Are Trump's Foreign Policy Stumbles First-Year Growing Pains Or A Reason For Worry? : Parallels University of Virginia historians say tumult isn't unexpected in the first year of a new administration. But there are questions about whether the Trump administration is prepared to handle crises.
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Are Trump's Foreign Policy Stumbles First-Year Growing Pains Or A Reason For Worry?

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Are Trump's Foreign Policy Stumbles First-Year Growing Pains Or A Reason For Worry?

Are Trump's Foreign Policy Stumbles First-Year Growing Pains Or A Reason For Worry?

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has differed with President Trump on some significant international issues, including North Korea, Iran and Qatar. When he distanced himself from the president on the question of American values after the violence in Charlottesville, questions grew over whether Tillerson would soon be out of office. Trump is already on his second national security adviser, and he's made other changes in his senior staff. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that this sort of staffing turmoil can be dangerous.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At the University of Virginia campus, historians at the Miller Center have been studying the first year of recent administrations. The idea, says Mel Leffler, was to highlight the common mistakes, like the failure to appoint key advisers who work well together.

MEL LEFFLER: What we've seen is that the Trump administration has repeated many of these errors - in fact I would say magnified them in significant ways so that the country is in a perilous state.

KELEMEN: Perilous, he says, because most recent administrations have faced big foreign policy challenges in their first year. Think about Black Hawk Down in Somalia for the Clinton administration or 9/11 for George W. Bush. President Bush had key advisers with a lot of experience, but they didn't work well as a team. And a slow confirmation process meant that it took half a year to fill in mid-ranking officials who helped design and execute policies.

LEFFLER: In this case, in this administration, a lot of it has to do not so much with the slowness of Congress to act although that's part of it. But an even more significant part is the failure of the administration to make appointments. And this is particularly true in the Department of State.

KELEMEN: That is a self-inflicted wound, says another UVA historian, Will Hitchcock. Part of it is that the secretary of state is a former Exxon Mobil CEO who's taking a corporate approach, trimming the State Department bureaucracy.

WILL HITCHCOCK: One of the biggest puzzles for me is why we have persuaded ourselves that work in the private sector is an adequate preparation for government. I don't see any demonstration of that being true at all.

KELEMEN: Hitchcock has another worry, too - the distrust of career employees.

HITCHCOCK: The last time we had this degree of hatred towards professional diplomats who were worldly, cosmopolitan, knowledgeable about other places, who had traveled, who knew foreign languages was in the McCarthy period.

KELEMEN: President Trump has been surrounding himself with generals, including his chief of staff, his national security adviser and defense secretary. Historian Mel Leffler says normally he'd be worried.

LEFFLER: In the current circumstance, it's probably a good thing because we have a president who is ill-informed about foreign policy, who is inattentive to process and organization and who seems at least to be a bit deferential to military people and military leaders.

KELEMEN: The problem is many of the challenges facing the U.S. from Afghanistan to Iran, North Korea to Russia require a political strategy, says Philip Zelikow, who was a top State Department official in the Bush administration.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: If we can't tell what our political strategy is on all these different subjects, I can't give the secretary of state a good grade.

KELEMEN: Zelikow is now at the University of Virginia and was there when white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville. He wasn't surprised that President Trump was slow to condemn them, nor was he surprised when Secretary Tillerson told Fox News that on that, the president speaks for himself.

ZELIKOW: The challenge for the government now is how to try to make the government work despite and around the president.

KELEMEN: The question he has is whether the government will be prepared to handle an international crisis like the one brewing with North Korea. President Trump doesn't seem interested in diplomacy there. He tweeted today, talking is not the answer. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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