For years, the United States officially abhorred the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his bumbling successor, Nicolas Maduro. The two sides fought openly, even to the point where Chavez once stood before the U.N. General Assembly after a speech by President George W. Bush and complained that the lectern “smells of sulfur,” implying that Satan had just been there.
Yet the two governments still cooperated closely on regional counter-narcotics operations.
The United States clashed openly with Russia regarding that country’s blatant violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty. And yet, the two countries cooperated on sanctions against Iran and efforts to address the civil war in Syria.
In the diplomatic world, there’s a working practice called “compartmentalization” that enables countries with strong disagreements on one issue to nevertheless work in concert on other matters of pressing international importance. They effectively agree to disagree but keep lines of communication open.
Whoever advised President Donald Trump upon his entry into the White House apparently skipped over that section of the diplomatic briefing book. The president apparently has no qualms about blowing up cooperative relationships in order to score political points on entirely different issues. As a result, America’s lead in international diplomacy has deteriorated to the point that other countries no longer take the United States at its word.
Trump started down this reckless road by declaring the Iran nuclear deal null and void. He ordered harsher economic sanctions on Tehran even though he couldn’t cite specific ways in which Iran had violated the accord. European nations, China and Russia all stood by the accord. Trump cited an unrelated issue — Iranian military adventurism around the Middle East using proxy militias like Hezbollah — as his rationale. Now, the hard-fought nuclear deal is in tatters, perhaps never to be recovered, and military tensions are escalating.
Or consider the compartmentalization that allowed the United States and Mexico to renegotiate terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In May, that deal came to a screeching halt because Trump wanted a way to pressure Mexico on completely unrelated immigration issues. For several days, it appeared a trade war was in the offing between two countries that had celebrated an unprecedented, uninterrupted, 25-year span of free trade.
Trump ultimately backed down after waving a piece of paper and claiming to have reached a “secret” deal with Mexico that Mexico’s foreign minister denied existed. Trump claimed victory as a way of deflecting from the heavy criticism he received from top Republicans in Congress for threatening trade sanctions of Mexico.
Trump fools only himself in believing that such mix-and-match tactics work in the diplomatic world. In reality, they destroy pathways to cooperation and make even America’s closest allies think twice about engaging with this administration. The damage he’s inflicting could take years to repair.