A specter is haunting Europe, and it's not the specter of Communism. Last weekend was the annual Munich Security Conference, where foreign policy and security leaders from around the world met to discuss, analyze, and coordinate the world's safety. European leaders in particular seemed spooked. The ghost in question: President Trump's foreign policy team.
Not the US delegation that was sent to Europe. The President has recently sent to Europe — to Munich, Brussels, or Bonn — Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. These leaders are not the kind of sledgehammers to the post-War order that so many transatlantic pundits and policymakers fear. Pence and Mattis both made overtures to NATO, and Tillerson announced that the United States remains committed to the Minsk agreement to end the Ukrainian conflict. But the Europeans remained unmoved by these words and gestures.
Rather, the group of people that frightens the continent is what I will call Trump's "ghost foreign policy team," a group of people some fear may actually be the ones with the President's ear. This group includes the likes of Jared Kushner, Michael Anton, and Steve Bannon, all people without foreign policy positions or experience. Trump's ghost team seems to have real sway over American policy, and that would represent a major challenge for our strategic partners.
In the past, Trump's ghost team has appeared to wield more influence than the official advisors. The most notorious instance of this was when the President issued his Muslim travel ban without consulting State, Defense, Homeland Security, or Justice officials. The fact that Mattis was left out of the loop was particularly flagrant because Trump announced the ban from the Pentagon. Rather than official foreign policy appointees or career professionals, reports indicate that Bannon was the personality behind the Muslim ban.
Bannon has a history of leading US foreign policy independent of the appropriate, non-White House officials. Right before the Vice President declared that the United States had a "steadfast and enduring commitment" to the European Union, Bannon told Germany's ambassador to the US that he viewed the EU as a flawed concept, according to Reuters reports. And nine months before the election, Bannon announced that "we're going to war in the South China Sea ... no doubt," contradicting standing Defense Department policy.
And the influence of the ghost foreign policy team does not end with Bannon. The President has put Kushner, his son-in-law, in charge of the White House's Middle East policy. When Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Trump last Friday, Kushner was present, while not a single official from the State Department was involved.
Even the Vice President has been kept out of the loop on important foreign policy issues. Information about former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's illegal contact with Russian officials was kept from Pence for two weeks.
The existence of a ghost foreign policy team brings real peril to the interests of the US and its allies. Communication is essential to diplomacy. It is imperative that the America keeps all of the tools in its statecraft tool box honed for use. But when we have two teams who make different statements, we are effectively dulling our own blades.
In a recent talk at American University, Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, illustrated this point with a reference to one of his former colleagues, James Baker. Haas explained that Baker, who was Secretary of State under the first Bush, was effective in that office because when he spoke, the world understood that he spoke for the President. "There was no light between them," to quote Haas.
But this is not the case with the Trump administration. Department heads have clearly been sidelined in favor of a band of untrained, unaccountable phantoms. Now, when official foreign policy actors make pronouncements, they will always be in doubt. If Tillerson makes a policy statement about Israel, for instance, observers will have no way of knowing whether that policy was contradicted by Kushner in the Netanyahu meeting.
This doubt effectively blunts communication as a tool of diplomacy. This is a regrettable development — because the way things have been shaping up over the past month, it appears that the administration will need all the help it can get.
Photo credit US Embassy in Berlin