Among the many perplexing aspects of the bizarre spectacle that is the Donald Trump administration in Washington, the curious rebirth of the concept of diplomacy is one of the strangest.
For Trump, it has long been apparent that one of his life’s most vexing situations is the lack of respect he (correctly) feels from America’s educated elites. Every day, he seems to go to greater lengths to show his disregard and disdain for those who, by virtue of education, accomplishment, wealth, social prominence or fortuitous birth, set the standards by which he and others in public life pursuits are judged.
Trump cannily figured out during the past several years that by indulging in his natural truculence and resentment, he would connect in a profound and recently unprecedented manner with millions of disaffected American voters who have a much more valid sense of grievance than the luckily-born Trump will ever be able to claim.
There are few American public institutions that represent the nation’s elite more than the State Department and its Foreign Service. That service practices diplomacy, the art and science of managing one nation’s relations with other nations and international organizations. Part of diplomacy in recent decades has involved the acceptance and promotion of free trade and other facets of international engagement that have been dubbed globalisation.
It is not surprising that a politician like Trump, campaigning against globalisation and some of its leading advocates such as the Clintons and Barack Obama, should view the State Department as a subject of scorn. His cavalier treatment of his first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was matched by his failure to visit the department’s headquarters in Washington even once in his first 15 months in office.
Now that a more congenial and compliant Secretary of State in Mike Pompeo has arrived, Trump has finally visited the State Department. But despite the presence of the hawkish Pompeo at State and John Bolton at the National Security Council in the White House, diplomacy is making a cautious comeback.
Trump, of all people, is leading the way. He started the process by stunningly accepting an invitation to meet from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. This set in motion a whole series of advance meetings. The North Korean met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing to shore up his most steadfast source of foreign support, then sat down in the DMZ with South Korean counterpart Moon Jae In.
Kim also conferred with then-CIA director Pompeo to work on preparations for a meeting that may occur within a month, perhaps with the Korean demilitarised zone as the setting. Trump has met with the Japanese prime minister, French president Emanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel. This all feels suspiciously like traditional multilateral diplomacy, all initiated by the self-proclaimed untraditional iconoclast, Trump himself.
Not coincidentally, some serious observers in the US are sensing something potentially bigger at work. Respected Washington columnist David Ignatius is even suggesting that Macron of France is a quiet, manipulative opportunist in the fashion of the Austrian foreign minister Count Metternich, who cleverly set the stage for a century of pan-European peace at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15.
Writing in the Washington Post, Ignatius said “Macron is most of all, an opportunist who sees a way, at a moment when Britain is down and Germany is mute, to put France at the centre of European diplomacy for the first time in many decades.” One related thesis holds that Macron is just the quiet counterpoint to the bombastic Trump as the two pursue theatrical diplomatic triumphs.
Korea is certainly one potential stage. Another is Syria. In that riven nation situated in the cockpit of the volatile Middle East, many interests are at play and several important nations have existential interests. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all vitally engaged. Russia and the United States certainly have surrogates in the lengthy Syrian civil war. At a slightly greater distance but carefully watching are the major powers of Europe, particularly Great Britain, France and Germany. Can China be disinterested?
It would certainly qualify as a surprise if Trump somehow stimulated a revival of traditional multinational diplomacy. But it suddenly seems possible.