The U.S. administration is in chaos. How does the world deal with a superpower in decline
It’s impossible these days to go a day without some kind of unsettling news coming out of the U.S. Behind all the late night talk shows jokes and jibes there is, quite literally, a great nation in the process of a mental breakdown. Last week, the latest in a string of high profile departures, Rex Tillerson left the U.S. State Department, leaving the institution tasked with representing America in the world, in even more disarray. Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon CEO, was fired as Secretary of State; in his place came Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA and a strong proponent of mass surveillance. The move was telling: as America becomes more paranoid and self-involved, it is increasingly turning to hard power as its major foreign policy tool. Our chief political scientist argues the shift is not only untenable but represents a grave danger to the world. What next in America’s descent into darkness?
►The State Department’s implosion is only the most recent example of the decline of American democracy. How does this affect its foreign policy?
The Trump administration appears to de-institutionalizing American foreign policy, as it is de-institutionalizing other public institutions. In a big country like the U.S., you need a division of labor and specialization among government agencies. The president formulates policy preferences and allows institutions to translate them into specific actions. In formulating policies, on the other hand, the president is expected to consult the institutions that are responsible for implementing policy. This ensures two things: first that there is harmonization between what the president does and what the rest of the government does; and second that there is harmonization between different government agencies, a unity of purpose so to speak. This is how the system is supposed to work. Under the Trump administration, however, this system has been undermined. Trump does a lot of things without consulting anyone. What is supposed to be a policymaking process turns instead into one of damage control or, if not damage control, then at least a process of trying to square the president’s erratic pronouncements with a presumably existing policy. Secondly, because these agencies are in many ways rendered redundant by the whims of the president, they lose some of their enthusiasm and their efficiency. This problem has become manifest in the rapidity with which personnel is changed. In any business - forget government for the moment - if you have such a high attrition rate, you would have a low level of institutionalization.
The general result of this situation is that things just don’t get done. For instance, currently the US has not appointed ambassadors to more than 40 countries. This is an incredible number for a country that claims to be number one in the world. But who would like to be an ambassador at this particular stage of American political life? There is little esteem to be enjoyed as a representative of the current U.S. administration. Your credibility will be low. Nobody will take you seriously. The result is a confusing, directionless American foreign policy. This became evident quite recently in the way the so called North Korean problem has been handled. Of more immediate concern to us is whether this will affect the way the American administration relates to Turkey and how it will conduct its policies in Syria, Iraq and Iran.
►From Turkey’s perspective, how do you then proceed with any kind of nternat onal relations?
The question is not limited to Turkey. How does any country proceed with the U.S.? That’s of course an extremely difficult question. You suggested we pick up the phone and call the president but the president changes his mind and sometimes when he says things, he’s not in full command of the facts or the data relating to a situation. Therefore, it may even be impossible to implement what he says. Under the circumstances, I imagine that what you will have to rely on is making an assumption that, irrespective of who is in command, there are a number of identifiable interests that will constrain the formulation of policy and contain it within predictable boundaries. If we’re to apply this general observation to Turkey, for example, one might argue that Turkey is an indispensable member of NATO. One might further say that as relations between Russia and the West appear to worsen, the importance of Turkey to NATO will increase. One might add to that the fact that since Turkey is bordering the major conflicts in the Middle East, its role is critical for intelligence gathering, for conducting operations and for logistics. It is a barrier to population movements. One would hope that this sort of reality leaves a mark on the minds of U.S. policymakers irrespective of their political orientation and ir- respective of who happens to be in power. But mine may be too optimistic an interpretation.
►With latest change in the Secretary of State, a CIA d rector has been pulled over nto diplomacy. Can he make the trans t on?
He may try to make a transition to being a diplomat but I think his predecessor was let go because he was trying to be a diplomat. Trump’s expectation of Pompeo is not to be as diplomatic as Tillerson who, as a CEO of a major global corporation, knew how international politics is conducted. He was oriented toward a diplomatic style, always keeping options open, recognizing that relations between countries are always multi-dimensional. He was a person with a pragmatic orientation. In Pompeo, we have an ideologue who happens to buy into Trumpism. Here is the real problem: not unlike other authoritarian leaders, Trump does not like people who think differently and argue against him. This is why Tillerson, in the end, was ousted. Now, Trump has a man who will be operating on the same page, a man who is likely to conceptualize foreign policy as intelligence gathering and intelligence operations. Even allies are thought to be non-trustworthy. That reflects a particular style of foreign policy which leaves little room for negotiation, little room for compromise, cooperation and multi-dimensional thinking. This will not only be a problem for countries with close relations to the U.S. but also for the US itself because it will be distracted from forming and implementing a more comprehensive foreign policy. It will waste time threatening people and issuing ultimatums. This marks a clear shift to hard power. It’s a particularly bad policy choice for the US but also a tough time for the rest of the world.