Subverting the Art of Diplomacy: Bullshit, Lies and Trump
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Diplomacy is essential for mediating between states to find resolution, compromise, and agreement, often in challenging situations, with grace and foresight. The language of diplomacy requires subtlety and skill, and sometimes opacity to enable differing opinions to surface and alternative conclusions to be reached. To skilfully apply this instrument, it is a virtue to avoid insult and to settle differences by peaceful and respectful means, and to avoid unnecessarily inflaming passions. Bullshit, a deceptive method which aims at manipulating the opinions and attitudes of those with whom the bullshitter speaks, with no regard for the truth, can be no part of this art. Yet, as I will argue here, the U.S. president Donald Trump all too often engages in bullshit and lies in his dealings with international states. Trump confidently, even bombastically, asserts his success and abilities on foreign policy issues and international negotiations; however, on closer analysis of social media, it is clear that Trump lacks these vital skills, frequently compromising agreement and undermining progress. This article examines the difference between bullshit and diplomacy by analysing Trump’s statements on social media platforms and concludes that Trump’s bullshit is a threat to diplomacy.
KeywordsDiplomacy Bullshit Lies Donald Trump International negotiations
The diplomat should have the ‘right judgment’, ‘a readiness of mind to be able to give a proper answer to matters that are unforeseen’, ‘an evenness of temper’ and should be ‘courteous, civil and agreeable’ (1994: 97). Skilled diplomacy, Callieres argued (2000: 36), will alleviate distrust and tension among states and is an art that does not permit blunders, infelicities or indiscretion. Impetuous and thoughtless statements, immoderate attitudes and erratic speeches made by presidents or other senior officials may be enough to kill the art of diplomacy and harm international relations, as I will discuss here. The legal scope of diplomacy requires that state officials who conduct international negotiations should avoid bringing to the table their own personal interests, desire for revenge and ambitions in order to accomplish the main purpose of diplomacy which is the settlement of complex relationships or disputes. Bullshit and lies are impermissible. However, the recent resignation of Kim Darroch, the highly respected ambassador to the USA, over leaked confidential memos to the British Government on his candid observations of the Trump administration as ‘clumsy and inept’, amply demonstrate the power of revenge, chagrin and wounded ego to undermine diplomatic relations between countries that proudly proclaim a close relationship1 as do the UK and the USA.
Every Christian Prince must take as his chief maxim not to employ arms to support or vindicate his rights, until he has employed and exhausted the way of reason and of persuasion. It is to his interest also, to add to reason and persuasion the influence of benefits conferred, which indeed is one of the surest ways to make his own power secure, and it increase it. But above all he must employ good labours in his service, such indeed as know how employ all these methods for the best, and how to gain the hearts and wills of men, for it is in this the science of negotiation principally exists. (Callières 2000: 3)
As MacKenzie and Bhatt (2018) comment, since the election of Trump in 2016, there is now widespread concern that fake news, and allegations of fake news, is ‘undermining the legitimacy of the press, the democratic process and authoritative sources such as science’ and, I would add, the authority of diplomats. MacKenzie and Bhatt suggest that there is something that ‘marks out our times as having surpassed practices of deliberate misinformation’ and, in the Darroch case, the unashamed and unabashed denouncement of a respected diplomat on Twitter for all the world to see, without regard to diplomatic sensibilities or the authority of the source. While Darroch was widely reported to have objectively stated what many in the diplomatic world knew to be the case, he had, nevertheless, to resign because Trump refused to cooperate with him.
In this article, I will explore how lies and bullshit can undermine the art of diplomacy, putting in peril the relationships between states and the role of diplomats in honestly and frankly conveying information to their governments. While Trump is well known for lacking the skill for ‘right judgement’, ‘evenness of temper’, and ‘making decisions from the hip’,2 in addition to ridding his administration of people who disagree with him, and putting pressure on states to do likewise, it is also widely reported that Trump continually, and conveniently, lies and bullshits in the face of facts and evidence.
This article analyses how Donald Trump’s Twitter posts and his statements on other social media platforms have affected the art of diplomacy. Trump has always confidently, even bombastically, asserted his success and abilities on foreign policy issues and international negotiations. However, on closer analysis of US media and even global media, it becomes clear that Trump lacks the language of diplomacy and temperament necessary to conduct foreign policy and international negotiations. Indeed, I will argue that Trump conducts his negotiations, not as an artist of diplomacy, but as a vainglorious bullshitter. As the philosopher Frankfurt (2005: 63) states, bullshit is ‘unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic’. Further, the bullshitter has no interest in whether what s/he claims is true or not (33). Facts do not concern her/him, and is not ‘germane to the enterprise of describing reality’ (30). Arguably, Trump is such a person, engaging in bullshit and misconstructions in foreign policy issues and international negotiations, with the result that his lack of knowledge, disregard for the facts, and over-confidence in the fields of governmental, diplomatic and foreign policy issues, pose a real threat to international relations.
Diplomacy provides the intellectual and peaceful grounds for complex inter-state relations for the smooth functioning relations. It is ‘the application of intelligence and tact to the conduct of official relations between the governments of independent states’ (Roberts 2009: 3). Diplomacy is not only the mediator during states of tension or war, it also serves as a necessary protocol to abide by sovereign equality principles among states and when considering human rights on a global scale. Diplomacy, as the language of peaceful and sustained dialogue, involves inter-state relations or ‘other collectivities on the basis of intermediation, reciprocity and formal representation’ (Spies 2019: 8).
(1) Diplomacy must determine its objectives in the light of the power actually and potentially available for the pursuit of these objectives. (2) Diplomacy must assess the objectives of other nations and the power actually and potentially available for the pursuit of these objectives. (3) Diplomacy must determine to what extent these different objectives are compatible with each other. (4) Diplomacy must employ the means suited to the pursuit of its objectives. Failure in any of these tasks may jeopardize the success of foreign policy and with it the peace of the world (Morgenthau and Thompson 1985: 563-564).
Representation of the state at a senior level abroad is the most essential duty required of diplomacy. This duty involves negotiating solutions to complicated international problems. It follows that the principle purpose of applying diplomacy is ‘to enable states to secure the objectives of their foreign policies without resort to force, propaganda, or law’ (Berridge 2010: 1). Diplomacy offers states an active and formal framework by which to engage inter-state relations. In complex relations among states, diplomatic agents are crucial for peaceful settlement. Hamiton and Langhorne 2011: 264) rightly emphasise that without ‘diplomatic intermediaries of some kind or other a state’s system would be almost unintelligible’. Diplomatic language requires expertise thereof; state agents who conduct international negotiations should master the language of diplomacy and have comprehensive knowledge of the protocols on conducting negotiations. Tension among states may result from failed diplomacy and, more ominously, as Toynbee (1947: 285 cited in Spies 2019: 23) notes, war among states may be the outcome the human race must endure for failures in diplomacy. Trump resiled from a retaliatory attack on Iran in June 2019 when Iran fired a missile at a US drone flying near the Strait of Hormuz. France, Germany and Japan, among other states, have sought to defuse tensions to avoid conflict between USA and Iran.
The statesman’s instrument is diplomacy which is ‘the art of relating states to each other by agreement’ (Kissinger 1957: 326). Diplomacy is ‘the application of intelligence and tact to the conduct of official relations between the governments of independent states or the conduct of business between states by peaceful means’ (Satow 1979:3) Skill, sensitivity or intelligence are not ‘the result of conscious deliberation or reflection’, but these diplomatic skills are ‘background dispositions acquired in and through practice’ (Pouliot 2008: 258). Trump does not appear to understand the need for this art, to have the skills, sensitivity or intelligence, or, indeed, the patience for ‘conscious deliberation or reflection’, as his tweets attest, and which will be discussed here.
The analyst can choose which problem he wishes to study, whereas the statesman’s problems are imposed on him. The analyst can allot whatever time is necessary to come to a clear conclusion; the overwhelming challenge to the statesman is the pressure of time. The analyst runs no risk. If his conclusions prove wrong, he can write another treatise. The statesman is permitted only one guess; his mistakes are irretrievable.
Since ancient times, diplomatic agents, as peacemakers, mediators or high-level representatives, have been assigned to act and speak on behalf of the state. They were deemed to be the messenger or herald who was the sine qua non communicator among state leaders or other political entities (Bull 2012). Diplomatic agents, as Bull (2012: 173) points out, ‘are specialists in precise and accurate communication’, and are ‘experts in detecting and conveying nuances of international dialogue’.
Senior state officials, such as the foreign minister, president, prime minister, have, without doubt, more leeway than well experienced and professional diplomatic agents to promise and rescind commitments. Further, though state officials are surrounded by far-sighted and intelligent experts, they hold the constitutional power to take substantive decisions without consultation (Spies 2019: 25–26). Senior officials who have a strong background in the field of diplomacy and have a strong knowledge of foreign policy, such as George Bush Senior, Theodore Roosevelt and Otto von Bismarck have been proficient at international negotiations and relations. However, there are also a number of senior state officials who have limited or inadequate practical knowledge and competence in respect of diplomacy such as the current president of the USA. Such officials’ attitudes, manners or statements become unsystematic, irrational and far from being deliberative. Frankfurt (2005: 52–53), in his On Bullshit, characterises this kind of manner as bullshit. He states that bullshit is ‘unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about’ (Frankfurt 2005: 63). Modern communication channels such as Twitter have accelerated such bullshit statements because State officials are poorly informed by social media and would not be able to make deliberative statements. In this sense, MacKenzie and Bhatt 2018: 2) remark that ‘[w]ith arguably the greatest bullshitter of all daily promulgating on Twitter (and other media) his assessment of the facts, truth and fakery, it is hard not to agree that we are being dumped on from on-high by no less a person than the President of the USA’. Twitter is one of the most used channels by state officials. When senior officials who are not schooled in the art of diplomacy attempt to conduct international negotiations on Twitter, there may be unpredictable and unpleasant consequences.
Diplomacy through Social Media: The Necessity for Courteous Language to Deal with Nasty Situations
Oglesby (2016: 242) remarks that to create authority ‘words are played like strings to hold the tensions between parties until each resonates to the text at its own native frequency, creating harmony’. In the contemporary world order, social media (such as Twitter) provocatively, intriguingly or blatantly sways society’s moral and/or political preferences. Social media is the reality of the contemporary age. State agents are increasingly using social media (Straus 2018) to expand their sphere of influence and social media. According to Duncombe (2017), it has become one of the most effective channels of diplomacy. Duncombe (2017: 547) also remarks that diplomats are ‘increasingly relying on Twitter in their daily practice to communicate with their counterparts’. Presidents, Prime Ministers and politicians also recognise social media as a highly effective channel by which to make policy announcements, pass opinion on current affairs, and generally rally their supporters to their cause or point out the flaws and absurdities in their opponents arguments (and there is plenty of that with respect to Brexit and Trumpism). However, diplomacy, and particularly its language, fails when it is erratically and untactfully used on social media because this exchange occurs in front of a global audience, and any erratic statement may spark a negative reaction. As Bryant (2012) has noted, ‘the diplomatic world is considered to be one of protocol and discretion, yet an increasing number of foreign policy officials and diplomats are conducting their business in the most public way possible, on Twitter’. Diplomatic failures are not very well received and can even cause dismay within a State as was the case with Trump’s nuclear button size tweet analysed below. It is the hallmark of Twitter that statements can very quickly reach a very broad spectrum of social media users. Reactions, whether appreciative or derisory, will be posted quickly and in their thousands if the tweeterer is a known figure. Like a viral infection, social media may easily spread millions of items of false, biased and misleading information, resulting in the deprivation of truth and the proliferation of bullshit. SooHoo (2019: 1) states that the ‘Internet’s tsunami of opinions overwhelm us as we attempt to discern truth. And there are consequences when we swim in an ocean of opinion that obfuscates facts’. For statesmen and diplomats discretion in social media is essential to avoid unintended consequences. Burns (2019: 21), who was an Ambassador of the USA to the Russian Federation, rightly states that diplomacy is ‘by nature an unheroic, quiet endeavour, less swaggering than unrelenting, often unfolding in back channels out of sight and out of mind. Its successes are rarely celebrated, its failures almost always scrutinized’.
increasingly using a watered-down language whose few and hence inflated words no longer have any true meaning; a consummate consensual language that panders to the taste for tautology and disables contradiction; a discourse which has an answer to everything because it says practically nothing; a language unanswerable because it churns out propositions that leave so much room for interpretation that listeners are free to hear what they hope for. (Young 2007: 85)
In both ancient and modern considerations of diplomacy, courteous language and attitude are necessary, even if what is to be said is unpalatable. As Goldberg (1927: 77) once said, diplomacy ‘is to do and say the nastiest things in the nicest way’. On social media, dialogues, texts or messages can very quickly circulate throughout the world and may lead to misinterpretation, misinformation, hostile attitudes or benightedly spreading news. Even among diplomatic agents, an inadvertent verbal transgression may cause an international conflict and send a sarcastic message to the other state party (Oglesby 2016). International negotiations or foreign policy issues should not be carried out by anyone, not even senior state officials, who do not belong to diplomats’ epistemic community which is ‘a network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area’ (Haas 1992: 3). In respect of social media such as Twitter, State officials who do not belong to that epistemic community should either avoid using social media for governmental declarations or always take advice from experts to avoid undermining the art of diplomacy. Social media can easily succumb to information pollution. Social media may not be a reliable source of information because intentional misleading has become ‘fashionable and normalized’ (SooHoo 2019). According to the Pew Research Center (Smith 2018), the vast majority of ‘social media users frequently see people engaging in drama and exaggeration, jumping into arguments without having all the facts’. State officials who indiscriminately feed on the polluted information can make statements which amount to bullshit, or which are incorrect, misleading or erroneous. As MacKenzie and Bhatt (2018: 3) state social media ‘seems to be the space in which we see so much evidence for these kinds of epistemic vices’. Social media may allow systematic manipulation with disinformation in respect of statements made by State officials. In respect of foreign policy or international negotiations, misinformation and phony entries on social media can corrupt diplomacy.
State officials who are outwith the diplomatic epistemic community should consult their experts in each stage of the negotiations. As Oglesby (2016: 249) states ‘diplomats choose words to be precise enough to communicate clearly to diplomatic interlocutors yet elastic enough to plausibly suggest the alternative meanings the diplomat’s political masters need to manage their domestic politics’. Burns (2019) emphasises the importance of a diplomat to her/his own country. A diplomat serves as a translator of the world to the State and State to the world. A diplomat serves also as an ‘early-warning radar for troubles and opportunities; a builder – and fixer – of relations; a maker, driver, and executor of policy; a protector of citizens abroad and promoter of their economic interests; an integrator of military, intelligence, and economic tools of statecraft; an organizer, convener, negotiator, communicator, and strategist’ (Burns 2019: 21–22). Those functions can only be realised in the realm of the diplomat’s epistemic community.
Trump’s Method on Dealing with International Issues: Bullshit or Diplomacy?
There is a significantly nuanced difference between bullshit and diplomacy. While the essence of the former is ‘phony’ (Frankfurt 2005: 47), the soul of latter is tact and sensibility, reason and persuasion. It is possible that the former emerges in default of the latter. While bullshit is ‘so vast and amorphous that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being procrustean’ (3), it can be defined as a deceptive method which aims at manipulating the opinions and attitudes of those with whom the bullshitter speaks. The bullshitter’s focus is ‘panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. As we have so often, and alarmingly seen, the bullshitter ‘is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well’ (52). The liar, by contrast, is ‘inescapably concerned with truth-values’ (16), and must show some concern for the truth; the bullshitter, by contrast, does not share the same lack of constraint as does the liar. Unlike the liar, the creativity with which the bullshitter constructs his reality is ‘less analytical and less deliberative’ (16) than that which is used in lying.
is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are. (55)
The bullshitter is a person who is ‘neither on the side of the true nor the side of the false’. Rather, his ‘eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says’ (56). The bullshitter does not ‘care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purposes’. Accomplishing an outcome and following protocol rules are important features, inter alia, of diplomacy, and would no longer be defined as an art while it is used by a bullshitter. The bullshitter puts forward neither false nor true statements, and s/he more likely speaks or makes statements without worrying about the outcome or what is true. The essence of bullshit is not ‘that it is false but that it is phony’ (47). Further, excessive indulgence in bullshitting involves ‘making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say’ so that the ‘normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost’ (60). The bullshitter, unlike the liar, pays no heed to the authority of truth. Consequently, Frankfurt suggests, ‘the bullshitter is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are’ (61). Of further interest, and which may explain why so many continue to believe Trump, and indeed the arguments of Brexiteers in the UK, contrary to all – and incontrovertible - evidence, is that the proliferation of bullshit has its deeper sources in scepticism which ‘deny that we can have any reliable access to to an objective reality’ and who, therefore, reject the possibility of ‘knowing how things truly are’ (64).
Donald Trump, in his early business career, was a wealthy and successful businessman and contractor. Forbes estimates his fortune at more than three billion dollars, which is mostly in buildings in Manhattan (Pruitt 2019: 87). He explained his success and achievements in his book, Trump: The Art of the Deal (Trump and Schwartz 1987). He enumerates key points to be successful in business negotiations. I would like to draw attention two points that Pruitt (2019: 88) extracted from that book: ‘do your own thinking, don’t rely on others’ opinion’ and ‘sell yourself to the public’. For the former, Trump advises that you should collect your own data and make your own assumptions. For Trump, instincts are highly important, and one should trust them rather than statistical analysis or survey results. Trump and Schwartz (1987: 76) state: that ‘I like to think I have that instinct. That’s why I don’t hire a lot of number-crunchers, and I don’t trust fancy marketing surveys’. The trouble with dispensing with analysis and expert opinion, and with over-confidence in one’s own opinion and instincts, is that facts and reality become distorted, and bad outcomes follow. If one is not humble enough to admit that the instinct or opinion is wrong, one may have to resort to bullshit (and lies) to sustain the claims. Exaggerating one’s accomplishments is required for publicising one’s work and name. He states that ‘good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all’ (Trump and Schwartz 1987: 221). Trump pays regard neither to the delicate balance necessary in international relations which can be stabilised by diplomacy, nor to his political career. Trump shows a tendency to bring his business capabilities to the fore rather than diplomatic or political capacities which he seems to lack, and lately he relies increasingly on populist appeal. A bullshitter ‘may not deceive us … either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about his enterprise’ (Frankfurt 2005: 54). Trump might sincerely believe that he is as successful in international negotiations as he is successful in his business. However, evidence of these skills in diplomacy is lacking, and, worryingly, often results in claims and assertions that can be fairly judged to be bullshit and untrue (among other things). Truth seeking during the term of Trump presidency ‘has left us with vertigo. Trump not only stretches the truth but his lies gain traction as his supporters remarkably justify his false claims which further empowers him to fabricate more stories’ (SooHoo 2019: 1).
Trump, as a ‘political neophyte without previous governmental experience’ (Kristiansen and Kaussler 2018: 14), exemplifies the dangers of conducting foreign and domestic relations on Twitter and the misrepresentation of a Statesperson during interviews with him. During one interview Trump was asked about vacancies in the State Department to which he has the power to appoint nominees to senior positions. He responded: ‘let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be’ (Chappell 2017). Then, Trump made bold to draw an analogy between real estate business and state politics: ‘We don’t need all the people that they want. You know, don’t forget, I’m a businessperson. I tell my people, where you don’t need to fill slots, don’t fill them’ (Chappell 2017). Here, I would like to point out his incoherent and disconnected analogy between state politics and real estate business: a State cannot be administrated by applying methods of private company practices. Experts are necessary in every field, and in diplomacy and domestic and foreign politics, it is critical.
Trump’s advice to negotiators does not work in the realm of diplomacy. Diplomacy is not a real estate business. Diplomacy, to repeat, requires protocol and delicate balance with a respondent State. First of all, a head of state needs expertise and needs to listen to her/his diplomatic agents to make decisions on diplomatic issues or foreign policy. Second, in international relations, there are many different diplomatic methods to make decisions on foreign policy. The head of state should not be involved in all decision making processes because s/he cannot be an expert on all issues (such as education, military, the economy, sport, foreign policy, etc.). The head of state should delegate professionals, technocrats and ambassadors to deal with diplomatic issues. Otherwise, there is no sense in appointing ambassadors. Third, even though the head of state and her/his inner circle make the diplomatic decisions, s/he needs diplomatic agents abroad to implement the diplomatic decisions (McFaul 2017). Thus, the art of diplomacy requires expertise. Let me now provide more cases that illustrate Donald Trump’s non-diplomatic manner on Twitter in respect of diplomatic issues.
[y]ou would never try to build a Trump Tower without engineers, contractors, accountants and other experts on your team. Why would you try to conduct diplomacy without specialists by your side? … None of his top people at the State department, the Defense Department and the National Security Council have first-hand diplomatic experience.
This issue could have been discussed in a phone call or face to face with Xi Jinping, president of China. This tweet, however, reached more than fifty million followers of Trump. The second Twitter post contradicted his first tweet. The content and tone of the tweets show that either he does not care what his social media advisor and foreign policy experts say, or that he does not have any. Becoming a champion of Twitter and informing almost all foreign policy issues in a non-diplomatic way is definitely not a desirable way to govern the state.
President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done! (Trump 2018a)
China and the United States are working well together on trade, but past negotiations have been so one sided in favour of China, for so many years, that it is hard for them to make a deal that benefits both countries. But be cool, it will all work out! (Trump 2018b)
While his over-weening belief in his abilities may not, on Frankfurt’s definition, constitute bullshit, based on the evidence, Trump is talking ‘bullshit’. A headline from the Huffington Post, an admittedly, in 2016 captures Trump’s over-weening confidence: ‘Donald Trump ready to take Donald Trump’s excellent advice on foreign policy’ (Ahmed 2016). Ahmed (2016) sarcastically noted that ‘Donald Trump, already a real estate legend, reality TV star … wants to grant himself another title: Foreign policy whiz’. Trump’s celestial self-confidence, however, begs questions which might be quickly answered but which require specific explanations: what is his political background?; what are his successes in respect of foreign policy?; what makes him the top foreign politics adviser to the President?. Trump’s declamation, as Will (2017) defines it, ‘is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence’. The result, I suggest, is a president who must necessarily lie, make phony statements, and bullshit. Following Frankfurt, and as I discussed above, bullshit is ‘unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about’. Trump utters bullshit because his ‘obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic’ (Frankfurt 2005: 63). Trump’s overconfident reply may be interpreted by Trump as a masterstroke of governance, diplomacy or foreign policy. He may some day be rated as a doyen in the field of the real estate business - but not in State affairs. His reply may reflect that he does not have any advisors or experts in the field of foreign policy, but he apparently manipulated the question and tried to convince people that he has no shortage of foreign politics or diplomatic experts. In this sense, Frankfurt (2005: 61) rightly specifies that the bullshitter ‘does not reject the authority of the truth …. He pays no attention to it at all’, and by virtue of this, ‘bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth’ than are lies. Trump’s words may be popular with his base but diplomatically they are nonsense and do not have any grounding in reality. Further, Trump’s view of diplomacy is ‘narcissistic, not institutional’ (Burns 2019: 839).
I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I have said a lot of things … I know what I’m doing, and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people and the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are … . But my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff. (Collins 2016)
A joint statement was signed by the leaders on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Trump attended this diplomatically important meeting without the help of a nuclear scientist, science adviser or senior counsellor specialised in nuclear sciences (France 24 2018). As far as we know, nuclear physics does not fall within Trump’s area of expertise. Nichola Burns, who led negotiations on the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, and was the lead US negotiator on Iran’s nuclear program, criticised Trump stating that ‘you need to have an empowered senior adviser at the table. You can be sure the other side will have that’ (Davenport 2018). Ernest J. Moniz, who is a nuclear physicist and served as the thirteenth US Secretary of Energy from 2013 to January 2017, also explains that ‘there is going to be the requirement for trade-offs, and that judgment is best made by people with technical expertise who are also very senior politically. That just does not exist in this administration’ (Orr 2018). Graham (2019) defines Trump’s situation in international negotiations as vulnerable because he is neither properly and adequately informed on the issues, nor ‘willing to put in the time to learn, meaning he comes to a negotiating table already tilted against him’.
For years and through many administrations, everyone said that peace and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was not even a small possibility. Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity. Look forward to our meeting! (Trump 2018c)
This tweet prompted lawmakers to raise concerns about whether Trump’s authority should be limited. They then offered to legislate to limit the President’s capacity to launch a nuclear war/strike (Friedman 2017; Gould 2018). US senator Edward John Markey, US Senator from Massachusetts and a member of Democratic Party defined Trump’s tweet as a dangerous situation:
North Korean leader Kim Jung Un just stated the 'Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times'. Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works! (Trump 2018d)
Robert Patrick Casey Jr., the Democratic Party Senator from Pennsylvania, also expressed his exasperation at the lack of diplomacy in Trump’s tweet:
Worried that Donald Trump could launch a nuclear war? … No one person should have the power to decide when the US will be the first to use nuclear weapons. (Markey 2018).
In an interview with William Burns published in the New Yorker magazine, he was asked what he saw in Trump that was similar to some of the authoritarian leaders he had discussed earlier in the interview, such as Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.
This is exactly the kind of reckless behaviour I was hoping we would avoid in 2018. Please Mr. President, no more diplomacy via twitter. (Casey 2018)
Trump’s problematic statements derive from ‘a lack of basic competence and interest in the U.S. political system, its governance, and international affairs' (Kristiansen and Kaussler 2018: 28), with the consequence that his statements can be described as bullshit, outright lies, and simply and dangerously wrong. Statements on Twitter might be regarded as unsophisticated; however, as those statements come from the president, they represent the White House. Many of Trump’s tweets or statements delivered via interviews may now be classed as bullshit since they are not knowledgeable, are ignorant and deceptive: they show no concern for the facts or the truth, only for a version of reality that suits Trump’s aims. They are often, in addition, designed to defame and offend ‘while simultaneously inflating or fabricating the president’s accomplishments in order to make him look competent’ (Kristiansen and Kaussler 2018: 29). In the realm of diplomacy, Trump’s discourse of bullshit is the ultimate outcome of a political neophyte tasked with tweeting or making a statement on issues about which he has limited competence and practical knowledge (Kristiansen and Kaussler 2018: 29). Frankfurt (2006: 5) claimed that
I’d say is there’s […] a real danger – and you see this in the President’s dealing with autocrats around the world – to think that somehow you can endear yourself to them by dumping on your political enemies publicly abroad, and that somehow ingratiating yourself with authoritarian leaders will enable you to have more effective policies and promote American interests. Generally, in my experience, foreign authoritarians […] tend to see that as a sign of weakness and as a sign of manipulability (Chotiner 2019).
Trump is indifferent to truth; he is concerned to manipulate opinion and attitudes. In diplomacy, this is potentially very harmful. Both within a state and in international relations, words/statements of a head of state or another senior principal are considered to be highly significant. Further, they can establish international customary rules or law. Sometimes they are important enough to indicate interests of a state and sometimes they are critical for encouraging allies’ confidence. Haass (2018), who is a diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, explained in an interview on National Public Radio (USA) that when he worked at the White House under George Bush Senior, when the president said anything:
bullshitters, although they represent themselves as being engaged simply in conveying information, are not engaged in that enterprise at all. Instead, and most essentially, they are fakers and phonies who are attempting by what they say to manipulate the opinions and the attitudes of those to whom they speak. What they care about primarily, therefore, is whether what they say is effective in accomplishing this manipulation. Correspondingly, they are more or less indifferent to whether what they say is true or whether it is false.
Haass (2018) further claimed that casual or impulsive statements devalue presidential statements. Using social media badly might be a method of governing nasty inter-state relations but it is definitely not a diplomatic method. Using social media recklessly and impulsively in the way Trump has to date poses fundamental challenges to diplomacy and international relations.
it got scrubbed by the staff beforehand, often by the interagency – by the State Department, the Treasury, the Defense Department. The words of the President are the most valuable currency in the United States has in some ways … . So, the idea that it would be done casually or impulsively seems to me to undermine one of the most important tools the president of the United States has in his possession. (Haass 2018)
The denuclearisation in Korean Peninsula is a critical foreign policy issue and international problem, inter alia, is still on the table unresolved. It might be considered progress that North Korea has shut down some plants at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site; however, the shutting down of these plants ‘should not technically constitute a concrete step towards denuclearization because the Punggyere-ri [sic] site is just one of many nuclear sites and its total shut-down has not yet been verified’ (Kim 2019: 5). The denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula has become a determining case in explaining the incoherency of using diplomacy through social media. Let me now provide a sample case from Trump’s and Michael Pompeo’s (US Secretary of State) statements on social media platforms. On 24 February 2019, the following question was addressed to Pompeo on Fox News:
disappointing conclusion shook the public’s faith in summit diplomacy and undermined Seoul’s efforts to foster parallel processes: for denuclearizing North Korea, building a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and fostering inter-Korean economic cooperation.
Pompeo replied thus: ‘we may not get everything done this week. We hope we’ll make a substantial step along the way’ (US Mission Korea 2019). Pompeo here trod carefully and implicitly underlined that the complete denuclearisation would not accomplishable in the short term. Before this interview, however, Trump posted a tweet and stated that ‘[T]here is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Kore’ (Trump 2018e). Unlike Pompeo’s statement, Trump did not tread carefully. He unequivocally declared denuclearization in his tweet post. Pompeo, in another interview with Jake Tapper on CNN, contradicted Trump’s statement again:
The complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the only outcome that the United States will accept. Is that still President Trump’s position going into this summit: complete denuclearization and no U.S. concessions before then? (US Mission Korea 2019)
I offer two options for this contradiction between the president and his Secretary of State. First, Trump’s Twitter posts do not reflect what he says to his cabinet or diplomats: the tweets are for self-aggrandising effect. Second, Trump fabricates or reinterprets the facts to reflect how he would like things to be, that is, a president who can achieve what no other president could. Indifference to truth or facts obstructs successful diplomacy. Considering the combination of the aforementioned options, Trump both misleads his diplomats and cabinet members, and gives his 61 million followers false representation on matters as serious as denuclearisation. This demonstrates that Trump has no central interest in truth and does not care ‘whether the things he says describe reality correctly’ (Frankfurt 2005: 56). He just conjures up the conclusion he wants to achieve without regard to truth or reality.
Tapper: Do you think North Korea remains a nuclear threat?
Tapper: But the President said he doesn’t.
Pompeo: That’s not what he said. […] I know precisely what he said.
Tapper: He tweeted: There’s no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea. (Cillizza 2019)
More Bullshit than Diplomacy
If Trump’s methods in dealing with international negotiations is called diplomacy, it can be seen that they are ‘hopeless and dangerous endeavours’ (Friedman 2019). Trump’s approach towards international negotiations consists of bullshit, not diplomacy. He needs a different method or system to deal with foreign politics and international negotiations. The clue ‘to progress in a tricky international political negotiation is often to build trust, to persuade adversaries to take steps that they would previously have regarded as too risky’ (Financial Times 2018). However, Trump’s impulsive and threatening (or bullshit) manner in international negotiations ‘tends to burn trust, rather than build it’ (Financial Times 2018), an approach contrary to what the venerable Callières (2000: 3) advised with respect to securing and increasing power, and gaining ‘the hearts and wills of men’. His leadership is ‘erratic’ and this situation has left the USA and its diplomats ‘dangerously adrift, at a moment of profound transformation in the international order’ (Burns 2019: 16).
As widely reported in the British and US media, Kim Darroch was forced to resign his ambassadorial post on 10 July 2019 when President Trump, who described him as ‘wacky’ and a ‘pompous fool’, and would no longer deal with him.
This is an assessment by Gerard Araud, French Ambassador the States, on Trump’s administration. ‘Noone knows what he will decide or what will happen the day after’. Cited in The Atlantic, July 10, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/message-trump-sent-forcing-out-kim-darroch/593617/.
I would like to thank Dr. Alison MacKenzie for her insightful suggestions and constructive criticism.
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