It’s not quite “All change!” at the top of US foreign policy but not very far from it. Three key positions have changed in the last two weeks: Rex Tillerson out at the State Department, with Mike Pompeo coming from the CIA, where his Deputy Gina Haspel replaces him, and HR McMaster is out as National Security Advisor, replaced by John Bolton. So, er, what’s going on?
Testy, decisive or what?
Inevitably, some of the speculation puts it down to the reaction of a testy president to senior figures who criticised, blocked and disagreed with him. And some of the speculation sees a decisive policy shift – for good or bad according to taste. But it might be both. Or neither. Where some see contrived political theatre others identify a spasm of barely thought through gut instinct.
In any case, it is just speculation. It doesn’t rank much higher than gossip. It focuses on why President Trump decided to move Tillerson and McMaster out. It deals in the murky waters of the president’s motives, his thinking and his calculation. That’s not unimportant but it’s only part of the story. If we want to understand the consequences of these actions, and even though it takes us into waters that are no clearer, we also need to consider the likely responses.
How will North Korea respond to the proximity to the US President of a man who recently set out what he regards as a legal case for a pre-emptive strike against North Korea? Bolton has a dismissive view of what a potential summit meeting between US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un entail. He is quoted as imagining Trump saying to Kim, “Tell me you have begun total denuclearization, because we’re not going to have protracted negotiations. You can tell me right now or we’ll start thinking of something else.” What effect, if any, will knowledge of that have in Pyongyang?
If North Korean nuclear missile programmes and the Iran nuclear deal are the two most obvious issues that may be subject to harder US policy in the near future, what about Russia? Bolton is a hawk on Russia too. His appointment was announced a couple of days before the decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats in solidarity with the UK, and along with 17 other governments also expelling Russian diplomats, in the wake of the nerve gas attack in Salisbury. Russian analysis of and responses to an apparent hardening of the Trump administration’s policy on Russia is not yet clear but it will be important to track it.
And although it has not figured much in press coverage about these changes in Trump’s foreign policy team, it’s worth considering what reactions there may be to the appointment as CIA Director of Gina Haspel, whose CV includes running a “black site” prison in Thailand in 2002. There are many governments who may find that hard to take.
Speculation on speculation
We can all pour speculation on top of speculation. Motives, responses – who knows? It seems like that the Iran nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – is even more seriously at risk than it has been until now. Personally, I think US Defense Secretary Mattis, previously regarded as part of the three-person team restraining Trump in foreign policy, and who has now lost his two team-mates (Tillerson and McMaster), will pick his battles carefully. To my mind, that may mean he leaves it to US Congress and the European powers to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive, while he prepares to dig in to prevent anything really catastrophically ill-considered being done over North Korea. But, as I say, who really knows?
Stick to the fundamentals
In a brief filmed interview with SIPRI, I go over this ground. And where I end is with some fundamentals. We need to ask ourselves what we want that is both sensible and achievable and keep pushing for it. Ty to build a clear relationship plus dialogue with Russia; stand by the Iran nuclear deal, which is endorsed by the UN Security Council, is technically sound and is being properly implemented; and maintain restraint over North Korea.
To some degree, the real message is that it is a mistake to be bothered too much by the comings and goings at the top of the US government. They are important, to be sure, but if we let them dominate our thinking, we risk following them down a rabbit hole of personalities, their peculiarities and rivalries, when we should be concentrating on the fundamentals of human security in an increasingly dangerous world.
NB: This article has been edited and revised almost immediately after being posted because I made a beginner’s level technical error that lost some sentences. I have now restored them.