Fear is spreading among the Republican Party’s foreign policy heavyweights that President Donald Trump’s inexperience and quick temper could permanently damage long-standing alliances and undercut America’s standing in the world.
After spending eight years criticizing former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy as feckless and insufficiently protective of America’s friends around the globe, many senior Republican lawmakers and foreign policy experts are worried that Trump is making matters worse after reportedly speaking harshly with the leaders of both Mexico and Australia.
“We need allies throughout the world in order to keep our homeland safe and our nation doesn’t have the luxury of creating division and picking unnecessary fights with countries we have traditionally worked with,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican and a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, told McClatchy.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, went a step further, announcing that he had called Australia’s ambassador to the U.S. Thursday morning “to express my unwavering support for the U.S.-Australia alliance”—a clear rebuke to Trump, who chastised Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a phone call over the weekend and cut the conversation short, according to the Washington Post’s Wednesday report. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged on Facebook Thursday, "We need to continue to strengthen our partnership with this essential ally."
The dispute with Australia, which centers in part on whether the U.S. will stand by a previous agreement to accept 1,250 refugees from that country, also played out on Twitter, with Trump tweeting late Wednesday, “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”
Such open conflict with a close American partner has alarmed more traditional Republicans who follow foreign policy closely. During the presidential campaign, Trump faced perhaps his most sustained and fierce opposition within his own party from national security-minded Republicans who feared that he would mismanage critical relationships abroad. And that’s exactly what has come to pass now, said Peter Feaver, who was a national security official in the George W. Bush administration and a Trump critic during the campaign.
“One of the criticisms that was leveled against Trump on the campaign was that he was inexperienced and so would have a steeper learning curve than another Republican candidate might have had, and these kinds of stumbles are the things those critics had in mind, myself included,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that people warned about. The challenge will be for the administration to refine their processes, learn from it and improve it.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the conversation between Trump and Turnbull “very cordial,” and in appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Trump soothed, “when you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it.” The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But Gabriel Schoenfeld, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who has written extensively about national security, said the report regarding the call with Australia further calls into question America’s ability to lead in the world under President Trump.
“First, what are the reasons for such bizarre behavior toward an ally, unheard of in the annals of American diplomacy?” he asked. “Second, will the U.S. be a reliable and stable power under President Trump? Third, did Trump think he could bully a foreign leader into dropping an agreement or was he simply peeved at having to talk to someone on an equal footing?
“However one answers, sooner rather than later, the Republican leadership in Congress needs to face the fact that America's president, for no apparent rational reason, is systematically damaging relations with our country's closest allies,” he continued.
The other report that surfaced Wednesday indicated that Trump had also had a testy conversation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, the latest incident in a relationship that has grown increasingly strained, with the Mexican leader canceling a visit to Washington as Trump continued to insist that Mexico would pay for a border wall, and that country continuing to deny that it will.
“I don’t want to be too critical, but at the same time, there are questions as to tone, and I think certainly as it relates to Mexico, this should be a priority,” said Antonio Garza, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico under George W. Bush who is now at the firm White & Case in Mexico City. “The relationship generally, whether it be on issues of trade, the coordination of counterterrorism, law enforcement, immigration, I think we ought to place high value on this relationship, recognizing allies matter, both near and abroad.”
Trump’s approach to the U.S. allies is incomprehensible to some veterans of Republican foreign policy.
“It is difficult to understand why we would be choosing arguments with countries that have been our close allies such as Australia and Mexico,” said Stephen Krasner, a former director of policy planning at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. “This is amateurish; these clashes and headlines could easily have been avoided. The United States needs to cultivate, not alienate, friendly countries.”
Certainly, Republicans and foreign policy experts noted, it’s very early in Trump’s administration. Feaver said that Obama, too, stumbled early on in his relationship with then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown—without permanently clouding the relationship.
Meantime, allies around the world still need the U.S., even if they have to put up with unpleasant phone calls from time to time.
“I suspect our allies will probably try to smooth it over and just accommodate the fact that the president is somewhat mercurial, because they have a long-term vested interest in the relationship with the U.S.,” said Tom Nichols, a former Republican Capitol Hill staffer and a professor at the Naval War College (who stressed he was speaking only for himself).
One veteran Republican operative with close ties to the GOP foreign policy apparatus put it more bluntly: “It’s absurd, but it is what it is. The good news is, we’re still America, everyone has to shut up and take it, but it’s absurd.”
And Trump’s foreign policy and national security apparatuses are still taking shape, noted Meredith Sumpter, the director of the Asia division at the Eurasia group. After all, Trump’s secretary of state selection, Rex Tillerson, was only confirmed on Wednesday.
“It’s still early days,” said Sumpter, who worked as a foreign policy professional in the last two presidential administrations. “He and his team are going to need some time to work out, not only how their own decision-making processes will operate, what it means for the policy-making process, but we’ll also need time to see to what extent they map out a comprehensive strategic framework for pursuing U.S. interests abroad. It’s not apparent that a strategic comprehensive framework has been formulated yet.”
That dynamic, for now, has already sowed confusion on another issue: Iran. Even before Trump’s secretary of state was sworn in, Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said Iran was being put “on notice” in response to a missile test and what the U.S. sees as other provocations in the Middle East. Some Republicans, like the hawkish Rubio, cheered the tough talk—but some experts noted that such language could have serious policy implications.
“I don’t know what putting Iran ‘on notice’ means—I hope we’re not doing red lines again,” said Nichols, referencing Obama’s “red line” regarding the use of force in Syria, which he then backed off of at the time. “…I don’t think it’s tremendously destabilizing, because the Iranians seem to have mostly ignored it, but it suggests a lot about interagency process, or lack of one.”
But for Mac Stipanovich, a veteran GOP operative and lobbyist based in Florida—and a frequent Trump critic—the biggest fear is that the Trump administration will force an American withdrawal from leading on the world stage. He pointed to the pointed conversations Trump has already had with allies, combined with his questioning of the value of NATO and his willingness to withdraw from trade agreements.
“I think you come up with an isolationism that is contrary to 70, 80 years of American foreign policy, bipartisan foreign policy, where our goal was to be the leader on the world stage, to be very engaged, to shape events rather than to react,” he said. “This is a radical departure from foreign policy that has been conducted by both parties since World War II. If things keep going the way they’re going, history will be written about the Trump administration: there will be reaction at home and retreat abroad.”