Ambassadors express disappointment with Trump’s foreign policy


The former German ambassador to North Korea, the former Kyrgyz ambassador to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal and the former American ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates speak about about Trump’s impact on foreign policy./ Photo by Lauren Scornavacca

Charlie Wolfson

More than 100 people gathered in the Snell Engineering Center Wednesday night for a panel discussion on international relations and diplomacy under President Donald J. Trump, featuring three former ambassadors who agreed Trump’s approach to foreign policy has been disappointing and has made diplomacy more difficult.

Northeastern University College of Professional Studies hosted the discussion, which was moderated by Northeastern professor Marissa Lombardi. Speakers were former ambassadors Friedrich Lohr of Germany, Baktybek Beshimov of Kyrgyzstan and William Rugh of the United States, all of whom are currently Northeastern faculty members.

Lohr, who served as the German ambassador to North Korea from 2005 to 2007, said he was concerned about Trump’s “America First” policies on the world stage.

“If we want to show others that we are the 500-pound gorilla, there could be short-term advantages, but there are long-term disadvantages,” Lohr said.

He lamented Trump’s aggressive stances toward long-standing agreements and partnerships like NATO, the Paris Climate Accords and U.S. support for the European Union.

“Don’t make enemies unless you really have to,” he said. “Consider Newton’s law of action and reaction. There may be short term gains to his actions, but there could, and probably will be, consequences.”

Rugh said these alliances are valued by many other nations and past U.S. administrations, but not by the Trump administration. Trump’s threats to remove American validation of the alliances and agreements have created unrest in the diplomatic field.

“When the president criticizes these agreements, it hurts our ability to make policy,” he said. “He tries to put America first, but these other countries won’t just accept that for nothing.”

Ambassador Beshimov, who served as the Kyrgyz ambassador to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, provided an example.

“He’s withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the expense of making China more powerful,” Beshimov said. “He should change his slogan: Make China Great Again.”

Rugh also noted that Trump’s eschewing of the Paris Climate Accords could have less impact than he may hope.

“The Paris Accords are going ahead, not only with the rest of the world but with many groups and communities in the U.S.,” he said. “Also, the agreement isn’t implemented for a couple years. Perhaps we’ll have a change in leadership in three years, or sooner, and we’ll go back.”

Rugh, speaking from his experience in the U.S. foreign service — which included being the ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates — said Trump’s actions since his inauguration have made work drastically more difficult for the thousands of U.S. diplomats still employed despite significant budget cuts at the State Department.

“Diplomats must be truthful,” Rugh said. “Not only because it’s morally right, but because it’s a more effective way to make policy and cooperate with foreign diplomats. Foreigners hear every day that our president lies, and that’s a big problem because we’re trying to persuade our counterparts that we’re being truthful.”

Rugh also said foreign diplomats, while they may criticize U.S. foreign policy, appreciate U.S. systems such as democracy, the judicial system and freedom of the press. When Trump undermines those institutions — he has openly criticized his own Justice Department, labeled a federal election as being defrauded and frequently spreads anti-press sentiments — it takes away credibility from U.S. diplomats’ disposal, Rugh said.

Northeastern students and faculty members said they were drawn to this panel by the unusual opportunity to hear from people with first-hand diplomacy experience — in several different countries and administrations — on issues of great importance today.

One College of Professional Studies faculty member in the audience, Carolyn Bair, specializes in higher education administration but has a great interest in international affairs.

“I was fascinated to find out that we had these panelists in our community,” Bair said. “I was very curious to hear their views. They certainly have a unique perspective.”

Hamza Oussu, a second-year international affairs and economics combined major, attended the panel in part because he’s interested in a career in diplomacy. Much of what he heard resonated with his views.

“I mostly agreed,” Oussu said. “Especially the talk about reversing policies. That carries a lot more importance than some people realize.”

Other topics panelists covered included authoritarianism, Trump’s use of Twitter and the Iran nuclear deal.

Beshimov, who has an extensive background in West Asia, including experience around numerous authoritarian leaders, said it’s obvious Trump is comfortable with such leaders. Trump has been noted for his lack of criticism toward world leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

“He’s useful to people like Duterte,” Beshimov said. “They can use him to gain concessions. It’s dangerous and unpredictable.”

Lohr criticized Trump’s tact in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear threats. He quoted former U.S. General Colin Powell: “Once you’re getting into war, know how you’re getting out.”

“It’s not conducive to a solution when you switch from planning and criticizing to insulting,” Lohr said.

Trump called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “short and fat” on Twitter last week. Rugh took issue with Trump’s habit of tweeting on a daily basis, saying Trump tweets off the cuff instead of carefully considering the issues.

“The State Department has 6,000 foreign agents, each with an area of expertise, and he’s ignoring them,” Rugh said. “You develop policy by discussing and coming to a consensus. The president of the United States doesn’t do that. He thinks there’s nothing he can learn from talking to the experts. That’s a huge mistake.”

Aside from the slew of critiques of the current U.S. administration’s foreign relations, all three panelists encouraged students in the audience to nevertheless get involved in foreign affairs and seek jobs in the field.

“Don’t give up because we have a temporary problem with leadership,” Rugh said. “I’m optimistic in the long run. The American system of institutions won’t allow Trump to overturn our diplomatic system forever.”