Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.
Nic Robertson: Diplomats in Munich express unease about what Trump will do next
Trump has little time left to create more confusion on world stage
While President Donald Trump was busy ignoring the reality of his low approval ratings by bathing in the embrace of an adoring crowd last weekend, his foreign policy challenges were stacking up.
He was enjoying the warm applause and sunny skies of Florida as Vice President Mike Pence was enduring darker, damper, colder skies and a somewhat chillier reception at a diplomatic gathering in Munich, Germany.
Pence also was on a mission to wow the crowds, but the vice president’s task was far harder. Among his audience were not die-hard fans, but prime ministers, presidents and foreign and defense ministers from around the globe, all thinking about the here and now – not a US election in four years.
Staffan de Mistura, the lead UN negotiator at the Syria talks this week, nailed the common thinking in Munich when he commented, “Where is the US in all this? Well, I can’t tell you because I don’t know.”
Away from the crowds of diplomats, de Mistura confided to me that he would miss John Kerry, the Obama administration’s secretary of state and top diplomat. He could “rely on Kerry for help on anything.”
Brett McGurk, Obama’s point man on Syria, was at the Munich conference, too. He was wondering out loud what the US role should be on Syria: “The United States is looking for a role to help reinforce the Syrian ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia,” he told the gathered diplomats.
That McGurk is still around is a symptom of Trump’s flat-footed approach to foreign policy. Another holdover from the Obama administration is State Department spokesman Mark Toner. He is still in office more than a month after Kerry left. He still answers questions from reporters but hasn’t held a press conference in a month.
For the diplomats at Munich whose first port of call to the United States is often through the State Department, the inertia is surprising – particularly given the rapid rate of executive orders.
De Mistura explained to me what he would later say publicly: that Kerry’s replacement, Rex Tillerson, is “a nice man,” but he doesn’t have any direction from Trump on Syria.
It wasn’t the only global issue that came to a boil in Munich. Pence’s pronouncements on behalf of Trump pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin into his own chain reaction of decisions on Ukraine.
Pence said: “Today, on behalf of President Trump, I bring you this assurance, the United States strongly supports NATO.” The same message – support for NATO – was delivered by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Tillerson.
Yet every diplomat I talked to at the Munich conference – from North Africa to Australia, the Middle East to Europe and even America – told me that he or she is still uncertain as to what Trump will do next. Will he stick to this track or reverse course again?
By the time they were leaving Munich, diplomats had had a chance to weigh what they’d heard from Pence at the conference in the elegant Hotel Bayerischer Hof to what they’d heard from Trump during his Florida rally and an earlier rambling press conference.
From my conversations, it was clear any illusion of clarity that Pence had brought was lost in the chaos of Trump’s own making. The weekend had only added to concerns of the past month, where many believe Trump has been too erratic to give them confidence.
Senior officials in the administration were so busy making amends for Trump’s past comments about NATO being “obsolete” that their appearances at the conference barely amounted to fleshing out one tiny corner of what normally counts as US foreign policy.
Pence, like Mattis, made clear Trump’s desire that NATO members must significantly accelerate plans to pay their way in the 28-member alliance. But this point has been beaten home at the expense of so much political capital. Indeed, Trump’s handling of the NATO issue may have helped tip Russia into a far more combative posture.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, the reassuring Adel al-Jubeir, told me that the world must be patient and give Trump a few months. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson echoed his Saudi counterpart, telling me he thinks Trump will muddle through the chaos of his early days in office.
In the long game they may be right. In the short term, Putin is in no mood to wait, and that became clear in the time that we were in Munich.
Last week, a watershed was reached, and Putin’s patience with Trump fell a foul of pragmatic Washington politics. Embracing the bear, for now, seems out of the question.
Ousted national security adviser Mike Flynn’s apparently unauthorized flirtation with Moscow proved too toxic for all but the most blinkered of Republicans.
So while the Munich conference was still underway, Putin pulled the pin on his own piece of explosive foreign policy.
The Russian President signed an executive order and authorized the recognition of documents in the pro-Russian breakaway region of Luhansk and Donetsk – in effect taking a step closer to recognizing the pro-Russian separatist region.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a Ukrainian ceasefire, but it appeared to mask Putin’s real play: to take another step toward making Russia’s role inside Ukraine even more permanent. Formal recognition of breakaway documents is in many diplomats’ eyes another step in the direction of formal recognition of the breakaway government.
So Putin waiting for Trump to put his house in order with regard to Syria seems unlikely. Which right now is a bit of a problem.
By the time delegations arrived in Geneva, Switzerland, for the Syria peace talks, the 30-day deadline Trump gave his defense chief to come up with a new policy to tackle ISIS was already uncomfortably close.
The executive order explicitly authorizes the former general, whom Trump still likes to call “Mad Dog Mattis,” to find new partners for the United States in the fight against ISIS.
At the time the order was written, it seemed the perfect opener for tighter ties with Putin.
With Putin looking less like an ally, where that leaves Trump’s policy on Syria now is anyone’s guess: No doubt it’s one of several priorities for Flynn’s replacement, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
And with all these foreign policy issues stacking up, what does Trump do? Makes a statement about a terror attack in Sweden that didn’t actually happen, leading to a week of confusion and confirming American allies’ worst fears about the chaos blizzard currently blowing through the White House.
On Sunday, Trump tried to correct himself, tweeting he’d seen a story on Fox News about “immigrants and Sweden.”
The next day he was backtracking further: “(M)edia is trying to say that large scale immigration is working out just beautifully. Not!”
Irrespective of what he intended, Trump’s comments fuel the very fears that undermine his pro-NATO message – that he sent Pence all the way to Europe to deliver.
Sweden has not been without serious issues from imported Muslim crime gangs, but Trump’s characterization of the country’s problems triggered a global backlash, lampooning him for his crass and ill-informed comments – with suggestions of erecting an IKEA “border wall” to recalling ABBA to “stand guard.”
But the most cutting comment came from former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, whom I first met in Bosnia in the early ’90s when he was the European Union’s special envoy there.
He was then and is today a pragmatic and patient diplomat. He responded to Trump’s comments with a clarity revealing the American President’s falsehoods: “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking?”
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Bildt’s strong words in the days after the Munich Security Conference were a resounding echo of the sentiments and skepticism I heard about Trump while I was there.
With so much on his foreign policy plate, Trump has little time to create more confusion – such is the mood around the world.
The United States is entering an era where losing friends may become far easier than making new ones. In diplomacy that is not usually the chosen path.