into stopping its proxy wars. Exchanged insults brought movement over North Korea. If it works, it works, however much diplomacy shudders at the methods.
Wars are usually the result not of bravado but of miscalculation, of people not saying what they mean. In the past, no one dared mention Chinese export-dumping, for fear of upsetting China, and no one dared call Nato’s bluff. As the White House bull charges through the china shop of world events, it is unsettling to diplomats, who must spend each day picking up the pieces and trying to give them coherent form. As Trump dices with disaster in the Middle East—from which he pledged to steer clear—we may yet see his inner ayatollah burst out.
But he does not seem the sort who will actually press the trigger. His command structure has reputedly set in place sufficient checks and balances to stop him doing so. Amid the wreckage, it is worth grasping at each intervention to see if it might hold hidden gold. If in the process we can grab a reunited Korea, a more subdued Iran or a less paranoid Russia, that is good news.
There is never a right way of conducting international affairs, for the reason that unique events are more potent than anything. The only way forward is whatever way is available at the time. Boris Johnson’s quip about giving Trump the Nobel Peace Prize sounded like toadying. But let’s wait and see.