The tumult following the news conference by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin obscured a seemingly innocuous but telling comment the U.S. president made just before the summit.
In opening remarks to the media before the closed-door meeting, Trump said he expected the two leaders to discuss “everything from trade to military to missiles to China. We’ll be talking a little bit about China, our mutual friend President Xi (Jinping).”
Civilian and military leaders in the Department of Defense, the State Department and the National Security Council certainly have no illusions about the nature of the threats posed by those two governments to American national interests.
The National Security Strategy (NSS) published by the Trump administration in December lists “the key challenges and trends that affect our standing in the world.” It states as the first of these: “Revisionist powers, such as China and Russia, that use technology, propaganda and coercion to shape a world antithetical to our interests and values.”
A month later, the U.S. government released the National Defense Strategy, designed to accomplish the purposes of the NSS. It states as its main goal: “Thwarting Chinese and Russian aggression and use of coercion and intimidation to advance their goals and harm U.S. interests.”
Still, President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE, as befits his business background, openly professes his desire to establish good personal relations with interlocutors and negotiating partners as a way to facilitate discussion and agreement.
He sees personal rapport with potential foreign adversaries as conducive to serving the national security objectives of the United States. As he repeatedly tells his audiences, “Having a good relationship with President Putin or President Xi is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
But, is he right? Can a good one-on-one relationship with a foreign leader ever be a bad thing? The answer is yes, if it is allowed to distort the perceptions and judgments of one or both of the parties. Or, if it encourages the foreign negotiator to manipulate the personal relationship and place it in contradistinction to the U.S. national interest.
A recent example of this dynamic occurred after President Trump’s historic meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month. The president described his personal chemistry with the dictator in glowing terms and touted their discussions as highly productive in furthering the cause of North Korea’s denuclearization.
Then came the follow-up meeting with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoAmerica needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Harris to hold fundraiser for McAuliffe ahead of Virginia governor's race It's in our interest to turn the page on relations with Suriname MORE in Pyongyang with his negotiating counterpart, Kim Yong Chol. While Pompeo described the talks as serious and productive, Kim seemed to mock his optimism, saying the secretary should not sleep well, based on the “deeply regrettable” lack of progress. No sooner had Pompeo left Pyongyang than the North Korean press began lambasting the American negotiators for pushing a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.”
The Pyongyang official press statements, however, were quick to praise President Trump and call upon the U.S. negotiating team to follow his cooperative spirit if the common objectives were to be achieved — in effect, turning the president’s good rapport against his own subordinate officials charged with the task of bringing the high-level vision to fruition.
The personal versus national interest dichotomy was at work in more dramatic fashion during President Trump’s summit meeting with Putin. The effusive reciprocal expressions of good will — Putin, for example, praised Trump for the great progress made in defusing the North Korean crisis — may have generated a bit more positivity than the president intended and led to what he has called the verbal slip that has caused such bipartisan consternation.
Putin had repeated his usual denials of Russian interfere in the 2016 election, but was then asked if he had preferred that Trump win. He responded, “I did, I did — because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.” Shortly thereafter, Trump was asked if he accepted his own intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion of Russian meddling or Putin’s denial.
He gave an ambiguous response but then uttered these words that seemed to give the benefit of the doubt to Putin: “I don't see why it would be [Russia]” meddling in our election. In the face of immediate and near-universal condemnation, he offered on Tuesday to "clarify." He had meant to say he couldn’t imagine why Russia “wouldn’t meddle,” presumably given Putin’s own admission of a stake in the outcome. It was an unfortunate instance of the personal and the national interests becoming blurred, this time at the expense of the latter.
Of course, President Trump is not the first high official to overstate the diplomatic niceties as indications of substantive progress in relations. In his many prepared speeches and informal talks, Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPennsylvania GOP authorizes subpoenas in election probe We must mount an all-country response to help our Afghan allies Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE’s point man on East Asia, Kurt Campbell, seemed incapable of referring to China as anything but “our Chinese friends.”
In that case, however, he was accurately reflecting the overall Obama/Clinton approach to China, not merely his own excessive personal warmth. Which is why “our Chinese friends” made such strategic advances over the United States during the years of the Obama administration.
Fortunately, President Trump has assembled a highly professional and dedicated national security team to inform and implement his foreign policy goals. Still, our presidents and other public officials should be a little more direct and candid in their private and public communications with foreign leaders who do not wish America well — at least as much as they are with our real friends and allies.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.