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.

The Distracted Driving of American Diplomacy

In January 2010, a message went out from the State Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. to every U.S. embassy around the world.  In this message, the State Department instructed each of its embassies to conduct a formal diplomatic démarche with their host governments on a pressing topic the State Department had recently grown quite concerned with: texting while driving.  In practice, this meant that somebody from the U.S. Embassy would have to go in person to find a counterpart in the host country’s government, explain to them how concerned the United States was becoming with the problem of “distracted driving,” ask them what policies/laws their country had concerning texting while driving, and then report that information back to Washington.

At first, one might wonder why American diplomats all around the world had to scramble to set up governmental meetings about distracted driving–does the State Department really have nothing better to do?  In the State Department’s defense, however, traffic accidents are a big deal everywhere, and are one of the leading causes of human death.  It’s estimated that there are about “1.24 million traffic deaths a year – nearly triple the UN’s estimate of annual murders, and twenty times the estimated annual total of deaths in wars.”  The World Health Organization is quite concerned, noting that traffic accidents are the single most important cause of death among those aged 15-29 worldwide, and further estimating that traffic accidents cost the planet about 3% of global GDP annually.  So it’s very likely that the impulse behind the U.S.’s worldwide démarche was humanitarian in nature.  Still, while the WHO’s most recent report does note that “distracted driving is a serious and growing threat to road safety,” it nevertheless appears as seventh out of seven reforms countries should undertake to improve road users’ behavior (behind things like increasing motorcycle helmet use, increasing seat-belt usage, and reducing drunk driving), suggesting that road safety experts do not accord it topmost priority at the moment.

More broadly, the démarche illustrates a disturbing one-size-fits-all diplomatic mentality, as well as some of the perils of America’s hegemonic influence.  The WikiLeaks-hosted Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy records the responses that 62* U.S. embassies sent back to Washington after having completed their missions: everywhere from Bangui to Budapest, Sana’a to Seoul.  And reading between the lines, it’s pretty easy to get a sense of how many American embassies, particularly in the developing world, thought their instructions from Washington were rather ridiculous and very poorly tailored to the actual conditions in their host countries.  Some expressed their dissatisfaction via arch terseness, whereas others were more than happy to explain in great detail how their host governments might have more pressing matters to deal with than texting while driving laws:

Many roads in Chad are so deeply pot-holed, or function so much like sand-traps, that they are suitable only for travel via camel, horse or donkey. There are few police on public thoroughfares except in large towns, few hospitals to which to take accident victims, no real ability outside the capital to enforce existing driver’s license or vehicle maintenance laws, and little formal driver’s training. Driver’s licenses can be obtained in many locations through bribery. Regulations on how vehicles may be used are spotty: it is not against the law to pilot a motorcycle with four riders, or to carry a 50-gallon drum filled with gasoline on the back of a motorcycle and a live goat on the handlebars. Transport vehicles are often overloaded to the point where they collapse under their cargo, and passenger vehicles designed for eight routinely carry 20 inside and one or more hanging out the open doors. Recent laws ban carrying more than 20 passengers in the open back of pick-up or transport trucks unless seats and an overhead cover are installed. The 1980-era Peugeots that serve as taxis in N’Djamena are know euphemistically as “neuf morts,” as they are assumed to kill an average of nine people when they crash. Chad recently followed Cameroon in passing motorcycle helmet laws, but many of those who possess helmets carry rather than wear them when they ride.

Taking a step back, very few other countries around the world besides the U.S. would attempt to unilaterally conduct a worldwide governmental information campaign on this scale, particularly unprompted and for an issue that is unquestionably within the remit of countries’ domestic politics.  For better and worse, this is the unique role the United States continues to play in global politics, and the U.S.’s influence is such that countries have to pay attention when it speaks.  In Tanzania, the démarche seems to have been conducted at the very high level of a direct meeting between the U.S. Ambassador and the Tanzanian Foreign Minister–one can only wonder at what was going through the Minister’s mind during the meeting…

* Because of the semi-random nature in which the Cablegate cables were collected, only some of the cable traffic in a given year was recorded and leaked.  Presumably all or almost all U.S. diplomatic missions in the world undertook the démarche as requested.