This week Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad gassed his civilians with a nerve agent, and, Donald Trump, in a total reversal of his policy toward Syria and its ally, Russia, bombed the airfield Assad used to do it. Some of the reactions in the Press have been pretty ludicrous, with Fareed Zakaria even calling Trump “Presidential” for bombing the airfield, and others have been serious. However, even though many pieces have noted that Trump’s unpredictability has now entered the international stage, most have not thoroughly explained why a swift reversal of policy is the most dangerous part of Trump’s airstrike. The issue is not whether Trump is a hawk or a dove on Syria, or whether or not he is friendly to the Russians; the issue is whether Trump has established a policy at all. If Donald Trump does not create and announce a policy for how the American government will interact with Syria, Russia, or any other country, that nation cannot rely on current diplomatic norms to prevent conflict. Trump broke the stability of international diplomacy by reversing his stance on Syria virtually overnight and failing to adopt a new one. If Trump does not develop and act on real, thoughtful policies in his international relations, it can and will have consequences for all of us.
Diplomatic norms depend on well researched policies and consistent public stances
Governments, laws, and international norms exist, at their most basic core, to resolve most conflicts before they arise and keep people from killing each other. Diplomacy is usually incredibly boring, but it exists for a reason. A policy about how one country wants to interact with another provides a roadmap for where conflict might arise. Some fights may be inevitable, but the diplomatic norm of producing policy and taking public stances on contentious issues – then sticking to those stances – ensures that conflict will not be unpredictable. It enables each party to try to think of solutions before bombs start flying.
A great example of using announced policy to avoid conflict is the US government’s One China policy, a delicate balancing act if ever there was one. In order to have diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, all countries must cut off relations with the island of Taiwan, because China considers Taiwan to be part of one Chinese nation. Taiwan, the Republic of China, is the remainder of China’s former democratic (though horribly corrupt) government, which was allied with the US and Britain during WII, and which the US has promised to defend. To navigate this conflict, the US only has diplomatic relations with Beijing, but it continues to sell arms to Taiwan, and have informal connections there, and it maintains its obligation to defend Taiwan should China attack it. The US was able to hammer out a workable compromise because both it and China had all their cards on the table. The US isn’t prevented from violating the One China policy, or attacking China, it’s just less likely to do so because all of the potential consequences have been mapped out. Nothing in life is certain, but developing, announcing, and sticking with well thought out diplomatic policies goes a long way toward limiting the uncertainty that often causes conflict.
Trump upended diplomatic norms on Syria with a rapid reversal
On its face, Trump’s airstrike seems like the sort of proportional military response Syria and the Russians should have expected. So why didn’t they? The answer is, Trump’s Secretary of State and UN Ambassador publicly announced a policy that the US is not interested in intervening in the Syrian civil war. On March 30, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that Assad’s status as President “will be decided by the Syrian people.” The same day, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” I think it would be excessive to suggest that they were saying they do not care about the Syrian people, but they were certainly saying that they are not interested in intervening to oust Assad.
On April 4, video footage of the gas attack emerged and was reported. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer read an obligatory letter of condemnation for the attacks and then told the press that he would not ask Assad to step down and not acknowledging the reality of power in Syria would be “silly.” This seemed to be a continuation of the announced policy of non-intervention. Then came the reversal. On April 5, Trump announced, without specifics, that he was changing his mind on Assad because Assad killed “innocent babies.” On April 6, Tillerson announced that Assad would have no role in governing the Syrian people, and that Trump was considering a “serious” response. That night, Trump bombed the Syrian airbase. Trump performed a 180 degree turn on the issue of whether to intervene in Syria, a Russian ally, in 48 hours. He has yet to announce its new stance on how the US, its allies, or anyone else should proceed in Syria.
Trump’s rapid change in Syria policy made ALL diplomacy unpredictable … and therefore dangerous
I think each nation is looking at the shocking reality we Americans have been experiencing every day on an individual level: “I have no idea what this person is going to do or say today and his choices affect my safety.” Our allies have ample reason for concern, and there are a lot of countries with whom the United States has fraught relationships. Every country, ally or antagonist, has to make its decisions with the possible actions of the US Government in mind. We are everywhere, and they need to rely on the American Government to be predictable. Sadly, the only clearly discernible policy in this mess appears to be “if I see dead babies on CNN I will bomb whoever did it.” The fate of the Syrians gassed by their government is tragic, but so is the fate of the many Yemeni children dying of starvation and war right now. There are a whole lot of people who have killed babies in the Middle East, intentionally or incidentally, including Donald Trump. Bombing all of them will make a parking lot, not a solution. Now, we are facing off with the world’s second largest nuclear power over a conflict Trump didn’t care about 6 days ago. Fingers crossed Russia doesn’t bomb any preschools – it might end up on CNN.