Diplomacy traditionally comes in two forms: consultations and negotiations. Consultations are exchanges of views between governments. Normally, the goal is to influence the thinking and behavior of the other or, more modestly, to reduce the chance of surprise or miscalculation that could be dangerous. Negotiations tend to be more specific and undertaken to reach an agreement in which the obligations of the parties are explicit.
Under the Trump administration, the United States appears uninterested in both. The administration has largely stood aloof from the showdown between China and Hong Kong. The president issues cryptic tweets expressing confidence that the two sides will work things out and states that they “don’t need advice.” Missing is any emphasis on the fact that China made commitments to Britain to respect Hong Kong’s special character at the time of the territory’s handover in 1997 and that we expect China to meet these commitments. Also largely missing are suggestions for how the standoff can be resolved in a peaceful manner that still supports the basic rights of the people of Hong Kong.
There is as well the growing crisis between India and Pakistan, triggered partly by the president’s offer to mediate their long-standing dispute over Kashmir, something no Indian government would accept. That the offer was made in the Oval Office, in the presence of Pakistan’s prime minister, made a bad situation worse. India’s reaction was to strip the Muslim-majority region of much of its autonomy.
Regular consultation might have headed off the change in Indian policy or, failing that, shaped Pakistan’s response. There is the danger that without U.S. diplomatic involvement these two nuclear-armed countries might again find themselves on a path of confrontation and escalation.
Then there is the growing rift between Japan and South Korea over historical issues stemming from Japan’s harsh occupation from 1910 to 1945. Left to their own devices, the two U.S. allies are caught up in a war of words and sanctions. U.S. consultations might help the two bridge their differences so that there can be essential coordination vis-a-vis North Korea and China.
I expect supporters of the president, reading this, will push back. What about North Korea? The Middle East? China and trade?
Well, what about them? None qualifies as diplomacy, which almost always requires a degree of give-and-take. Instead, what we see is a demand that the other side capitulate.
Hence the demand that North Korea fully denuclearize. But there is no chance Kim Jong Un will give up all of his nuclear weapons, as he believes they guarantee his and his country’s security. Kim saw what happened to Ukraine after it gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union and took note of the fates of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi. Diplomacy would entail some sort of interim agreement in which North Korea dismantled certain facilities and accepted constraints on its arsenal in return for a degree of sanctions relief. Something for something.
The approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so one-sided that it does not even count as diplomacy. This administration has cut aid to Palestinians, moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. There is no support for a Palestinian state or limits on Israeli settlements. The danger is that this seemingly pro-Israeli bias will prove to have been anything but should Israel cease to be both Jewish and democratic.
With Iran, there is a possible accord that, in exchange for some sanctions relief, would extend constraints on what Iran can do in the nuclear realm. But this cannot even be explored so long as the Trump administration appears intent on regime change in Tehran and sanctions its top diplomat.
There is a trade pact to be had with China, one that deals with market access and protection of intellectual property, but not one that requires China to change its economic model and stop subsidizing critical firms and sectors. Sometimes, less is more.
To be fair, negotiations with the Taliban do qualify as diplomacy. The problem here is that the administration appears more interested in a U.S. withdrawal than peace. Thus the one potential diplomatic success may well lead to strategic failure.
This, though, is the exception. Most often the administration eschews diplomacy and embraces sanctions and tariffs. But there are limits to what they can accomplish, and many hurt American consumers and businesses. And without diplomacy, U.S. interests in the world will suffer, pressures to use military force will increase, or both.