Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Something remarkable has just happened in the Trump administration. No, I’m not referring to the latest episodes of the “Trump Show,” with the wildly weaving plotline we all recognize. I’m talking about something important and, potentially, very positive. This week, we saw President Donald Trump discover diplomacy. That is, he found out that diplomacy can actually work; that it can yield positive results not just for the country but for him, personally.
Everything is unpredictable in this administration, but we may have reached a key inflection point. The President who disparaged diplomats, who slashed the State Department budget, who mocked his secretary of state, who threatened nuclear war and repeatedly broke the rules of diplomatic protocol, suddenly seemed to gain something closely resembling statesmanlike confidence.
This is not only about the Korean Peninsula, where it’s much too early to declare victory despite the historic meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea. We should view that with the skepticism that the lessons of history demand.
But it was striking to see the President tweet this week, with prematurely excited all-caps:”KOREAN WAR TO END!” – a refreshing shift from his menacing boast that his “Nuclear Button,” is much bigger than the North Korean leader’s.
This was also the week that Trump welcomed the President of France with grace and warmth; the week he welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel – whose hand he refused to shake last year – with a smile and a kiss on each cheek.
Sure, the week was also filled with the chaotic, incessant stream of news from a presidency unlike any other. Headline writers and television producers had to juggle top stories, bouncing from the meetings between Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron to the jaw-dropping accusations against Trump’s choice for Veterans Affairs secretary, from news that then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to Trump’s bonkers interview with Fox News and his revelations about Stormy Daniels and his threats to take control of the Justice Department, and then back to the prospects for peace in the Korean Peninsula.
Take a step back and consider what else has happened.
Until very recently, the Trump trademark in foreign policy was that diplomacy was for wimps and military force was the preferred macho threat. Before Macron arrived, Trump had not hosted a single official “state visit,” the first president in 100 years not to do so during his first year in office.
Trump’s contempt for diplomats was so brazen that some described it as a “war on the State Department.” When then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to negotiate over North Korea, Trump mocked him, saying he was wasting his time.
He proposed draconian cuts to America’s diplomacy budget, with Tillerson himself pushing radical cutbacks that triggered an exodus of experienced public servants and profound demoralization in the department. Early this year the administration proposed a nearly 30% cut in State Department funds. By the time he fired Tillerson, eight of the top 10 jobs in US diplomacy remained vacant, a dangerous state of affairs at a time of multiple existing and potential conflicts.
This week’s new graciousness and apparent willingness to talk about disagreements and seek common ground looks markedly different from the distinct gruffness and barely contained aggressiveness that characterized Trump during his first year.
Recall Trump’s NATO meeting in Brussels, when he shoved Montenegro’s Prime Minister aside to get to the front of the group, and his dismissiveness of US allies, including that troubling reluctance to acknowledge America’s until-then unquestioned, ironclad commitment to mutual defense among NATO allies. There was the name-calling from the dais of the United Nations General Assembly, and the casual suggestion of launching a military attack on Venezuela, which reportedly stunned his dinner guests, Latin American presidents who are reported to have quickly told him, no, no, we prefer diplomacy, and left his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, looking downright alarmed.
Trump is a mercurial man. It’s impossible to know if this week of diplomacy marks the beginning of a permanent change, but there are reasons to believe diplomacy will remain a larger part of Trump’s foreign policy arsenal.
For one, now that Mike Pompeo has become secretary of state, Trump has a man he trusts as the country’s top diplomat. At last, America’s interlocutors can begin to believe that the secretary of state speaks for the President. That alone will give US diplomacy a boost.
In addition, the high praise Trump is receiving in the wake of the two Koreas summit scratches Trump right where he itches. It has shown the President there is a personal payoff to achieving diplomatic success.
Of course, there are no guarantees. And Trump remains an unpredictable, aggressive, transactional player, one who likes to win rather than to compromise. And yet, in a world filled with conflicts and tension, the President’s newfound appreciation for diplomacy — and perhaps even the possibility of compromise – is a welcome dose of normality for the entire planet, even as the disconcerting “Trump Show” continues to astonish the world.