Donald Trump stands at a podium, staring intently ahead during a rally. He wears a navy blue suit, white shirt and red and white striped tie. Some of his audience sit behind him, some holding placards.

Recent times have illuminated sharply the importance of skilled engagement and dialogue in international affairs. Lyndsey Croal examines the North Korean crisis and Brexit negotiations to illustrate what happens when these characteristics are lacking. 


One of the most important processes underpinning international affairs is diplomacy and dialogue. There is a frequent need to tackle and diffuse complex issues in ways that avoid unnecessary confrontation, risk or damage. Where such engagement is lacking, situations can become unnecessarily complicated, the chances of reaching consensus reduced. It can even be dangerous.

Recent months have seen a wave of instances where diplomacy has been so poorly executed that it has damaged the course of sensitive, politically important situations. These instances have confirmed a key political truism: that the construction, framing, and use of words and tone matter greatly in international affairs. The importance of meaningful interaction ought to be acknowledged and embraced by our political leaders.

TRUMP vs KIM JONG UN

Having been elected President of the United States, we have even seen Donald Trump undermining ongoing discussions, boasting of not having dialogue, or proclaiming that dialogue is useless.  His rampant use of social media has made situations far worse.

Mr Trump recently tweeted, following a tit-for-tat ‘who can throw the best childish insult’ battle with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” He continued: “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now?”

That a US President would publicly undermine the work of senior colleagues engaged in current diplomatic efforts adds fuel to the standoff between the US and North Korea, and also personalises it. It comes to the point where mere petty squabbling risks destabilising an entire diplomatic process, further risking a future conflict which may have a nuclear dimension.


US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insists diplomacy with North Korea will continue, despite what President Trump has tweeted. Image: US State Department [CC]

There is another dangerous component to Trump’s words: he implies that there is no active diplomatic engagement between Washington and Pyongyang (either in public or behind the scenes), which we know is untrue. And he states that there is no need for such dialogue; that it is a waste of time.

Trump’s approach encourages Americans to believe that they as a nation are above the need to answer to, or even compromise with, others. It tells a story that this is the way a ‘rogue’ nation like North Korea should be treated: there is no room (and nor should there be) for possible negotiation as long as North Korea is offending the United States. The only way to respond to “Rocket Man” is in the only language that he will supposedly understand: the threat of annihilation.

In taking this approach, Trump’s narrative gives the unsettling impression that future conflict with North Korea may be likely, even necessary. He is thus also sending the world into a cycle of fear over the now not-so-far-fetched prospect of a nuclear war. Against the backdrop of the signing of the landmark nuclear non-proliferation treaty earlier this year by the overwhelming majority of the world’s states, the world’s biggest superpower responds with quite the opposite message.

THE VALUE OF DIPLOMATIC ENGAGEMENT

The picture that Trump promotes is a highly personal one of dominance and division. It is just the kind of approach that Barack Obama worked hard to challenge during his presidency, in an attempt to repair the image of the US as an aggravator on the world scene.

Obama’s engagement with Iran represents a success story in recent US diplomacy. His predecessor George W Bush had vowed publicly never to negotiate with Tehran but this served only to escalate tensions with the Middle Eastern state. Simply by being willing to try to bridge that gap, Barack Obama managed to help secure the Iran nuclear deal. Whilst unpopular in some quarters, the Iran deal showed the value success of engaging in dialogue. Trump’s apparent eagerness to pull out of this deal shows that hard-won progress in international affairs can be undone with frightening speed.


The absence of dialogue in international crises is extremely risky. But to boast about not wanting dialogue, and asserting that it is not needed because there are ‘other options available’, is the ultimate step towards isolation and danger.

Whilst previous US administrations have been far from perfect, the Trump administration seems to have embraced this isolationist trend, damaging the positive steps that its predecessors have taken. President Trump seems intent on cutting a variety of ties in international affairs: pulling out of the Paris climate accord and more recently from its membership of UNESCO, because US interests are not being protected or considered. It puts the US on an increasingly conflicted path in international relations, solidifying the nation’s growing unpopularity.

Much of the negativity surrounding these developments has arisen from the manner in which President Trump communicates. His apparent lack of self-censorship and consideration of what he says is a huge deviation from previous administrations. Trump is certainly challenging the status quo: but he is not doing so in a way that benefits American interests. And he is damaging international relations.

The absence of dialogue in international crises is extremely risky. But to boast about not wanting dialogue, and asserting that it is not needed because there are ‘other options available’, is the ultimate step towards isolation and danger.

THE BREXIT CONVERSATION

Even where there is a will for dialogue in important international situations, there is still scope for doing damage. We have seen this since the very start of Brexit negotiations. The way in which the European Union (EU), and various EU actors, have been portrayed by leading British political figures has been both perplexing and counter-productive.

Just recently, the Chancellor Philip Hammond referred to Brussels as “the enemy” of Brexit talks in a statement in which he claimed to be fully behind leaving the EU. Amidst a barrage of criticism, Hammond issued an apology, calling the statement a “poor choice of words” – but the damage was already done. Indeed, the tone of his apology was not particularly reconciliatory either.


The UK Chancellor Philip Hammond, who recently referred to the EU’s Brexit negotiators as “the enemy”. Image: Chatham House Flickr account [CC BY 2.0]

Since the beginning of Brexit talks, there has been much criticism of the UK government’s negotiation style and there have been endless reports from EU officials of how unsatisfactory the UK’s approach has been. Both the European Commission President Jean Claude-Juncker and Brussels’ chief Brexit negotiator Michael Barnier have observed that their British counterparts have lacked clarity in negotiations. Both have urged the UK government to take the Brexit discussions more seriously. Both sides have accused each other of inflexibility. This dynamic may make compromise incredibly difficult to obtain.

The UK government must do better in its public diplomacy on Brexit. Disrespecting the other side, or failing to acknowledge that it has its own views and ambitions for the negotiations at hand, is not the way to make progress in negotiations. At best, it makes the UK government come across as a bully, attempting to maintain its dwindling significance in international affairs. At worst, it makes it look thoroughly incompetent in the art of skilful diplomacy.


It is perhaps only when we see diplomacy done badly that we realise how important it is that our political leaders appreciate the value of tact and compromise.

The rhetoric arising from recent Brexit negotiations is therefore not totally unlike that being demonstrated in Trump’s recent dealings with North Korea: there is at times a strong sense from Brexiteers that Britain is somehow above its EU counterparts, and that it does not need to lower itself into making a compromise. While the North Korea situation is more extreme in terms of its potential repercussions, both instances reflect an aloof ‘us’ versus ‘them’ approach. Both instances also highlight a lack of diplomatic sophistication, and an absence of foresight into the negative effects that ‘our’ approach might have.

Whilst the North Korean crisis and the Brexit negotiations differ in nature, they illustrate fully the importance of meaningful and measured dialogue which can address the difficulties at hand, not inflame them. It is perhaps only when we see diplomacy done badly that we realise how important it is that our political leaders appreciate the value of tact and compromise. When those skills are lacking, there is inevitably a struggle to make progress which ensures that the war of the words will continue.


Lyndsey Croal has a Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of St Andrews and is interested in international security, human rights, international development, and terrorism studies. She runs her own current affairs blog, The Peace and Conflict Thread (The PACT), volunteers with an NGO on the Thai-Burma border. Lyndsey is on twitter as @LyndsCroal


Feature image: the US President Donald Trump. Image: Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 2.0]