WASHINGTON – While retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn’s resignation from the White House brings fresh scrutiny to President Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia, it also has an effect on other nations.
Specifically, all of them.
That’s because, with Flynn’s departure as leader of the National Security Council, Trump’s inner circle has lost the only person with any experience in foreign affairs. The loss puts an exclamation point on what’s already been a rocky foreign policy rollout.
“There is this incredible vacuum at the top, and, as everybody knows, a very demoralized NSC staff,” said Eliot Cohen, a former top State Department official and NSC participant under President George W. Bush. “Hopefully this gets fixed quickly. Before there’s a real crisis.”
Among those Trump listens to most, daughter Ivanka has worked in the family business and marketed a line of clothing. Son-in-law Jared Kushner was in New York real estate. Chief strategist Steve Bannon was an investment banker and most recently ran a right-wing, white nationalist-friendly website. And Chief of Staff Reince Priebus chaired the Republican National Committee.
Only Flynn had some foreign policy experience, and even that was relatively narrow, as an Army intelligence officer and then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“I’m afraid that is this going to mean an even more extended transition period,” said Douglas Lute, former ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama and a deputy national security adviser under Bush. “Rather than moving forward, we’re actually taking a step backward.”
This lack of expertise has already manifested itself with an administration that has sent numerous contradictory messages to the world in its less than four weeks in office.
Trump gave few specifics about foreign affairs during the campaign, instead offering general promises about getting tougher with the self-described Islamic State, rewriting or withdrawing from what he called “unfair” trade agreements, and “getting along” better with Russia.
During his transition and first weeks of his presidency, though, Trump has mapped out a foreign policy that appears to head in many directions at once.
He first said he may use the decades-old “One China” policy – which accepts China’s view that Taiwan is a breakaway province – as a bargaining chip in negotiations on other issues. Then he told China’s president in a phone call that he accepts the One China policy.
He said he would move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem immediately, and signaled he was okay with Israel building more settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. Subsequently, his administration has taken a slower approach to the embassy move and issued a statement saying that settlements are not helpful in the search for a long-term peace solution.
Trump has called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization obsolete and said the United States was being taken advantage of by other member states. But Trump’s defense secretary and his secretary of state both have strongly committed to NATO.
Apart from contradictory statements have been the just plain weird ones.
In a phone call with Mexico’s president, Trump said he may need to send the U.S. military to take care of the “bad hombres” down there. In a call with the prime minister of Australia – one of the United States’ staunchest allies – Trump picked an argument over an agreement reached under the Obama administration to accept some refugees. And in a call with Russia’s leader, Trump was reportedly flummoxed by Putin’s reference to a nuclear arms treaty that’s been in place for years.
And all of this happened while Flynn was still at his side.
“These are the outcomes of a process that is not yet settled,” Lute said. “Until the team is set, you can’t really set up the relationship and the process of dealing with policy.”
Cohen, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said some of the confusion is likely a function of Trump’s ignorance of basic U.S. foreign policy and its history. But part of it, he said, results from Trump’s preference for underlings who battle each other for his approval.
“He wants turmoil below him. He wants competition below him,” Cohen said. “I think he actually thinks this is fine. That’s the problem.”
It’s a problem Trump needs to solve, and to solve quickly, said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. He added that Trump’s tendency to say things that are exaggerated or flat-out untrue are particularly dangerous, especially if he doesn’t have a stable foreign policy apparatus working for him.
“I think the danger for Donald Trump is not having other foreign leaders believe him,” Brinkley said. “Maybe keep his exaggerations to frivolous matters and let the secretary of state, the defense secretary and the national security advisor deal with the important things.”