When does tough diplomatic talk go too far?

Email a Friend

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks by phone with the Saudi Arabia's King Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTSXXS6

Watch Video

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, barely two weeks into his term, President Trump has shaken up global affairs through a series of unilateral legal and diplomatic moves and some blunt talk and tweets.

Longstanding American allies and adversaries are asking what the new administration has in mind for its relations abroad. One of several clues, Iran’s test-launch of a medium-range ballistic missile, which triggered a direct White House response from Mr. Trump’s national security team yesterday.

And in a tweet this morning, the president wrote: “Iran has been formally put on notice for firing a ballistic missile.”

It’s not clear just what “on notice” means, but Mr. Trump was asked today whether military action is off the table.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nothing is off the table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, dismissed it all today, saying: “The American government will understand that threatening Iran is useless.”

By contrast, the administration has been relatively quiet about new fighting in Eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed rebels, though, late today, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, said the situation requires clear and wrong strong condemnation of Russian actions.

Mr. Trump’s conciliatory talk about Russia and his critiques of the European Union have leaders on the continent concerned.

Donald Tusk is president of the European Council.

DONALD TUSK, European Council President: We should today remind our American friends of their own motto: United we stand. Divided, we fall.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, a phone call Saturday with Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is raising eyebrows. The Washington Post reports the president told Turnbull, “This was the worst call by far” that he’s had with a foreign leader.

At issue, the Obama administration’s agreement to resettle refugees not allowed into Australia.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I love Australia as a country. But we had a problem where, for whatever reason, President Obama said that they were going to take probably well over 1,000 illegal immigrants who were in prisons.

And I said, why? Why are we doing this?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Prime Minister Turnbull played down the incident.

MALCOLM TURNBULL, Australian Prime Minister: The fact that we received the assurance that we did, the fact that it was confirmed, the very extensive engagement we have with the new administration underlines the closeness of the alliance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Separately, the Associated Press reports Mr. Trump told Mexico’s president he might send U.S. troops to deal with — quote — “bad hombres down there.”

The White House says the remark was lighthearted. Mexico denies it happened. The president’s take?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I fix things. We’re going to straighten it out. Believe me, when you hear about tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All this as the newly minted secretary of state tried to rally a work force, many of whom are already unhappy, following last weekend’s unveiling of extensive restrictions for travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. Secretary of State: We’re on the same team. We share the same mission.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Rex Tillerson began today by discussing that policy with Germany’s foreign minister.

We take a deeper look now at the president’s actions on the world stage with James Jeffrey. He served in several senior positions during his 35-year career as a diplomat, including U.S. ambassador to Turkey and to Iraq, and as President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser. He’s now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And Wendy Sherman, she was undersecretary of state for political affairs during the Obama administration. She also held senior State Department jobs during the Clinton administration.

And we welcome both of you back to the program.

JAMES JEFFREY, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: Thank you.

WENDY SHERMAN, Former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: Great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me just ask you first, Ambassador Jeffrey, what do you make overall of the approach we’re seeing from this president to foreign policy?

JAMES JEFFREY: Well, you have to separate the drama from some of the decisions.

As a longtime career guy, I like quiet diplomacy behind closed doors. This is not what we’re getting. At the end of the day, it’s what America does, how people perceive us, in the long run, our reliability and such, and, thirdly, the personal relationships presidents have with their counterparts.

The tweeting and some of the explosive conversations can hurt the third and can have an impact on the second, but, in the end, what we really should focus on is the policies. Some of them have been bad, the rollout of the immigration ban. Others, we have to wait and see. The reaction to the Iranians, that was basically within normal boundaries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, and I want to ask you both about the specifics.

But, overall, Wendy Sherman, how do you read what’s happening?

WENDY SHERMAN: You know, I think that Republican analyst Steve Schmidt had a great line, which is, Americans clearly voted for change, but they didn’t vote for chaos.

And I think people are feeling unnerved all around the world, because they see a chaotic set of directions coming out of the White House, and they’re not sure what it all means.

Although I understand what Ambassador Jeffrey is saying about Michael Flynn saying, Iran, you are on notice, might have been a response to the missile launch, indeed, nobody knew what that meant. And it really roiled people to try to figure out what was happening.

When the president has leaked out what happens in his phone calls, and he’s really taking on some of our dearest allies and partners around the world, people don’t know what to expect and whether they can rely on the United States anymore.

And they need to be able to rely on us, just as we need to be able to rely on them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Jim Jeffrey, what about this comment the president made, reportedly, in the phone conversation with the prime minister of Australia, when he said, “This is the worst phone call I have had with any world leader”?

Is this the kind of back-and-forth that lends itself, I guess, to, you know, good work happening between these two countries?

JAMES JEFFREY: Secretary Sherman and I know that presidents often have really bad phone conversations. What they usually don’t do is go out and talk about it.

That gets to my point about doing some damage on the periphery of our core policies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying what he said is really no different from what other presidents — the kind of thing other presidents would have said?

JAMES JEFFREY: No, presidents always — not always, but often have bad conversations with counterparts. They just don’t go out and embarrass their counterpart by talking about it.

They find other ways to work it out, which is what we’re trying to do right now. It’s this public airing of the dirty laundry that is a problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s not only that, Wendy Sherman. It’s the phone conversation, the hour-long phone conversation with the president of Mexico. We later learned the president said something to the effect of sending U.S. troops down there if you don’t take care of — quote — “the bad hombres.”

WENDY SHERMAN: If you read Donald Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal,” you know that he likes to create leverage, he likes to have psychological advantage, he likes to be on the offense. He believes in what he calls truthful hyperbole.

He thinks all press is good press. And I think he believes that he’s putting everybody on a psychological disadvantage, so that he can have some advantage in negotiations. NAFTA is high on his agenda.

But if he goes too far, I think the president of Mexico and the Mexicans will decide they would just as soon get out of NAFTA, and we don’t want that either. There may need to be some changes, but to re-imagine the entire world, as Ambassador Jeffrey said, we have had an international order.

It’s not perfect, but for 70 years, it has kept Europe whole and free and safe, and we need to keep it in place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Ambassador Jeffrey, what’s the difference between having a vigorous conversation and doing real damage?

I’m just looking again at what the president said this morning at the Prayer Breakfast. He said, don’t worry about the reports of the tough phone calls. He said, we have to be tough. It’s time that we’re going to be a little tough.

JAMES JEFFREY: Well, again, it does some damage.

But, as Wendy Sherman said, behind the fireworks, there are real issues that the president and particularly Steve Bannon, his political adviser, are pushing. It’s a vision, a rather dark vision, of a 19th century world where great powers do transactional issues.

And it’s very different than what we have been doing for the last 75 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what are you referring to specifically? What concerns you?

JAMES JEFFREY: I’m concerned about a relationship with Russia that ignores Russia’s aggressiveness in its near abroad.

I’m concerned about the willingness to question alliances and the value of allies, or require them to pay more, or they don’t get to play.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reference to NATO?

JAMES JEFFREY: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we just — we were just looking at a newswire report a moment ago, Wendy Sherman, where we are told that the vice president, Mike Pence, had a meeting with the German foreign minister today in which he — they discussed NATO.

This just happened within the hour. And among other things, they talked about the importance of NATO members paying up.

This is something Donald Trump talked about during the campaign.

WENDY SHERMAN: Absolutely. And so did President Obama talk about it and push countries to pay what they should as their fair share in NATO.

And we should all push every member to do that. But the NATO alliance is not just a transactional relationship, once again. That alliance serves our interests. That alliance has been critical to keeping security in Europe, so that we do not face another world war.

So, it is in our national security interests. And, yes, we pay a lot for it, but, when we had Afghanistan, NATO troops were by our side from almost all of the NATO members. And they put their life and treasure on the line for us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I come back to the question, Ambassador Jeffrey, at what point — how far can a president go with tough talk that’s helpful for the United States, that builds the reputation and stands the United States in good stead, and when does it go too far? Where to draw the line?

JAMES JEFFREY: Again, it’s a judgmental question. Each of us have a different reaction to tough talk, and our friends abroad have a different reaction, too.

At the end of the day, it is what he does or doesn’t do as crises come up and as he tries to advance his agenda. He can hurt it on the margins by this kind of talk. That’s my view. He could help it with a different approach to our allies and friends and our foes.

But, at the end of the day, it’s going to be, what sort of decisions does he take in response to the really great threats we have in the world today?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is there a risk — or how much of a risk, I should say, Wendy Sherman, is there to damaging personal relationships? Or is that not really an issue here?

WENDY SHERMAN: No, I think that is an issue. I think that’s already happened.

One should talk tough to friends in private, but, as the first phone call with the president of the United States, you’re trying to build your personal relationship. You’re trying to build on the alliance and the partnerships that we have. Usually, that tough talk doesn’t happen with your friends and partners.

And people wonder why the tough talk is happening with Mexico and happening with Germany and happening with our pals, but it’s not happening with Russia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that a concern for you?

JAMES JEFFREY: Absolutely.

Russia is the biggest threat right now to the international order, not the Islamic State, not Iran, although I have problems with Iran, and not China. It’s Russia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re hearing a lot more about the Islamic State and al-Qaida, in fact, this week.

All right, well, a subject very much to be continued.

Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, Wendy Sherman, we thank you.

WENDY SHERMAN: Thank you.

JAMES JEFFREY: Thank you.

The post When does tough diplomatic talk go too far? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.