by Richard Gowan
May 22, 2017

from WorldPoliticsReview Website


Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU's Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University. His weekly WPR column, Diplomatic Fallout,

appears every Monday.

President Donald Trump

delivers a speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit,

at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center,

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017

(AP photo by Evan Vucci).



Has Donald Trump lost faith in realpolitik?


On the campaign trail, the U.S. president promised to adopt a hard-nosed approach to promoting America's interests. He ostentatiously spurned the stock talking points about his country's values and global mission that most presidential candidates tend to trot out.

Since taking office, Trump and his advisers have sometimes repeated the case for a cold-eyed approach to foreign affairs.


The president told one interviewer that the U.S. is not morally superior to Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has warned diplomats that an excessive emphasis on advancing American values,

"really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests."

Yet the administration has not been able to resist the appeal of highly moralistic rhetoric.


In Riyadh this weekend, Trump gave a speech on Islamist extremism suffused with religious language.


He framed the battle against groups like al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State as war between good and evil, and threatened terrorists with damnation.

"If you choose the path of terror your life will be empty, your life will be brief," the president intoned, "and YOUR SOUL WILL BE CONDEMNED."

The capital letters are in the official version of the speech...

It is not surprising that Trump uses moral language to denounce terrorism, although it is hard to believe that many al-Qaida operatives and Islamic State recruits take his pronouncements on the afterlife entirely seriously.


But the president's rhetoric has taken on a stern moral edge more generally.


He justified his missile strikes in response to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons in April by arguing that,

"no child of God should ever suffer such horror."

It is difficult to say whether Trump uses this type of phrase out of deep conviction, or simply because it is the sort of thing that he thinks sounds presidential.


Nonetheless, other members of the administration certainly seem to see advantage in framing America's response to foreign crises in starkly moralistic terms.

As I note in a new essay for the Columbia Journal of International Affairs, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has pointedly challenged Russia over its behavior in Syria and Ukraine in moral language very similar to that used by her predecessor, Samantha Power.


In contrast to Tillerson's reservations about promoting values, Haley has also underlined U.S. commitments to human rights.


This may partially be gamesmanship:

There is a long history of diplomats haranguing each other at the U.N. for purely dramatic effect. But the ambassador's uncompromising line has won her admirers in Washington.

It is easy to be cynical about all this moral talk.


The Trump administration is profoundly entangled in accusations of personal and political improprieties. It is not surprising that it should try to prove that it is virtuous by claiming the ethical high road in international affairs.


If you judge the president on some of his policies, such as plans to slash foreign aid to needy states, it is hard to take all his rhetoric seriously.


Trump has less room for

diplomatic maneuver and is more likely

to dress up dangerous foreign actions

in ethical and even religious terms.



Indeed, it is arguable that the president is exploiting moral language to cover up some morally questionable policies.


While he may frame the struggle with Islamist extremism in terms of good and evil, this is basically an excuse for ratcheting up military operations against al-Qaida and the Islamic State, while simultaneously boosting arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other allies in the Middle East.


This is liable to raise tensions between the Saudis and Iran, worsening violence and fueling extremists in Syria and Yemen. Strip away the stuff about souls, and U.S. policy in the region still rests on nasty realpolitik.

Similarly, the administration's firm rhetoric over Russia does not necessarily mean that Trump has renounced building closer ties with Moscow, as he promised while campaigning.


It is reported that, during his infamous meeting with Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at the White House earlier this month, the president suggested he has little personal interest in Ukraine but that,

"American critics cared about the issue."

Lavrov and other international veterans probably do not take Trump's recent moral rhetoric very seriously. Yet this rhetoric does matter.


When Trump came into office, few analysts believed he could have a positive impact on international affairs. But his unemotional and transactional attitude did seem to have a few potential advantages.


An ostentatiously amoral leader like Trump might just be able to cut deals with Russia over problems like Syria and Ukraine that more traditional U.S. politicians could not, for example.


And while Trump's "America First" rhetoric was always unpleasant, it at least implied that he was not going to pursue foreign adventures comparable to the George W. Bush administration's invasion of Iraq.

Yet now Trump is slipping into some rhetorical habits, such as equating U.S. military actions and religious imperatives, that have proved very dangerous for previous presidents.


And the more he and his advisers condemn Syria and Russia in moral terms, the harder it will be to engineer necessary compromises in future.

While the transactional Trump of the campaign trail was a worrying figure in many ways, the more moralistic Trump that is emerging in office is arguably even more disturbing.


He has less room for diplomatic maneuver and is more likely to dress up dangerous foreign actions in ethical and even religious terms.


An erratic leader with no morals is a dangerous thing. But an erratic leader who bets that he can dress up bad policies in moral terms may be even worse...