The Coming Personalization of American Foreign Policy

If 2016 has taught me anything, it’s the folly of making predictions.  Accordingly, this post represents not a prediction about the future, but instead a way of thinking about how President-Elect Donald Trump seems to be approaching foreign policy and especially diplomacy as the January inauguration draws near.

Feminist thinkers have long used the phrase “The personal is political.”  In an unintended way, this phrase arguably captures a great deal of Trump’s mindset.  Many observers have noted Trump’s preference for people over institutions; he seems to put his trust in flesh-and-blood individuals over disembodied organizations, and loyalty and personal connections go a long way with him.  Furthermore, while his own promises seem important to him (although perhaps selectively), policies, practices, and traditions he has not personally helped develop seem to hold little sway.  All of this leads to a personalization of policy-making: an environment where Trump and a small, inner band of confidantes formulate policy on topics that directly matter to him while keeping established stakeholders at arm’s length.

It will of course not be the first time in American history that the Diplomat-in-Chief has evinced these tendencies: the Nixon White House was permeated by a thick atmosphere of paranoia, racism, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism that even Trump and company will have trouble rivaling.  (Those interested in India and desirous of a close-up look of the Nixon White House should pick up Gary Bass’ excellent The Blood Telegram.)  And look, even that human-rights-abusing, genocide-enabling administration managed to generate a few foreign policy successes.  So perhaps not all is lost.

Yet, personalizing American foreign policy opens the door to a wide range of potential pitfalls. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it can become difficult for third-party observers to separate the signal from the noise in highly personalized atmospheres, since there aren’t the lower echelons of the bureaucracy to consistently reinforce the desired message.  Did Trump’s decision to accept a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president represent a drastic rethinking of America’s diplomatic stance towards the island?  No one really knows (including perhaps Trump), because the policy is not broadly emanating from across the communications apparatus of the American state.

Making politics personal carries other risks.  For instance, in a thoughtful article Bloomberg Businessweek discusses the heightened risks that Trump-branded real estate, particularly skyscrapers, are likely to face during his administration.  Who should pay to secure these highly visible, newly prominent buildings?  (For a map of their locations around the world, see here.)

One way increased personalization may be measurable in the near future could involve seeing if Trump nominates a larger-than-usual number of political appointees at the ambassadorial level.  Over the past half-dozen administrations, the percentage of American ambassadors drawn from outside the State Department’s pool of career diplomats has varied between 26% and 38%, according to data maintained by the American Foreign Service Association.  (For those curious, after several bungled nominations early on, the Obama administration ended up clocking in at around 30% political appointees over his two terms – which, depending on the exact data you use, is either the lowest or second-lowest number of political appointees by a modern 8-year president.)

A larger number of political appointees by the Trump Administration would signal a desire to bypass the State Department and keep its “experts” at bay, as well as political patronage on a larger-than-usual scale, even for Washington, D.C.  Indeed, we’ve seen Trump advocate for political appointees like Anna Wintour (!?) in the past.  And in an interesting twist, Trump is not limiting himself to nominating American ambassadors: he suggested a few weeks ago (via a tweet, of course) that he wouldn’t mind if the United Kingdom appointed former UKIP leader Nigel Farage as its ambassador to the United States.

Fortunately, there is probably a ceiling on how many political appointees Trump could name, if only because few well-heeled Americans are clamoring to be the U.S.’ top representative in Dushanbe.

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