"Trump does not have any experience in foreign policy"


Interview with Karin von Hippel, Director-General of The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and former US department official, about the foreign policy under President elect Donald Trump.

Karin von Hippel is Director-General of The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. She is the first non-Brit and the first woman to be appointed to the British Think-tank. Von Hippel worked in Washington DC as Chief of Staff to General (ret’d) John Allen, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter-ISIL. Before that she worked as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and as a Senior Adviser in the Bureau of Counterterrorism at the US Department of State. Prior to that, she worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC and at the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College London. She has also worked for the United Nations and the European Union in Somalia and Kosovo.

Cicero: President elect Donald Trump is completely inexperienced in foreign policy. It is very early to ask who will become Secretary of State, but one of the names floated now is Newt Gingrich. How would foreign policy under him look like?

Karin von Hippel: Newt Gingrich is considered more of a domestic expert than foreign policy, but he also has not been in government for many years. He speaks confidently about most issues, but I have not heard anything concrete from him on foreign policy. I am also not sure how long he would last, given that he too has a fairly healthy ego. He will likely get a senior job, but I am not sure if it would be foreign minister. In the Senate, there are three Republicans who are very experienced in foreign affairs: Senator Bob Corker, Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham. I can’t imagine Trump would give any position to Lindsey Graham because of a campaign feud: Graham called Donald Trump a “jackass” on live TV. Senator Bob Corker is a serious possibility, he currently chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is measured and experienced.

Cicero: Will Donald Trump listen to him?
Karin von Hippel: Throughout the Obama administration, foreign policy was mostly run from the White House. With Donald Trump, though, this could change. From what we know about him, Trump’s attention span is very short, he gets bored very quickly, he is not interested in details. Another issue with him is that he does not like people who speak truth to power. He seems to surround himself with people who are sycophantic. I am not sure how long someone with an opinion, not to mention a strong opinion would last.

Cicero: Trump can appoint a lot of people now to positions. Does he have enough trusted friends?

Karin von Hippel: He does not have the very wide circle that Clinton did, nor is he surrounded by real policy wonks like she was. At the State Department, I suspect there will be maneuvering now to insert as many competent career people as possible right now in order to have experts in place who can explain US foreign policy to the president. He might say: “Oh, let’s just do this or that!” And they will say: “Well, Sir, that would mean breaking the law or that is not possible because of x and y.” We can only hope that he will listen.

Cicero: Syria is a good example for this. Do you fear that he will engage the US more militarily, maybe together with Russia’s president Putin?

Karin von Hippel: It really depends what he asks the military to do. If he asks them to break the law, which he promised to do during the campaign (use torture or kill families of terrorists), the military won’t do it, they won’t break the law. We know from the campaign that plenty of people are very nervous about him, so they will watch him like a hawk. The US is running a pretty robust program in Syria, particularly against ISIL. America is supporting the Kurds now as they advance on Raqqa. Trump does not know any of these details, and when I hear him speak about what he would do to combat ISIL (or some of his advisers), they are usually advocating what the Obama administration is already doing, that is cutting off funding for terrorists, military action, messaging. Overall he is simply not well versed in US foreign policy. Some pundits have even made the case that they are not sure he understands the US Constitution and how laws are made. So, he is going to have to learn these things or trust those experts around him.

Cicero: If he does not listen to the experts, the world order as we knew it, could come down pretty quickly.

Karin von Hippel: President Barack Obama understood very well what was going on. And even he could not fix the Middle East. He unofficially gave Putin the green light to get involved because Obama ruled out the use of force in Syria to counter the regime. The worry now is that Trump might says to Putin, as part of one of the many “deals” he will make: “Go ahead and take the rest of Aleppo!” This essentially means continue killing civilians, and bombing hospitals, schools, etc. In this situation, Trump does not break the law, and Putin might be happy to keep doing what he is already doing. Putin does not seem remotely bothered by western or UN criticism of his current activity in Syria. In Syria, this could mean that Aleppo is razed to the ground. For the civilians this would be terrible. And the vacuum would be filled with jihadists, because I don’t see the Syrian regime having the strength to actually hold it.

Cicero: What can other governments do to prevent this?

Karin von Hippel: If Trump becomes too unhinged, as he occasionally did during the campaign, the allies will have to lean in on him to uphold international law. The role of the UN will also be important; thankfully we will have a strong new leader there with António Guterres.

Cicero: President elect Donald Trump has said that he thinks Nato should not defend countries, which do not pay their bills. Will Putin take this as a hint that he can do what he wants now?

Karin von Hippel: If Trump sits in a meeting and says: “Let’s just make everyone pay their bill, I don’t want to do this anymore;” then the experts such as McCain or Corker will hopefully explain in a coherent way why NATO is important etc. If Trump puts a few real experts in important jobs, there is a chance he will follow their advice, especially if he really is not interested in the minutiae of policy as many who know him claim.

Cicero: Trump has also said that Japan and South Korea should be allowed to have nuclear weapons.

Karin von Hippel: I don’t think he is going to follow through with that either. Someone will tell him that this is really a bad idea, and I think he will be a rational person when it comes to serious issues such as nuclear weapons, we all have to hope so! I assume this will be the case with many of his outlandish propositions.

Cicero: Can this Republican president work well with the conservative government in Britain? He thought Brexit was great and so does anyone in government here it seems.

Karin von Hippel: Theresa May understands that the people in this country voted for Brexit, and she has repeatedly said she will make it happen. I am not sure if she is behind Brexit or not, but she will do it. She is quite good about not letting her guard down, and unlike Boris Johnson, she did not comment on Donald Trump during the campaign. Which is a good thing, not only because she is a professional politician, but he can be quite vindictive, as we saw during the campaign.

Cicero: You worked under Hillary Clinton in the State Department, would she have made a great president for foreign policy?

Karin von Hippel: I think she is a very talented, smart and thorough professional. I assume some didn’t vote for her because they didn’t like her, but I suspect others were just not ready for a woman to be president in the United States.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz