By Patricia H Kushlis
In May 2017, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told State Department staff in his first of few meetings with them that he preferred to operate along the lines of transactional diplomacy which subordinates American values to a form of foreign policy based on cash-register type one-on-one trades. This way, the US could deal with the “bad guys” without having to consider whether they represented countries with ethical governments or not.
During my own Foreign Service career, I certainly worked in countries where the rule of law was nonexistent and where the US needed to base its relationship with the government in question on a transactional form of diplomacy. But that’s not what Trump’s version of transactional diplomacy is all about.
The Soviet Union was one of those countries where I served but others were Thailand under the Thai military and Greece under the Colonels. Our cultural exchanges agreement with the USSR is the most compelling example: everything was quantified and codified down to the number of students and faculty each country sent on research trips to the lengths of their stay by exact numbers of days, the access they had to research materials and the locations they could visit. My job was to see that the Soviet bureaucracy kept its word. It was not easy but without the formal agreement the exchanges would not have happened.
Trump’s own brand of transactional diplomacy, however, is different. For him, it’s a narrow and personally based world view couched in bluster and incendiary Tweets sent at weird hours of the night but what’s different is that it’s not designed to further or even support US national goals and objectives – those don’t matter. Rather it’s designed to enrich Trump and/or his company and children personally.
Much diplomacy – especially bilateral - has its roots in transaction: the goal is to see that both countries maximize their objectives. Essentially, it’s ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.’ But it’s government to government not government to the bank account of an individual official. That, however, is not how Trump operates.
Watch: every time US foreign policy – as defined by Trump – does not seem to make sense in terms of the overall US national interest - which is most of the time - there’s likely to be an under the table financial transaction which personally benefits Trump or possibly a member of his family.
We know, for instance, that Ukraine president Poroshenko paid over $400,000 for an Oval Office meeting with Trump just last year. The money went to Trump’s fixer Roger Cohen and some may have gone to Felix Sater, a pal of Cohen’s, who has been involved in connecting Trump and company to Russian oligarchs connected to Putin. What we don’t know is how much of the Ukrainian treasury Cohen passed on to Trump too: Hopefully the Southern District Court of New York is investigating the question.
Moreover, Ukraine apparently simultaneously agreed to sideline its investigation of Paul Manafort’s payoffs from pro-Russian sources. Perhaps part of the deal from the US SIDE also included anti-tank military equipment suddenly released to the Ukrainian armed forces by the Trump administration that the Obama administration had refused to send. Not bad for $400,000 or more – but that’s not how rules- based government operates. The Ukrainian funds should never have wound up in Cohen’s bank account.
There was also an Oval Office meeting earlier this year by the president of Uzbekistan. Supposedly that was to seal the deal on several deals that, in fact, had already been sealed. How much did that photo op cost the Uzbeks I wonder? Does anyone know? What did Trump get out of it?
Moving right along, the Chinese government has been playing Trump for all he’s worth since shortly after he entered the White House – first approving trade marks for Ivanka to manufacture and sell her apparel brand in China (the second tranche of 13 patents was approved just before the Trump-Kim photo op “summit”) to agreeing to finance the theme park, as a part of a the Lido resort complex to be built in Indonesia adjacent to a Trump Tower Hotel. The theme park’s cost to the Chinese is $500 million; its cozy location is surely designed to enhance the value and revenue of the hotel. Is this deal still on the table given Trump's tariff war against the Chinese?
In return for this Chinese largesse? Trump suddenly reversed his decision to enforce punitive US tariffs for the telecommunications company ZTE which the Trump administration has placed on certain Chinese goods and which, in the case of this company are forcing it into bankruptcy. The Senate may block the Trump flip flop on ZTE – which will complicate the matter if this happens, and who knows how this could affect Trump’s personal finances. ZTE, according to AP reporting, “is accused of violating trade laws by selling sensitive technologies to North Korea and Iran.” But the Senate is meeting with Trump to discuss the issue. Will that cave? And what's the payoff if so?
This makes me wonder what under the table deals were negotiated with the North Koreans for that feel good "meeting" with Kim shortly after the G6 plus 1.
And in the Middle East, Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, his support for the Saudi led war against Qatar and its bombing of the Shiites in Yemen combined with his decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem only make sense when viewed from the standpoint of at what benefit to Trump personally.
Here’s why. Trump’s biggest individual campaign backers were Adelman, the Koch Brothers, Singer and via Cambridge Analytica the Mercers – father and daughter. These same people are also big backers of the right wing, greater Israel policy of Netanyahu who vociferously opposed the Iran deal and has been itching to move the Israeli capital to Jerusalem for years all the while ignoring the rights of the Palestinians, rights that date back to the international recognition of the state of Israel in 1948.
And what have the Saudis gotten out of this – higher gas prices on the international market with Iran’s sales curtailed and yet additional military equipment from the US to wage more attacks on the Shiites in Yemen (although Trump’s advisors l-ikely including that ‘great’ foreign policy savant Jared Kushner - clearly forgot to tell him that we have important military bases in Oman and the US support for the Saudi blockade of that small Gulf country was in direct contradiction to our national interests.) An Oops moment. Clearly the US military was not amused.
What is still unclear is the nature of the relationship being brokered by Eric Prince (the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of Blackwater fame) and the Russian oligarchs and Donald Trump, Jr at a hotel in the UAE last fall. But it also seems to be a piece of the jigsaw. Did it relate to a potential hotel construction project to which Trump could affix his name and collect user fees? Or could money have changed hands under some table or even behind that weird green orb the Trump clan was photographed fondling May 2016 on their very first stop on their very first official overseas trip?
Nevertheless, perhaps this helps explain Trump’s rude behavior to the European, Canadian, and Japanese leaders at the G-7 (or maybe G-6 plus 1) meeting in Quebec June 9, his reneging on the joint statement and his acrimonious tweets about meeting host, Justin Trudeau, thereafter. These are rule of law countries, their leaders are not on the take and, therefore, Trump can’t shake them down.