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Opinion People and Leadership Short Read

Respectable Disagreements: Presidential StratComms

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Now that you have had the opportunity to consider the position argued by Laurens, I offer to you a contrasting assessment of President Trump’s communications. Rather than lauding the apparent strength of the words, or finding deterrent effect in the nexus between actions and words, I see in Trump’s words troubling implications for American society, politics, and foreign relations. Enjoy! – Jill S. Russell

President Trump is a StratComms Disaster for America and the World

Our friend Laurens has written a compelling piece. The logic and evidence cannot simply be dismissed or even objectively faulted. And I absolutely loathe it. In fact, it was our running disagreement on this topic that inspired the Wavell Room editors to initiate this series. For all that Laurens and I rarely agree, even as we are friends, we exist in a state of mutual respect, and, on occasion, frustration.

Nevertheless, while Laurens offers a reasonable interpretation, explaining the failure of Trump’s StratComms, particularly with respect to the recent killings of Baghdadi and Suleimani, is equally arguable. Whatever the technical merits of his patter to effectively sell his positions, the success of a salesman’s approach to leadership and the influence of that ethos upon the Presidency, his administration, and policy is not fit for purpose. Worse, as we will discuss here, his tough talk around the killings in fact harms US national interest.

What sustains a conclusion of failure, lack of fitness? Assessing these communications from the perspective of the service to national interest, I find three particular flaws to be critical. First, the credibility argued by Laurens is simultaneously unnecessary and undercut by the President’s frequent flip flops elsewhere. Second, America the Bloodlusty serves no interest, and certainly builds no greatness. And third, the brutality of the language harms the idea of America, an essential brake against its power unbound. Finally, unargued but to be kept in mind throughout is the domestic pugnacity of the language. While such pronouncements that, fo]r example, demean the political opposition and intimidate Impeachment witnesses may energise his base, it is equally known to distress many others, to Trump’s clear delight. Politics aside, a President that speaks only to supporters and not to the whole country is neither doing his job nor serving the Republic.

The nature of Trump’s discourse—divisive, angry, infantile—has exacerbated pre-existing divisions within the United States. As Peter Baker concludes, ‘the old-fashioned idea that a president, once reaching office, should at least pretend to be the leader of all the people these days seems so, well, old-fashioned. Mr Trump does not bother with the pretence. He is speaking to his people, not the people.’ Trump’s rhetoric has not only eviscerated existing norms about political discourse, it has salted the earth1.

— Peter Baker

Problematic at home, the apparent strength of these communications abroad is hobbled.

Let us consider the first problem, that the threatening language suffers from historical and Trumpian contradictions with danger implications. On the one hand, there is little reason for US policy to need demeaning or threatening language to prove power or willingness to use military force. The American record speaks loudly enough. To layer offensiveness and demeaning language on top of the use of force is little more than Ossa on Pella, needless overkill. To those who argue this is a style fitting the local culture, the merits of such appropriation is debatable. It is as likely that putting on StratComms “airs” in this way to please a local audience rings as credibly as Dick van Dyke’s Cockney accent in Mary Poppins. Moreover, whatever gains Trump’s aggressive linguistic style might achieve, his broader record of rhetorical unreliability means the deterrence effect is undermined2. This risks a dangerous situation for the global stability. With uncertainty as to whether the latest tweet, statement, or rally line is a genuine policy development or course of action, how can partners, competitors, or foes understand how to act? What threats are rising, risks increasing, with such turmoil in policy communications?

Relying upon the language of dehumanization is a further peril to the national interest. The effect upon the armed forces and the public of this rising bloodlust should not be underestimated. With a record of preferencing policies and strategies that skirt the bounds of the law in the military, such as targeting the families of terror suspects or imagining genocidal warfare in Afghanistan, and with providing legal sanction to uniformed criminal behaviour through grants of clemency and rehabilitation to Gallagher, Lorrance, and Golsteyn, such language threatens to harden support for the worst sorts of violence and uses of force can flourish. Trump’s particularly bellicose use of Twitter has risen to such a troubling level that Senator Kamala Harris called for his removal. Whether this is the right move, that a politician with deep roots in the law would consider such a call demands a larger conversation on the issue.  And this is where Laurens argument regarding the effectiveness of the discourse and delivery is so terribly problematic. Even in the best-case scenario, the risk is that the American image abroad will be re-created in these terms. America the Bully is a failing prospect. Not the result of merely a natural endowment, the root of American power is rather the alchemic product of a greater balance of decency than capabilities allowed. US power will attenuate as once and former allies distance themselves, neutrals avoid all but necessary interaction, and competitors move in to take advantage of the loss of influence.

And it is in the ramifications of this bully image that Trump’s language poses its greatest threat, to the idea of America. Endowed of wealth in resources and capabilities likely unmatched in history, American policy abroad has been relatively constrained by the ideals that have always been discursively sold as the national brand abroad. This is not a point about whether the US has ever really lived up to those ideals – no, we have not, in too many instances. However, it would be naïve in the extreme not to recognize similarly that neither has the nation flexed its powers to their maximum extent – and to the detriment of the globe’s majority. The aspirational nature of the idea of what America should be, at home and abroad, has served as a brake up a nation so naturally blessed with power. Should Trump succeed in stripping America of its better imagined angels, the terms of American foreign policy could be very differently and negatively written.

There is no doubt that strong language has an incredibly important role to play across the spectrum of international relations. Applied correctly and in the right moments, the Bully Pulpit that is the American Presidency can substitute for actual force and spare lives. By the same token, as a tool of power, if abused even words can do incredible damage. Either in direct or second order effects, misuse might lead to inadvertent crises or increasingly erode the prestige of the Presidency. It is why, prior to Trump, the President’s language and communications were so strictly controlled, and why this abrupt shift is ultimately so concerning. While we struggle to reckon the current effects of Trump’s approach to StratComms, the longer-term implications are incalculable. But unlike Laurens, I am not sanguine what his tweets will reap.

Footnotes

  1. Peter Baker, “A President of the People or a President of His People?” New York Times, April 16, 2019
  2. Speaking exactly to this issue, Daniel Drezner writes: “Threats of coercion are only effective if they are credible. Deals to settle disputes are unobtainable unless the president of the United States can follow through on pledges. Because other actors perceive Trump as possessing the constancy of a toddler, they see correspondingly less need to comply with his dictates.” Dan Drezner, “Immature Leadership: Donald Trump and the American Presidency”, p. 10, International Affairs, February 2020.

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