Walking outside to address reporters at his golf estate in Bedminister, New Jersey, U.S. President Donald Trump Thursday showcased the bravado that has become one of the hallmarks of his presidency.
“Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” he said, responding to a question about his increasingly tough talk about North Korea following Pyongyang’s threat to launch missiles in the direction of Guam, or at other U.S. allies.
On Friday, the president returned to the theme on Twitter.
“Military solutions are now fully in place,locked and loaded,should North Korea act unwisely,” Trump tweeted.
Within hours, the president’s post had been retweeted more than 22,500 times, getting more than 57,000 likes.
Trump’s words, both in person and on social media, fell into a pattern of what U.S. allies and partners describe as a concerning new reality, that of a world leader constantly ratcheting up his rhetoric while playing to his political base, even on the world stage.
At best, these officials describe Trump’s rhetoric and tweets as distractions to be ignored. At worst, they say, they can be a complication.
The officials, from several countries long considered key U.S. allies or which have forged important relationships with the U.S., agreed to speak to VOA over a course of several months, insisting on anonymity because of the high degree of sensitivity surrounding such matters.
“We always have important things to discuss with our American allies… but it is the elephant in the room,” one Western diplomatic official told VOA of Trump’s tweets. “People see it.”
“The tweets are more for his national base,” said a second Western diplomatic official from another country, noting that even so, they cannot be ignored.
“We follow them,” he said.
Both of the officials, along with others who spoke with VOA, said they and their colleagues do their best to ignore Trump’s so-called tweet storms and have advised their governments to do the same.
Yet they admit the attention-grabbing nature of Trump’s rhetoric, whether on social media or during speeches or interviews, makes it hard for their compatriots to ignore.
Often, these U.S.-based officials say, they are forced to deal with questions from those hoping to understand what the U.S. president really means, whether it is important and what all of this says about the state of affairs in Washington.
VOA contacted the White House, asking about the concerns being raised by foreign officials, and about whether any countries have raised such concerns directly with the administration. A White House spokesperson said a response would be sent via email but VOA had not yet received any email at the time this article was published.
Still, the president himself has used Twitter to defend his use of social media, indicating he will not give it up.
Allies changing diplomatic tactics
Already, though, the foreign officials who spoke with VOA said Trump’s use of rhetoric and social media has impacted the way they prepare their heads of state and other officials for trips to Washington.
In addition to familiarizing the visiting dignitaries with Trump’s background and how he is likely to greet and act during the visit, the briefers say they constantly remind their principles to be careful not to take any of the U.S. president’s public statements too seriously.
All that matters, according to these foreign officials, is what is discussed in private, directly with the president. And even then, many treat any verbal promises or agreements with caution, a development they find worrying.
“A lot of people are now concerned,” the second diplomat told VOA. “We have to see the concrete action and the operational decisions on the ground.”
Despite such unease, many of these same officials play down concerns about more far-reaching consequences, at least when it comes to ongoing areas of cooperation.
Joint efforts on issues like intelligence sharing and counterterrorism remain strong, the officials say, pointing to long-running relationships forged over the years by their countries and U.S. agencies.
“It’s very hard for the U.S. to go back on this,” a Western diplomatic official told VOA earlier this year. “This goes way beyond the president.”
Still, there are those who wonder how long such cooperation can remain unaffected by President Trump’s unscripted communications, which at times have undercut statements from other, key U.S. officials. Several weeks ago, Trump took to Twitter to proclaim a new policy banning transgender individuals from serving in “any capacity” in the military.
The tweets caught U.S. military officials by surprise, as no official guidance had been issued on any change in policy.
There are also numerous examples of Trump using his Twitter account to call out leaders, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
That same day, he used the platform to go after the mayor of London, following the London Bridge terror attack in June.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan accused Trump of taking his statement out of context and promptly called on the British government to cancel a planned visit by the U.S. leader.
And then there has been Trump’s steady stream of tweets about Russia, often seeming to downplay concerns that Russia tried to meddle in the U.S. presidential election, contrary to the assessment of the top U.S. intelligence agencies.
“The problem is that when anyone other than [President Trump] is describing U.S. policy, no one believes it is definitive because he is so erratic with his tweets,’ former CIA and NSA Director, ret. Gen. Michael Hayden told VOA via email.
“It’s unnerving to allies. It sends mixed signals to adversaries,” added Terence Szuplat, who served as chief foreign policy speech writer for former U.S. President Barack Obama, further describing President Trump’s use of Twitter as “grossly irresponsible.”
“It just diminishes and cheapens the role of this president,” he said. “The words of this president are just not taken seriously around the world.”
Other long-time observers of international affairs think such assessments may be overstated.
“Sometimes too much is read into the Twitter statements,” said Nile Gardiner, who was a foreign policy researcher for former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “I don’t think they undercut the United States on the world stage.”
Gardiner, now the director of the Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, said the way President Trump uses social media could very well become the norm as a new generation of leaders steps to the forefront.
“Twitter is just one component that helps inform foreign governments about the possible position or thinking of another administration. But nothing replaces good old-fashioned diplomacy and one-on-one conversations,” he said. “And I do think that President Trump devotes a lot of time to old fashioned diplomacy, actually.”
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