GMF’s Brussels Forum: A Response to “President Trump: An Insider’s View”

A Young Transatlantic Network Member Perspective

By: Rukmani D. Bhatia, Young Transatlantic Network — Washington Chapter

Throughout GMF’s Brussels Forum, the potentially changing role of the U.S. in the transatlantic relationship repeatedly arose. The opacity about U.S. priorities, clear shifts in relationships with adversaries and allies and complete indifference towards human rights violations has created a lot of angst amongst human rights defenders and democracy advocates. The session with Bryan Lanza, who led President Trump’s communications’ team during the campaign, was designed to provide insight into how the new President sees the world. Unfortunately, Lanza did not alleviate concerns about the U.S. abandoning traditional diplomacy and turning a blind eye to violations of human rights and democratic values.

Lanza relayed that the way to get information to the President was either through his team of trusted advisers or through non-traditional media outlets, like Breitbart News. He regurgitated the talking points we’ve repeatedly heard about how President Trump is a businessman and will implement a foreign policy that puts America first. In truth, Lanza did not share anything new that anyone reading the headlines (or following the President on Twitter) couldn’t deduce themselves.

So what is the President’s plan for U.S. foreign policy and the future of human rights and democracy? We can surmise this information based on the actions of the White House and the State Department since January 20. In Trump’s inaugural address, he stressed that “it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” During his first address to Congress, the president set the goals of “harmony and stability” in international relations, based on “the right of all nations to chart their own path.”

There is little room in this worldview for American leadership in upholding democracy, human rights, and good governance abroad, and neither the president nor his appointees have acknowledged any such interest or obligation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson failed to launch the annual human rights report personally as his predecessors did. There was no live press event or even a proper press release. The State Department’s normally hyperactive press office has been largely absent from the policy arena, holding only 10 press briefings, an activity that used to occur daily under both Democratic and Republican leadership dating back to the Eisenhower administration.

The administration’s indifference towards human rights and democracy issues will likely only get worse, driven by both a lack of political will and a lack of capacity. While many senior positions there remain vacant, the president is relying on an inner circle of largely inexperienced advisers to steer his foreign policy, including recommending a 28.7 percent budget cut to diplomatic and foreign aid programming and a 10 percent increase in defense spending.

The administration’s actions indicate an unwillingness to use “smart power” — an integrated strategy that combines traditional diplomatic tools with military effort — and a striking dependence on the armed forces to address complex global challenges. The administration’s actions are indicative of the erosion of bureaucratic norms, a return to a militaristic foreign policy, and the steady dismantling of a vital part of the American foreign policy apparatus.

Silence from the Trump administration on human rights violations and the deterioration of democratic values speaks volumes to allies as well as adversaries. You don’t have to be an insider to recognize this phenomenon. The administration’s deliberate silence highlights more than just sudden disinterest in a topic that has long been a mainstay of Washington’s message to the international community. Where before there was relatively confident and consistent pressure — with democracy and human rights providing an important point of leverage in U.S. foreign affairs — today there is confusion, opacity, and an appearance of weakness. That is a dangerous statement for any government to make to the world.

For more on GMF’s Brussels Forum, check out BrusselsForum.org for all of the session videos, transcripts, blog posts, and more.

The ideas expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.