The World Wants to Know: Who Speaks for Trump on Foreign Affairs?

  • Tillerson, Mattis and Pence in Germany for diplomatic meetings
  • Resignation of Flynn adds to confusion in U.S. foreign policy

How Does Trump Administration View Russia?

Who speaks for Donald Trump on foreign affairs? Is it Secretary of State Rex Tillerson? Vice President Mike Pence? Or the president’s Twitter account?

The world will look for answers this week at two diplomatic gatherings drawing Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Pence on their first European trips since taking office. They’ve all contradicted, walked back or tempered some of their boss’s assertions and in the latest twist, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned in a controversy about his contacts with Russia.

For the German hosts of the Group of 20 meeting of foreign chiefs in Bonn and the Munich Security Conference, the stakes could not be higher given how disdainful Trump has been of the European Union. He celebrated Brexit, denigrated France after its terror attacks, dismissed the EU as a vehicle for Germany and called Angela Merkel’s immigration policy catastrophic.

For Asian visitors, the question is whether a recent easing of his stance on key issues like America’s “One-China policy” reflects his true position, or whether he’s just biding time.

Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Mike Pence.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Akio Kon/John Taggart/Bloomberg

Watch, Wait

“The jury is out,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German envoy to the U.S. who organizes the annual conference in Munich. “We don’t yet know exactly whether the president himself wants to press on with his sometimes hair-raising statements, or whether at least on foreign policy the insight prevails that America will only be great again if it doesn’t abandon its partners.”

Whether by design or not, Trump has kept leaders on tenterhooks, sometimes questioning historic bedrocks of U.S. foreign policy such as support for NATO and distrust of Russia. With a trio of Cabinet members on their way, European leaders will be eager to determine if they speak for the president or, as the confusion over Trump’s immigration order seemed to show, they might not be privy to his next move.|

“It’s very unclear what the next four years will hold in terms of foreign policy for the U.S. and as a result, I think G-20 leaders will watch and wait,” said Alexandra Cirone, a fellow at the London School of Economics. “It’s worth noting that continental European leaders like Merkel have shown no hesitation in directly confronting Trump on his new immigration policies.”

Damage Control

One thing to clarify is what role the trio exerted -- individually, collectively, if at all -- in softening some early campaign stances such as challenging Japan to pay more for U.S. military bases or questioning the relevance of the postwar NATO military alliance. After months of toying with China, Trump finally said he’d respect the principle that China and Taiwan are part of the same country and Beijing is the seat of government.

Damage control by Tillerson and Mattis is a given, according to Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor of Asian studies at City University of Hong Kong. The problem is that “there is no way of knowing how long a gap there is between a correction not being made and a correction never being made.”

A case in point: Trump went after Mexico so aggressively that President Enrique Pena Nieto cancelled a visit to Washington. He also pulled out of a trade deal among 12 Pacific economies, exactly as he promised he would.

Tillerson, the former chief of Exxon Mobil Corp. will be making his international debut in Bonn by Thursday. Unlike Trump, he says unambiguously that the climate change is a real threat and he’s also planning a trip to Mexico to smooth out that relationship.

Retired General Mattis has already made his mark on a trip to Asia, where he reassured South Korea and Japan of U.S. commitment to their protection. As a former Supreme Allied Commander for NATO’s command transformation, there is hope he might strike a more conciliatory tone with those members.

On Iran he showed a deft touch. When Trump fired a tweet formally putting Iran “on notice” for a ballistic missile test, Mattis conveyed to allies that there would be no immediate escalation. From Tokyo, he said: “I don’t see any need to increase the number of forces we have in the Middle East at this time.”

Such gestures will be heartening to Europeans, who eye Iran as a major business opportunity and want to see the 2015 nuclear deal hold.

But the hottest ticket in town is Pence. According to Ischinger “half of Europe now wants to be there on the day that he’s there.”

For Merkel, speaking at the event, it will be her first encounter with the most senior U.S. administration figure after Trump. Much will hinge on what conclusion she and others draw about the influence he holds. In the U.S., a vice president can wield enormous power, such as Dick Cheney, or be marginalized.

The role of Pence -- who took over Trump’s transition team after the election -- has yet to come into focus in an unorthodox White House where the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon seem to command his attention.

However at least one rival for the president’s ear is gone. Flynn, an early Trump supporter, was part of the delegation traveling to Germany before he was forced stepping down Tuesday. He admitted to misleading Pence about his phone calls with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump took office.

So how does one conduct diplomacy in the Trump era?

“I would advise people to take his tweets seriously as statements of sentiment because they are honest reflections of his thinking,” said Frank Lavin, a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore. “However, they are not necessarily fully formed policy statements so there can be adjustments along the way.”

— With assistance by David Tweed, and Rosalind Mathieson

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