Era dawns of statesmanship by Twitter

President-elect Donald Trump speaking at a news conference at Trump Tower in New York, Jan. 11, 2017. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By Repps Hudson

We may not be fully aware of this point: President-elect Donald Trump has drastically changed the way a person of his political stature communicates with world leaders, the public, his followers and pundits who defend him or attack him.

Governments around the world have been scrambling to get a fix on Trump’s tweets to determine what they could mean for relations with the United States.

Tweets, those 140-character social media messages from Trump at any time of day or night, are influencing and reshaping U.S. foreign policy and trade messages in erratic and unprecedented ways.

To understand this emerging form of statecraft, if one can call it that, we have to look at the president-elect’s tweets on matters of grave concern to the United States, its allies and rivals.

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Earlier this month, Trump referred to North Korea’s efforts to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon: “It won’t happen,” he tweeted. Then he added: “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!”

Think about that for a moment. North Korea’s drive to develop nuclear weapons that can be targeted and delivered on American allies such as Japan and South Korea as well as, eventually, American territory such as Hawaii and even the West Coast may emerge as one of the top foreign-policy issues of a Trump administration.

Is it wise to risk inflaming tensions between Washington and Pyongyang using tweets?

Moreover, the Chinese government in Beijing will be necessary in helping the United States maneuver Kim Jong Un, the young, brash North Korean leader, into a more peaceful, nonthreatening posture.

Why tweet things that could rankle Chinese leaders, cause them to lose face and turn them against the United States when Washington needs their help? Shaming people doesn’t work well in international relations.

In trying to make sense of Trump’s 140-character approach to complex foreign policy and trade issues, I contacted a colleague at Washington University, Jeremy Caddel, a lecturer in political science and foreign policy.

Isn’t Trump’s use of Twitter likely to inflame many world leaders and undermine America’s leadership role in this troubled world?

Caddel said he’s been thinking about Trump’s penchant for tweeting on matters both grave and petty.

“It’s definitely a public statement,” he said, because it comes from the president.

But, he said, incoming presidents historically have remained quiet out of respect for the outgoing president’s position and policies.

Caddel referred to this standard: One president at a time. And, presidents-elect don’t publicly express their opinions on foreign policy before they take office.

Trump is different in that he has entered the fray by tweeting about issues for which he does not have responsibility until he takes the oath of office Friday.

This creates confusion and uncertainty in an already confusing and uncertain time.

Trump has and surely will continue tweeting right through Inauguration Day.

Furthermore, Caddel said, the usual practice in changing foreign policy positions is for the professionals — the knowledgeable longtimers — in the State, Commerce, Defense and other U.S. agencies to suggest policy positions based on history, past practices and consideration of other agencies’ policies and other governments’ positions.

Those work their way through the bureaucracy up to the White House, where the president, in theory, takes a measured position on an issue, reining in North Korea or changing trade policies with China or moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

One way to regard Trump’s tweets on these most serious and possibly consequential matters is to see that they may create a short-term gain. Move the embassy to Jerusalem. There. It’s done. There may be riots in the Arab streets, but the deed is done. Many Israelis could be very happy.

What’s the long-term effect? Worsening Israeli and U.S. relations with many Arab governments, perhaps. More isolation of the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Increased tensions. Perhaps more ISIS attacks against U.S. interests and allies. Heightened conflict in and around Israel.

Many risks. Many unknowns.

The short-term gain, the thrill of a Trump tweet poking a rival in the eye, could lead to long-term uncertainty in a world that already is need of a steady, calm hand on the tiller in Washington.

The conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks had this to say recently about Trump’s foreign policy tweets:

“They emerged from no analytic process and point to no implemental effects. Trump’s statements seem to spring spontaneously from his middle-of-night feelings. They are astoundingly ambiguous and defy interpretation. … [The president is] the top piece of a big system, and his ability to create change depends on his ability to leverage and mobilize the system. His statements are carefully parsed around the world because presidential shifts in verbal emphasis are not personal shifts; they are national shifts that signal changes in a superpower’s actual behavior.”

Trump has found a way to go over the heads of reporters to his 19.1 million followers and to the American and world publics.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invented the fireside chat, by radio, the hot medium of its day, to speak directly to the American people in the crisis of the Great Depression. Presidents ever since have tried to find ways to inform the people of their side of the story.

President Barack Obama’s administration developed a sophisticated website to get his point of view out to those who wanted to find it on the internet.

Now Trump is tweeting his impulses and feelings about a broad range of issues.

Is this a sound way to make and shape U.S. foreign and trade policy?

We are about to find out.