A Tempered Harpoon is a column on American Politics written by the ’18-’19 Editor in Chief, Chris Park (’19). – Ed.
I had an opportunity to go on a trip to Doha, Qatar to attend the THIMUN Qatar conference as a student officer. Perhaps more than the conference, the geopolitical strife in that region which had a profound influence on the milieu of Doha particularly piqued my intrigue. Much of Doha remained the same as two years ago when I first visited to attend an honor orchestra festival, it’s towering skyscrapers, busy traffic, dhow boats around the Corniche. But there was one obvious change since then: a black and white painting plastered everywhere I went, on car bumpers, on newspapers, on sides of buildings, on t-shirts, on phone cases, on the Qatari flag.
A delegate approached me on the second day of the conference. She had lost her phone. An iPhone with a Tamim sticker. Is that it? I asked, pointing at the phone on my desk. There it was again, the face. To my co-chair Annie, Why is this face everywhere?
She kindly explained: the black and white painting is of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Than, called “Tamim al Majd” (or Tamim the glorious). After neighboring states of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain, along with several other Arab and African states, cut diplomatic ties, Qatari citizens decided to unite behind the Emir and, to show their support for his defiance against the other GCC states, circulated the “Tamim the glorious”—might I note, depicted far more youthfully— across the country. In time of crisis that rattles a country to its core, when it’s so easy to point fingers at the government, the Qatari citizens united to firmly support their monarch. Images flashed before me. The post-911 mass donning of the American flag lapel pins, streets of Paris deluged with “Je suis Charlie” signs after the 2015 shootings, or, in a slightly different sense, the millions of candle sticks in the movement to impeach President Park. Call it slacktivism if you will, but man if these images don’t carry profound messages. But in Qatar, this wave was something different. It was a person—mind you, a non-elected monarch—behind whom 200 thousand people rallied behind. Willful political unity behind a monarch. That, to me, was simply fascinating.
Thinking about this on the eight hour plane ride back home, it also got me thinking about the state of our union. Say that United States suddenly gets embroiled in a conflict with another country. Anything. Canada and Mexico plotting to cut all diplomatic ties with the United States; Kremlin shooting down American satellites; North Korean nuclear attack on Hawaii. In these cases, can the President be a leading icon behind which 300 million Americans can unite to collectively join the fight in defending the United States, as did the Emir?
American presidents historically have turned to foreign policy to bring about massive public support behind their administration. For JFK, the Cuban Missile Crisis helped his dropping approval ratings bounce up, saving the Democrats in the 1962 mid-term elections; Bush 41’s approval rating skyrocketed after the successful American intervention in the Gulf War; Bush 43 once enjoyed over 90 percent approval rating following the 911 attacks.
The other side of the picture, however, is that those presidents all successfully led the country in these crises, at seen by the outcomes of each event. Khruschev was removed from power soon after, many judging that Kennedy outwitted him; the Gulf War continues to remain as Bush 41’s key legacies; the Republicans gained seats in the 2002 elections, making it only the third time the party of the incumbent president gained Congressional seats in a mid-term election.
But would Trump be able to navigate through and negotiate with the intricate diplomatic world with his dysfunctional and dwindling Department of State, while being constantly pressured to be in line with whatever being said on Sean Hannity or Fox and Friends, alongside—to a lesser extent—White House staff and Congressional Republican influences? Or would Trump again be, as Chuck Schumer put it, “like negotiating with Jell-O”? Think back to the 2016 Russian meddling in the election. Instead of working to unite the country against Russia, he instead was a leading force in further dividing the already politically polarized nation, spewing off several conspiracy theories that even members of his party denounced. I’m reminded of President Carter handling the Iranian Hostage Crisis who, mired in political pressures from politicians and Henry Kissinger, botched the entire operation with myopic policy decisions.
Cognizant of his repeated public taunts on Kim Jong Un, reports of offensive mimicking of Narendra Modi, dismantling of the Iran Deal (which even Rand Paul begrudgingly supports), or constant push in his “America First” rhetoric against NAFTA or KORUS FTA, it seems almost inevitable that international conflict will occur sometime during his first term. For Trump, I doubt foreign policy is going to be a legacy-saver. Surrounded by a myriad of often conflicting views, President Trump would not serve as a leader that the country—both Republicans and Democrats—can coalesce to present a united front against the foreign enemies while the 70% or so Americans who disapprove Trump simply abandon him. This would indeed, perhaps humorously said during the election, make Trump the last President of the United States. Maybe not literally. But nevertheless, the dignity of the Office of the POTUS—and the United States of America—would be immensely diminished on the international stage.
The good news is that there isn’t a conflict yet. But President Trump needs to act if he doesn’t want the United States in a diplomatic crisis, starting by restructuring and rebuilding the State Department. The State Department’s third-ranking diplomat retired earlier this week in a mass exodus of hundreds of diplomats since the President’s inauguration. Also, more than a year into his term, more than half of the ambassadorships have yet to be filled. There hasn’t even been an appointment for the position of ambassador of Republic of Korea—perhaps a top-priority position if Trump was serious about fostering closer relationship with the country—Mexico—the United States’ third largest trading partner—and dozens of other countries. What made American international presence so strong are not only the principles that the stars and stripes represented, but also the diplomats who carried out those tenets into action.
At least until January 20, 2021, Donald Trump will be the POTUS and it is his responsibility to maintain American international prominence, as he promised during the election. Good foreign policy could, at the same time, be this administration’s only way of boosting Trump’s dismal approval rating. So, Mr. President, the time is now to restore the might of the State Department whose halls once graced diplomatic luminaries.
– Chris Hyunsoo Park (’19)
Featured image: Associated Press/Evan Vucci