Panel Discussion with Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook on June 14th 2018
In the wake to the highly anticipated encounter between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, the Center for International Security and Governance hosted a lecture and panel discussion with Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, Executive Director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, on June 14th 2018. Dr. Enrico Fels, who was also scheduled to participate in the panel discussion, regrettably had to cancel his participation last minute due to personal reasons.
To start the evening off, the fully occupied University Forum was greeted with a screening of what appeared to be a movie trailer: The dramatic Hollywood-style clip about “two men, two leaders, one destiny” turned out to be the four-minute video commissioned by the White House that was shown to Kim by Trump at the opening of the summit. Addressing the somewhat stunned audience afterwards, Prof. James D. Bindenagel posed the evening’s initial question: Is this what diplomacy looks like today? With a sitting U.S.- President considering the world an “arena” in direct opposition to its allies and engaging in “reality TV diplomacy”, Prof. Bindenagel questioned how well international diplomacy is doing today. Introducing the visiting speaker from Harvard Kennedy School, he then handed the stage to Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook who gave a blunt and enlightening overall assessment of the state of U.S. diplomacy.
According to Clüver, the previous week with the disastrous G7 meeting in Canada and the North Korea summit had been revealing of Trump’s diplomatic style: a style which she called a type of “Prestige Diplomacy” that is more concerned with appearances and status than results. Clüver concluded that Trump’s need for personal prestige drove him to make one of the worst deals in his career in order to be able to show off any deal at all. As a result, the agreement’s vague wording entailed no substantial concessions from North Korea whatsoever – such as complete denuclearization, a concrete and verifiable roadmap for disarmament, or any mention of conventional weapons – in exchange for comprehensive concessions from Washington. Similar observations can be made in regard to Iran and other areas of U.S. foreign policy involvement. Considering him a man who isn’t concerned with history, geopolitical context or economic intricacies and who doesn’t share any of the values that have defined the West’s history, Clüver summed up Trump’s approach to foreign policy as “antithetical to 70 years of U.S. strategic thinking, endangering his country.” Connected to this, Clüver identified another challenge to U.S. diplomacy: Addressing the current administration’s anti-constitutional new policy of evaluating employees of the State Department based on their loyalties to the president instead of to the constitution, she voiced her concern about the increasing number of qualified personnel leaving over moral apprehensions. According to her, the current voiding of the State Dpt. will have serious repercussions for at the least the next decade. Hence, her assessment was clear: The current U.S. president, she stated, has de facto sidelined one of the most capable foreign ministries in the world for the sake of a “personalized” form of diplomacy – one that understands the president as the essence of US foreign policy, is immensely concerned with the personal prestige of the office holder, and generally overemphasizes the military aspect of foreign policy. Granted, the shift to a new Secretary of State might entail some changes, but overall the diagnosis stands: Institutional diplomacy in the United States has been all but sidelined.
Taking a look across the pond, Clüver stated that the greatest shortcoming of European diplomacy towards the U.S. has been its failure to adequately prepare for and adapt to a Trump presidency. EU officials and governments, she said, have been taking him “seriously, but not literally”, thus failing to read him properly and act accordingly. With the U.S. seeking to split the EU, alienating countries and heightening centrifugal forces within the Union as part of a doctrine that considers every powerful actor a threat to U.S. interests, her analysis culminated in a strong call for European cohesion: Europeans, she said, will have to better coordinate their strategical approaches, prepare their publics for new realities that include increased security spending, and learn to deal with a U.S. president whose basic approach to politics fundamentally differs from their own – but at the same time fight the emergence of anti-American sentiments.
After a lively discussion that mirrored the anxieties in the face of Trump’s erratic diplomatic style but also further exposed Europe’s weak spots when it comes to dealing with international crises, Clüver concluded the evening with a final verdict: The rules of diplomacy have been undergoing a fundamental change recently and old certainties have been losing its footing. However, allies shouldn’t demonize Trump, she warned, as the U.S. is far too important to be ignored. Instead, she advocated for the creation of long-term strategies with everyone at the table to safeguard the values and principles of the liberal order and find shared solutions. For this, democratic leaders will have to adapt to a negotiation partner who needs to be shown more explicitely in what way joint agreements can constitute a win for him and the U.S. As long as partners are determined to commit to cooperation, democracy, and the rule of law, Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook concluded, not all is lost.