A senior diplomat joins a prominent academic for a professional debate about the foreign policy of a tempestuous, unpredictable president, in an attempt to determine: is there method in the madness?
Trump at a campaign rally, in 2016 | Photo: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Capitol Hill, the American public, and the international community have never before encountered such a tempestuous, unpredictable president as Donald J. Trump. His wild, seemingly impulsive style in running the White House since January 2017 inevitably spreads to his foreign policy as well. This includes his belligerent approach to the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Iranian nuclear deal, his unprecedented announcement of US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and his tense relations with world leaders, many representing countries that are long-standing US allies.
Trump’s controversial character and conduct brought about a partisan and shallow discourse over his foreign policy record. His supporters are almost unreservedly loyal, while his critics disparage him incessantly. On both sides, the debate is more about personality than substance.
Is there a deliberated strategy – perhaps even a novel approach to foreign relations – hiding underneath the president’s wild and seemingly undiplomatic behavior? We asked two experienced specialists to sit down and share their opinions on what has been termed “Trumplomacy”. On one side, Ron Prosor, former Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom and to the UN and Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, presently head of Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. On the other side, Eytan Gilboa, professor of political science and head of the Center for International Communication at the Bar Ilan University, an expert in American politics and public diplomacy. In ninety minutes of conversation they managed to reach some agreements, though many differences remained.
Q: After sixteen turbulent months at the White House, how would you summarize Trump’s presidency in a single sentence?
Gilboa: Probably the most “unpresidential” president in US history.
Prosor: In one sentence: there is more method in Trump’s conduct of foreign policy than people tend to think.
Q: Right from the very start, both of you alluded to the signature feature of Trump’s presidency: his unpresidential style of conduct. Many view Trump as a person who lacks self-control and lashes out at anyone standing in his way. What is the implication of this behavior in terms of policy?
Prosor: I would like to dismiss the common perception of an uninhibited, almost crazy, president. Instead, I argue that in any analysis of Trump, we must realize that he approaches problems primarily as a businessperson. Like a gambler, he first sets the bar high, and then compromises somewhere in the middle. If we look at his achievements thus far, one can make the claim that this approach actually works.
For instance, early in his presidency, Trump suddenly and without warning lashed out at the NATO alliance. He expressed his thoughts out loud: why should the U.S. sponsor a huge military organization which does little to nothing, while Europe – which NATO protects – pays next to nothing for it? Trump declared that NATO should simply be dismantled! His statements were followed by a major international uproar, and Trump was criticized left and right. But how did it all end? The Europeans started paying their fair share, NATO performance is improving, and the Alliance’s Secretary General is grateful. As I see it, Trump’s contribution to this change is significant.
Ambassador Prosor (left) and Professor Gilboa during their conversation | Photo: Raffi Shamir
Another example is the threat of a global trade war. Not long ago, Trump seemed poised to raise aluminum and steel import tariffs. This step, as experts have pointed out, would have caused much harm to his allies – Canada, Mexico, and Europe. A few days later, he quietly excluded the United States’ two neighbors from his decision after his advisors convinced him that their inclusion made little economic sense.
Although the European Union threatened to respond with similar tariffs, it is not truly capable of fighting back. European countries are dealing with major domestic issues of their own. German Chancellor Angela Merkel succeeded in forming a government only four months after the elections. UK Prime Minister Theresa May is having trouble at the polls and with the Russians. And Italy has just sworn in a populist, anti-establishment government that is further threatening the longevity of the EU. Who is to carry out this trade war then – the European Trade Commissioner, whose name nobody even remembers? Obviously not. That is why, as I said, Trump raises the bar first, then lowers it – but I believe he does so in a calculated way.
There are other examples that we can elaborate on later, such as Trump’s unconventional approach to the North Korea crisis and the Iran nuclear deal. The bottom line is that there is definitely a method behind the alleged madness here. True, Trump has a unique, unprecedented style of conducting foreign policy – but it is more effective than people give him credit for.
Gilboa: To me, what characterizes Trump’s presidency thus far is, primarily, chaos. I fail to identify any leading vision, method or strategy for dealing with his country’s current challenges. He is an unpredictable individual who can quickly change his opinion on any subject. This fickleness cannot be regarded as a sophisticated tool for planning and carrying out policy.
Moreover, due to Trump’s lack of experience, he appointed inexperienced and under-qualified people to senior positions, which ultimately led to an unprecedented rate of staff turnover in the White House. Replacing four spokespersons, two National Security Advisors, the White House Chief of Staff and the Secretaries of the Departments of State and Homeland Security – all within a period of fifteen months – is not a sign of sound judgement. From the entire original White House, Department of State and senior security staff, only Secretary of Defense James Mattis is left.
Prosor: I do not rule out the possibility that by the end of 2018 Trump will try to make good on his promise to reach the “ultimate deal” between the Israelis and the Palestinians
Gilboa: The problem is that Trump doesn’t speak in terms of “agreements,” but of “deals.” And while there is a certain resemblance between business and diplomatic negotiation, they are clearly two different things
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was appointed to that position although he had no previous experience in conducting foreign affairs, and after a short period of time Trump lost trust in him and practically neutralized the State Department’s activity. Trump’s haphazard method for appointing top officials led him to undercut the chief institution responsible for formulating the United States’ foreign and security policies.
On the other hand, I agree with you, Ron, that there is a pattern in his conduct. He is trying to approach issues de novo, employing unconventional ways to handle old problems. I also admit there are matters in which he has been successful. Nevertheless, statesmanship that is based on gut instincts and on constantly raising and lowering the bar comes with a price. If your positions are in constant flux, no one believes you anymore. I don’t know a single leader in history who has used this tactic.
Trump walks the line between force and diplomacy. The technical term for his style is coercive diplomacy – namely, you get what you want by issuing threats, without ever having to carry them out. It takes a lot of skill and experience to do this efficiently and effectively. During his presidency, Trump has employed military force three times – twice in Syria and once in Afghanistan – and in light of these examples, I would like to challenge your assumption that he acts in a calculated, systematic way.
Q: How so?
Gilboa: We’ll start with Syria. In 2012, former President Barack Obama set a red line on Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. But when the time came to implement it, in August 2013, he passed the decision on to a reluctant Congress that never intended to support such action in the first place. In other words, he side-stepped the challenge. There is no greater mistake than threatening the use of force without the resolution to do so. Obama’s biggest problem was that he was unwilling to use force against Syria or Iran.
Once Obama backed down in Syria, the path was clear for Russia to step in. The Kremlin offered the American president a deal – disarming Assad of his chemical weapons, in exchange for guaranteeing the survival of his regime. Assad did, in fact, remain in power, but enough evidence has been gathered since then proving that not all of his chemical arsenals have been disarmed. Obama’s reluctance to enter a military conflict led him to the problematic nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, because once the threat of force is removed, your opponents will get almost anything they want.
The early days of the Trump presidency appeared more promising to me. In April 2017, he responded to Assad’s chemical attack in Idlib by firing 59 cruise missiles at the regime airbase from which the attack had been launched, and a few days later he dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB) on ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. My first impression was that we are seeing a major milestone here: a new president who does not hesitate to use force.
As time went by, it turned out these strikes weren’t part of a new strategy. They were just examples of Trump shooting from the hip. His actions would proclaim, “Assad uses chemical weapons? I’ll punish him,” or “We have an opportunity to drop our big bomb? Let’s take it.” That’s all there is to it. The joint attack on Assad’s chemical facilities this past April was also nothing more than a “slap on the wrist,” so to speak.
Furthermore, I believe some of the achievements you’ve mentioned should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, before Trump imposed tariffs on aluminum and steel imports, there was the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement) scandal. Trump canceled the TPP, which had been signed during the Obama era, in his first few days in office. The remaining eleven signatories took the blow. Recently, though, they signed a new agreement without the US, which will pay a price for her withdrawal. There are now reports that Trump instructed his staff to find ways to rejoin the agreement. As I said, acting on whims, instead of reason and sensibility, comes with a price.
Prosor: Certainly. But Trump’s business-oriented approach to foreign policy is precisely the novelty he introduced to the arena of international diplomacy, and in some cases, it seems to work. Take the United Nations and its agencies, for example. When Trump realized that the Palestinians were refusing negotiations with Israel and were acting against the US in the UN General Assembly, he cut his government’s funding for UNRWA (UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees). The same happened with UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon), which was harshly criticized by Trump’s administration for its ineffectiveness in curbing Hezbollah activity in Southern Lebanon. This occurred in August 2017, just prior to discussions in the UN on renewing its mandate, which was indeed consequently upgraded due to the criticism. There are many other examples.
Gilboa: As I see it, the problem with Trump’s business approach is that he doesn’t speak in terms of “agreements.” He speaks of “deals.” He has promised to “cut a deal” with Putin or to make the “Deal of the Century” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. True, there is a certain resemblance between business negotiation and diplomatic negotiation, but they are clearly two different things.
President Trump announces his administration's withdrawal from the JCPOA, on May 8th
Photo: The White House/Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead (public domain)
Q: Speaking of agreements, two of them have been central to the foreign policy efforts of Trump’s administration since its beginning: The nuclear deal that was signed with Iran in 2015 and the one that may be signed with North Korea. What do you think about the way Trump is dealing with these two hostile countries?
Gilboa: With Iran, Trump laid down a policy and followed through with it. Even during the elections, he kept stating that the deal was bad and had to be nixed. He refrained from doing so due to pressure from Mattis, Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.M. McMaster. Trump replaced the latter two with Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, respectively, who supported leaving the agreement – and in May 2018 he did just that.
The Iran nuclear deal, or formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has four major drawbacks – two of which concern the agreement itself, while two matters have been left out of the deal altogether. The first problem is its sunset clause, which sets the deal’s point of termination ten years after it was signed. Trump wanted to discuss provisions that would prevent the nuclearization of Iran after that term.
This problem was the result of some misguided assumptions made by the Obama administration when it negotiated with Tehran. Those who drafted the JCPOA assumed it would moderate Iran’s foreign and domestic policy, and that this would possibly lead to a more liberal government in ten years’ time, thus rendering the nuclear issue irrelevant. Both these assumptions were mistaken, and that is why Trump thought the deal had to be abandoned and renegotiated. The second drawback was the lack of oversight in military installations. There is no telling what goes on there. The two problems left out of the deal were the long-distance ballistic missile program, which have no logical purpose other than to be fitted with nuclear warheads, and Iran’s aggressive policy throughout the Middle East.
Gilboa: With Iran, Trump laid down a policy and followed through with it. He repeatedly said the JCPOA was a bad deal, and withdrew from it despite heavy pressure from Europe
Prosor: Unlike Obama, who offered the Iranians a favorable agreement when the sanctions against them were just starting to hurt, Trump seizes every opportunity to exercise his leverage
Europe admitted the agreement had some flaws, but claimed it was the best pact for preventing the nuclearization of Iran. The leaders of France and Germany visited the White House but failed to dissuade Trump from leaving the deal. Not only did he choose to do so, but he also announced he would restore the sanctions imposed on Iran prior to 2015.
Trump's logic is straightforward: Only harsh sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and forced it to sign a deal with world powers. Therefore, only through harsh sanctions will Iran agree to a new deal that would fill in the gaps left by JCPOA. Only time will tell whether Trump’s dramatic move was the right step to take and whether it was effective or not.
In North Korea, an interesting diplomatic situation has developed, which may end up in a historical breakthrough or in a total fiasco. After months of mutual verbal battering and threats, ]North Korea’s Leader[ Kim Jong-un launched a charm offensive to the world’s surprise. He sent his sister as the head of the North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, met with the South Korean president, announced that he was ready to discuss his nuclear program with the West, and secured a meeting with the president of the United States. He then met the South Korean president in the Korean demilitarized zone, making a joint announcement on ending the state of war between the two sister states and clearing the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons. Later, he announced he would shut down his nuclear test site, and invite inspectors from the US and South Korea to verify that this was done.
However, North Korea has a long history of breaking promises, agreements and commitments. Trump insists on a full dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, and it is unlikely Kim will agree to that. Trump immediately accepted Kim’s invitation for a joint, something a world leader must never do. Too much is at stake.
Summit meetings can resolve problems in promoting solutions to international conflicts only if they are meticulously prepared, and if their outcomes are agreed upon in advance in the form of declarations and agreements. This is how it was done when Richard Nixon met Zhou Enlai in 1972, overturning US-China relations, when Anwar al-Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977, and when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had their summits in the 1980s.
Trump said in April that if the summit with Kim would not prove fruitful, he would just leave, which may imply it was poorly prepared. From a strategic standpoint, a deal with Kim can be based only on the following equation: dismantling of nuclear weapons in exchange for an American promise to avoid overthrowing the regime. We have a precedent for such a deal: the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was solved when the USSR promised to evacuate the nuclear missiles it had placed there, in exchange for an American pledge to stop its attempts to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro, Russia’s ally. The question is whether this can be realized in North Korea.
Prosor: In both of these cases, Iran and North Korea, Trump’s gambler’s approach does, in fact, seem to have “shaken up” the players involved, and to have advanced some issues that reached a deadlock a long time ago – either because no more “conventional” options were left, or simply because they were avoided.
The American president repeatedly stated that the nuclear deal with Iran was “the worst deal ever,” and during the past months he explicitly threatened to leave it if it wasn’t fixed to his satisfaction. As a result, the Europeans scrambled in recent months to update and improve upon clauses the Trump administration found inadequate, including a reference to the Iranian ballistic missile program, in order to prevent the US from withdrawing. Without Trump's threats, Europe would never have sought these modifications on its own.
The reason for Trump’s decision on the 8th of May to withdraw from the deal and restore sanctions on Iran was that he didn’t get what he wanted. However, I emphasize again: this decision is Businessman Trump’s decision as much as itis President Trump’s decision. That is because it transfers the pressure to the economic or business sphere. Trump, in fact, is driving a wedge between Europe’s governments and the European business world, which must now choose between the United States and Iran. He believes European companies will make whatever choice is right for their share-holders, and when they choose the US, the European decision to stay in the Iran nuclear deal will be effectively nullified.
Once again, Trump applies the principle of “He who has the money has the say”. Those who have the money are business people in Europe, Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf states, whose support of the US will only increase the pressure on Europe. Unlike Obama, who was not hardline by nature and offered the Iranians a favorable agreement when the sanctions against them were just starting to hurt, Trump seizes every opportunity to exercise his leverage.
He is doing a similar thing in North Korea. Dealing with North Korea’s nuclearization has been a colossal diplomatic failure for three consecutive American administrations beginning with Clinton. Nothing stopped North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
So instead of resorting once again to traditional diplomacy, Trump raises the bar again: He harasses Kim, insults and belittles him, keeping the whole world riveted. But then, his actions stir China from its inaction, and for the first time in years they pressure Pyongyang to return to the negotiation table. There are several examples that Trump’s unorthodox diplomacy is successful: including, most recently, the rescheduling of Trump-Kim summit, which followed its abrupt cancellation. You can add to this list the North Korean leader's statements that he is willing to freeze nuclear experiments prior to the summit with Trump; Kim’s well-publicized reconciliation with the president of South Korea in late April; and Kim’s release of three American citizens who had been held prisoners in the communist country as a good will gesture to Trump, which came only a day after Trump announced his withdrawal from the JCPOA.
Q: When Trump came into office, he stated he had no intention of managing the world any more, but was going to serve, first and foremost, the interests of his country: “America First.” But as we have already seen, he did get involved in quite a few regions around the globe, from the Korean peninsula to South America. How consistent, would you say, is Trump’s foreign policy with his “America First” vision?
Prosor: Trump is generally presented as an isolationist, in contrast to Obama, who was depicted as a believer in international cooperation and in working through international institutions. I posit that both these presidents are isolationists, but each in his own fashion.
Obama worked multilaterally, relying on international institutions such as the UN and NATO. His style could be summarized as “I’ve had enough of being the world’s policeman and doing everything on my own.” This approach was clearly demonstrated in NATO’s campaign against Libya, where the United States “led from behind.” It was an ideology-driven isolationist approach.
Trump’s attitude is isolationist too, but as opposed to Obama, he views foreign relations mainly through the economic prism. As I explained before, Trump utilizes economic rationale to explain the need for engaging with the world, but his approach is still faithful to the “America First” principle. While Obama believed in a multilateral approach, Trump endorses bilateral isolationism, according to which the US deals with another country only if it is in the United States’ interest to do so.
One can find good examples for this approach in our own region. For example, Trump’s business-like attitude towards the nuclear deal with Iran. The American President is not only overturning the policy of his predecessor, whom he deeply despises, but is also acutely aware of the economic angle of the JCPOA. Those who benefit mostly from the agreement are European countries, who penetrated the Iranian market a long time ago and have a comparative advantage over the United States. As he was denouncing the Iran deal and threatening to leave it, Trump advanced business deals with Saudi Arabia as an economic alternative, attempting to sell civilian nuclear power plants to the Kingdom. He did this because, as he saw it, if he didn’t – Europe would.
However, he had one condition: if the Saudis want nuclear energy, they must pay in other areas. Sure enough, they signed arms deals for billions of dollars with Trump. While doing so, Trump allowed the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to impose an economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar. This deeply troubled the Pentagon, whose people gently reminded Trump that the United States' most important air base in the Persian Gulf is located in Qatar. How did the President respond? “No problem,” he said, “so now Qatar has to pay.” And they paid! It’s interesting to see where they invested their money: small businesses in US States, and incidentally – in Trump loyalists’ districts.
In short, Trump’s “America First” vision stems primarily from an economic viewpoint with almost no ideology involved. Nevertheless, it introduces a fresh approach to problems that have been deadlocked for many years.
Gilboa: We’ve been focusing on “America First,” but there’s another important part of Trump’s promise to his voters – that is to “Make America Great Again.” What he meant was to make America a superpower again. To him, both foreign policy and national security depend on whatever is good for the American economy. “Great Again” is the key to “America First.” As I see it, there is no contradiction between the two.
Trump injects new meaning into the old American concept of “American Exceptionalism.” President Obama tried to maintain the traditional way of thinking, which depicts the United States as a beacon of values and morality. For Trump, however, the US is an economical hegemony, not one of values, therefore his foreign policy is determined first and foremost by its estimated benefit to the American market. If that is the case, why should he let any other country take advantage of the United States? This explains Trump’s aggressive attitude to the funding of NATO, to the emerging trade war with China, and to several other matters.
Gilboa: Trump certainly keeps his political base in mind. Officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, for instance, was done first and foremost for domestic audiences.
Prosor: One can certainly claim that Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the US Embassy to the city to, in part, cater to his Evangelical base. Yet it also reflects his desire to disrupt long-held paradigms: “So what if that’s the way things were done until now? Who cares?
Q: Are you suggesting, then, that Trump’s foreign policy is driven mostly by domestic American considerations?
Gilboa: I think a great part of Trump’s foreign policy depends on his grasp of American domestic politics. He employs American diplomacy for economic and domestic gains. Moreover, we mustn’t forget his political base, which he certainly keeps in mind. Officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, for instance, was done first and foremost for domestic audiences.
Trump belongs to a long list of presidents in the past few decades who have assumed office without previous experience in foreign affairs. This includes Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. These were all leaders who intended to deal with domestic matters, and were interested in leaving foreign affairs to others’ care, or using them for domestic needs.
Prosor: You could also argue they were “domestic” presidents who were forced into global politics by external forces. The September 11 attacks compelled George W. Bush to look externally, for instance.
Gilboa: That’s correct. Trump is certainly a “domestic” president, but no one can tend only to domestic affairs. A president of this sort needs experienced people to run his foreign policy. Rex Tillerson wasn’t well qualified for his position. His successor, former CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and the dismissal of National Security Advisor McMaster to make room for John Bolton, create uniformity of opinion, which is not a good thing. It does not allow discussion or knowledgeable assessment of alternatives.
Prosor: One can certainly claim that Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the US Embassy to the city to, in part, cater to his Evangelical base. Yet it also reflects his desire to disrupt long-held paradigms: “So what if that’s the way things were done until now? Who cares?” Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy to the city exhibit this kind of paradigm shift. It sends a clear message to the Palestinians that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and establishes it as fact. It also leaves the door open for demanding difficult concessions from Israel in future negotiations for a permanent solution.
But then again, this step may also be understood as keeping the promises he made on his campaign. After all, as a candidate Trump announced he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, and yet we are all surprised to see that he followed through so quickly. Perhaps what is most remarkable is our very own astonishment that a politician acts as he or she said they would. I do not rule out the possibility that by the end of 2018 Trump will try to make good on his promise to reach the “ultimate deal” between the Israelis and the Palestinians, presenting a regional peace plan supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
Trump visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem during his visit to Israel in May 2017 Photo: Koby Gideon, GPO
Q: Let’s focus on the Middle East, then, and on the administration’s relations with Israel. Do you think Trump’s foreign policy serves Israel in the international arena, or is it bad for the country? And does its support of Israel affect the United States’ foreign relations and its international status?
Gilboa: Does Israel benefit from Trump’s policy? That’s hardly a challenge, given the previous administration. Obama regarded Israel not as a close ally, but as a burden. At the beginning of his first term, he made two visits to the Middle East, to Turkey and to Egypt, and left Israel out. When he did come to Israel in 2013, at the beginning of his second term, he gave his speech in the International Convention Center (Binyenei Ha’Uma) instead of the Knesset, where he urged young Israelis to stand up to their government.
Trump, on the other hand, sees Israel as an important ally of the United States. Then again, his position on Israel is coherent with his aforementioned fondness for paradigm shifts. For more than 20 years, US presidents have repeatedly waived the application of the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which stated that the US Embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump arrives in office and says: “Well, actually, why not? Clinton, Bush, and Obama didn’t do it – so I will.” His approach to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is also different. During the two previous administrations, the Palestinians refused to come to the negotiating table. While Obama only held Israel responsible for this failure, Trump lays the blame mostly on the Palestinians.
As I see it, the problem with Trump’s statement on the recognition of Jerusalem and with moving the embassy is that it’s all done in isolation, with no planning or continuity. If you want to reach the “deal of the century,” Jerusalem will always have to be a central part of it. There are still other contradictions in his statements. First, he said he was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but the issue of borders would have to be negotiated. Then, at the World Economic Forum, he stated he “took Jerusalem off the negotiation table.” He is inconsistent, and that is a problem.
Prosor: This is by far the most pro-Israeli American administration ever, and I believe the Israeli government must seize upon this rare political moment to upgrade our strategic relations with the United States
Gilboa: Such a pro-Israeli administration is indeed without precedent. However, during the past few years bipartisan support for Israel in Congress has unfortunately eroded, and public support for it is declining
Prosor: The Trump administration sees eye to eye with the Israeli government on four strategic issues: Iran, the ways of dealing with terrorism and with Islamic fundamentalism, Israel as a strategic asset of the United States in the region, and the Palestinian issue.
Let’s take Jerusalem, for example – obviously, a controversial topic in our conversation today. Jerusalem isn’t only the Palestinians’ concern, of course. The Arab monarchies – Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco – regard themselves as the custodians of the holy sites in Jerusalem. In moving the American Embassy to the city and recognizing it as the capital of Israel, Trump did something that for years we have been warned would set the Middle East ablaze. But he coordinated this move with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, and then what remained of the Palestinian threat of “three days of rage”? Nothing. To the Saudis, Jordanians and Moroccans, Mahmoud Abbas – a secular leader – cannot make decisions about Jerusalem for the entire Muslim world. Neither could Yasser Arafat before him. In fact, Trump managed to isolate the Palestinians on this crucial issue, which could be part of a solution to their conflict with Israel.
Gilboa: That’s absolutely true. We know more or less the nature of Trump’s future peace plan, and this should be stressed. He definitely turned the tables with his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There are three possible formats for peace talks. The first is direct talks, which are not a realistic option as things stand now. The second is the internationalization of the process, which means multi-national talks. This is the option the Palestinians prefer. The third format is the regional approach Trump is pursuing. This approach is grounded in the assumption that the Palestinians and the Israelis cannot make progress in drafting an agreement on their own, and need other players to help advance deliberations. Let us and our Arab allies share the work, then. “I’ll deal with Israel,” says Trump, “and Saudi-Arabia, Egypt and Jordan will deal with the Palestinians.”
And an interesting thing happened when the Palestinians refused: The Americans, Saudis and Egyptians, and to a lesser extent the Jordanians, essentially told them: “We have more important issues on our hands, like Iran, so you’ll have to back down on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and go along with the American plan.” This is the regional plan, which is a valuable approach, yet not everyone understands it.
Prosor: This is interesting, and I’d also suggest examining the composition of the staff working around and for Trump. This is an important issue that doesn’t receive enough attention in the ongoing analyses of the Trump administration.
Take Vice President Mike Pence, who plays a central role of in shaping US relations with Israel and with the Middle East. Unlike Trump, Pence, who represents the Evangelical Christians supporting Israel, enjoys strong support in the American Congress. He holds a coherent, ideologically-driven position on the right of the Jewish people to a nation-state within safe borders, with Jerusalem as its Capital. His power within the administration lies in his character, which represents a stark contrast to that of Trump. Pence is loyal, quiet, and does the intricate political work in Congress. Finally, but no less importantly, Pence is the only person in the administration who cannot be dismissed by the president according to the United States Constitution, because he is chosen by the American people.
Vice President Mike Pence at the AIPAC conference, January 2018. Democrats are distancing themselves from Israel | Photo: The White House/Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen (public domain)
Let us also consider the current American ambassador here in Israel, who is far from an ordinary ambassador. David Friedman is one of the few American ambassadors I know that can simply pick up the phone and call the president of the United States. This is because Friedman used to be Trump’s lawyer, and came to his aid whenever his businesses were facing bankruptcy. In other words, Friedman is used to telling Trump his opinion without hesitation. For this reason, unlike other ambassadors who can only reach the State Department or the National Security Advisor, Friedman has both direct access to the president and influence over him. Few people fully appreciate this crucial fact.
We have, therefore, a very dominant ambassador with direct lines to both the president and to the Israeli prime minister. We also have as special envoy Jason Greenblatt, a lawyer who works for Trump; the President’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner; and now two other people have been added to this pro-Israeli team. This includes: National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is well known for his rejection of the Iranian nuclear deal. This is by far the most pro-Israeli American administration ever. I believe the Israeli government must seize upon this rare political moment to upgrade our strategic relations with the United States that presently defines us as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA). This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Gilboa: There is no doubt that such a pro-Israeli administration is without precedent. Nevertheless, despite this outstanding coordination between Jerusalem and Washington, you can’t ignore our major failure on one front that is crucial to our national security – Syria. Here, Ron, while you identified Trump’s raising and lowering the bar, I return to the contradictions in the president’s policy.
The contradiction lies in his policy towards Iran. On the one hand, Trump repeatedly declares that he sees Iran as an enemy – a statement Obama refrained from making – and has withdrawn from the JCPOA. On the other hand, he allows Tehran to act freely and with impunity in Syria. In this respect, Trump’s policy is effectively no different than Obama’s, believing that after destroying the Islamic State (ISIS), America can just pack up and go home. This is a recurring, well-known feature of US foreign policy, and is a repeat of both World Wars.
Despite the two air and missile strikes in Syria, the current administration isn’t really interested in this country, and their agreement with Russia, in coordination with Iran, about the future of Assad is very bad for Israel. Since the immediate threat to Israel from Iran is in Syria and Lebanon rather than its nuclear program, we have failed to maximize our strategic cooperation with Washington.
Prosor: Absolutely. Israel must do all it can to convince the new Trump cabinet to remain involved in Syria, because it is a highly important strategic matter. Abandoning this area of operations will cause twofold damage to American interests in the Middle East. It will weaken US allies in the region – including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Kurdish people – and send a dangerous and negative message that they can’t count on Washington for support. Additionally, such a step would weaken the United States’ international status in the eyes of its opponents in the area – Russia, Turkey, the Assad regime, and of course Iran.
Q: You have discussed Israel’s extraordinary relations with the current administration in some length, but for the past years, many in both countries have been deeply worried about the diminishing political support for Israel in Congress. What are the possible repercussions of this trend?
Prosor: In its relations with the United States, Israel has never relied only on the ties between the two governments. All along, with its friends and supporters in the country, it has maintained a deep relationship with both parties in Congress – what is known as bipartisanship. This way, even in times of tension between Jerusalem and Washington, the legislature remained strongly supportive of Israel. This has been a critical factor, for instance, in advancing pro-Israeli legislation and securing generous foreign aid.
Today we face a difficult problem. During the past few years, bipartisan support for Israel has eroded. This is especially true within the Democratic Party. Israel should embrace its numerous friends in the Democratic Party, so they remember us if, for instance, they should regain their majority in Congress in the upcoming midterm elections in November. True, there are trends in American politics over which we have no influence, such as political extremism within both parties and among their voters, but nevertheless, Israel should always strive to maintain bipartisanship, while thwarting the hostile attempts of anti-Israeli factors to undermine it.
Gilboa: I agree entirely. Still, I must add that besides the growing reluctance to assist Israel in Congress, there is also an ongoing deterioration in public support for Israel, especially among Democrats, young people – including young Jews – and Hispanics, who are a rising force in American politics due to their demographic growth.
A survey conducted in February 2018 by Gallop reveals some of the conflicting forces at work in the US which Israel must reconcile how to address. It shows that more than two thirds of the American public support Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, despite the turbulent Obama era. It also shows that the parties’ stances on the question – “Whom do you support in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” – have grown further apart. In 1988, five percent more Republicans than Democrats supported Israel. Twenty years later, that gap grew to 28 percent, and in 2018 it further increased to 38 percent. This widening gap means that bipartisanship regarding Israel is breaking down. Support among American Jews, most of whom are Democrats and liberals, and nearly seventy percent of whom voted for Hillary Clinton in the recent elections, is also declining.
I believe there are two main reasons for this trend. First – and here I’ll go against the flow – the Democratic Party has taken a sharp turn to the left. Take Senator Bernie Sanders, for example. Can you name a single professed Socialist in the history of the United States who has ever had such widespread support? Another example is his political twin, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has been mentioned as a candidate for presidency. In the previous presidential elections, the Democrats removed pro-Israeli clauses from their party platform, and the party is breaking away, to some extent, from Israel. The second reason is, of course, the clash between Obama and Netanyahu over Iran, the conflict with the Palestinians, etc.
My conclusion is that we must make a greater effort to bring the Democrats back on our side, and the way to achieve this is through the Jewish American community. In considering domestic Israeli issues, we must look beyond our local politics and take into account the reaction of American Jewry. The most recent and prominent example for this was, of course, when the Israeli government called off the Western Wall plan. Not only the position of the Haredi Jews should have been considered in this case, but the position of American Jews as well.
Prosor: Trump major innovation is “Tweetplomacy”, by which he sidesteps traditional media gatekeepers and speaks directly to his audience. He also has the amazing ability to brand his enemies
Gilboa: His trademark is brinksmanship. This political tactic is not, of course, an invention of his own, but his frequent use of it is a problem, considering his personality
Q: Let’s return to the man himself. Can you specify three significant innovations that Trump introduced to modern diplomacy since he entered office?
Prosor: First, and most importantly – “Tweetplomacy”. Trump sidesteps traditional media gatekeepers, such as CNN and The New York Times, and speaks directly to his audience. He also has the amazing and powerful ability to brand his enemies at home and abroad. This is a novel and highly effective diplomatic tool. He started with American politics: “Little Marco [Rubio]”, “Crooked Hillary [Clinton]”, “Lyin’ Ted [Cruz]”, “Low energy Jeb [Bush]” and so on.
After he was elected, he took it to the international level. There was “Little Rocket Man” – Kim Jong-un – a certain phrase we won’t repeat on African states, and many others. He also personally snubbed Britain’s prime minister, the German chancellor, the president of Mexico and the Australian prime minister. This is no doubt a practice unique to him and will surely be the subject of future studies.
Secondly, he’s not afraid of iconoclasm, as we already discussed here.
Finally, we cannot ignore the language of ultimatums and threats he uses to undermine the status quo. When he says, “I will cancel—," “I will withdraw from—," or “Change this or I’ll—" and so on, he is actually saying, “I know everything, and don’t need anybody’s help.” It is also a very public statement that “what you see is what you get.” There’s no place for private negotiations. Everything is out in the open, for better or for worse. Necessarily, this approach leaves little room for secret diplomacy.
Gilboa: I naturally agree with you on your first point, about “Tweetplomacy.” As we all know, Trump isn’t the first president to use social media. Obama also did it quite effectively. As the father of “fake news,” Trump has brought presidential use of social media to a whole new scope and level. The problem is that rude conduct and wild remarks on Twitter do not amount to a president’s strategy. He often shoots from the hip without thinking about what he is saying. This is not foreign policy.
My second point would be his transactional approach that we have discussed in length. He brings a businessman’s state of mind to the arena of international politics, for better or for worse.
Thirdly, I’d like to mention his tendency towards brinksmanship. This political tactic is not, of course, an invention of his own, but it has already become his trademark – and that’s a problem, considering his personality. As I have already mentioned, it takes a lot of experience to conduct such policy in a cautious, intelligent, and effective way. It may work when confronting dictators such as Putin, Kim and the Ayatollahs in Iran – it’s possible they see him as one of their own and are more afraid of him. Taken together, Trump’s unique and impulsive approach raises some significant diplomatic challenges, the outcome of which we do not yet know.
My main concern regarding the Trump presidency is that everything has yet to be proven. If, in fact, Trump manages to dismantle the North Korean nuclear program, he will be remembered as a diplomatic genius, on the same level as the legendary Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. If not, however, and if Kim Jong-un should receive international legitimacy and abolition of sanctions while maintaining his nuclear weapons, and continue exporting nuclear and missile technologies to countries like Iran, then it will be considered a diplomatic disaster. Trump is currently engaged in complex and delicate diplomacy that requires experience he simply doesn’t have.
Trump, President Xi Jinping of China, and their partners in Beijing, June 2017. Rivals that need one another
Photo: The White House/Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead (public domain)
Q: Our time is almost up. What, do you suppose, are going to be the three main issues Trump’s foreign policy will focus on in the near future?
Gilboa: First is the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons – in North Korea and in Iran. Second is trade wars. Third is the fight against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.
Prosor: I think the three main issues will be North Korea and Iran, which we have discussed in length, and the United States’ relations with Russia and China.
I believe 2018 will be remembered as a year in which Washington-Moscow relations will have taken a turn for the worse. The previous months have seen a significant escalation in several areas concerning Russia. This includes the war in Syria, the poisoning of the Russian spy in Britain, and the suspected Russian intervention in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Although Trump is going out of his way to avoid making public statements condemning Putin, pressure from Congress has forced him to take some dramatic steps against Russia this year. This includes expelling Russian diplomats, imposing economic sanctions on the president’s close circle, and shutting down a Russian consulate in the United States – to which the Kremlin has responded in kind. The growing friction between the countries increases the chances of a more direct confrontation between them in different regions around the world. One can say with confidence that the tension between the United States and Russia is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War.
Finally, I’d like to mention China, which is a very high priority issue for the Trump administration. After disposing of the two-term limit, President Xi Jinping is now free to advance his country’s ambitious geopolitical policy. For years, the Chinese have sworn to the world that they are in the midst of what they referred to as a “peaceful rise” – gaining power without posing a threat to other countries. Six months ago, its president took the gloves off and publicly stated that it is high time for his country to take center stage in world politics.
For the United States, this represents both military and commercial threats, which it cannot ignore. Militarily, China has increased its defense budget dramatically and is equipping itself with advanced weapon systems, closing the gap with the United States Army and with the armies of its allies in the region. It has also begun to flex its muscles in the South China Sea.
Commercially, the United States sees China as its main rival in the world market. The Trump administration publicly accuses China of basing some of its economic growth on intellectual property allegedly stolen from the United States, and has consequently imposed tariffs on imports from China to the US. Beijing responded by imposing its own taxes on 128 different American products. These dynamics will present Washington with plenty of challenges.
Gilboa: It deserves mentioning that although China is the United States’ biggest trade rival, Beijing also has a central role in resolving the nuclear crisis in North Korea. For that reason, Trump cannot fight as forcefully as he probably would like to do.
Prosor: China is no doubt the key to solving the crisis with North Korea. However, as I mentioned before, until now Trump has managed to maneuver the Chinese into dissuading Kim Jong-un from crossing what the US defines as another red line. The militant rhetoric of Trump and Kim in the past year is worrying Beijing, which fears a military, perhaps even nuclear conflict at its threshold in the Korean Peninsula. For this reason, it is not only in Trump’s interest to maintain an effective dialogue with Xi Jinping – Xi also shares a similar need.
Q: Finally, if you could ask President Trump one question, what would it be?
Gilboa: What do you think about the American presidency? Can you point out some positive and negative effects of your actions on the most important institution in the United States, and possibly the world at large?
Prosor: Mr. President, the whole world is eagerly waiting to see whether your words match your deeds. How far are you prepared to go in order to stop the Iranian nuclear program, including the use of military force?
(Editor's note: this article was published before Trump's decision to impose tariffs on Canada and Mexico.)