Trump administration has trouble speaking with one voice – ex-US Ambassador to UN

Six months into his term, Donald Trump is already disrupting the existing global order, pulling the US out of international agreements like the TPP and the Paris Climate deal, as well as jeopardizing partnerships and lecturing decades-old allies on defense spending. How will America’s new posturing affect its role on the world stage? We ask former US governor and ex-Ambassador to the UN – Bill Richardson.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Governor Richardson, thanks for being with us today. It’s a great pleasure to have you on our show.

Bill Richardson: Great to be with you.

SS:So we start with the latest, the US has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement - and the Boston Globe even went as far as calling the move ‘an unveiling of the new world order’ - in your opinion, how does a new world order look like, where America put its own interests ahead of global interests?

BR:Well the “America first” campaign of President Trump, unfortunately, he’s taking it into his presidency. I wish he had left at the end of the campaign. I think leaving the Paris Climate agreement abdicates American leadership, environmental stewardship, because what you see with the climate agreement, which is mainly the United States, China and the European Union and countries like Russia is that the climate is getting worse, it’s worsening, it’s getting warmer. And what you have is a crisis of leadership if the world’s largest polluter pulls out. I think that’s a terrible mistake.

SS: After the latest NATO summit happened, German chancellor Merkel said the EU is ‘taking its fate into its own hands’ - do you feel like the US is losing one of its key allies - Germany? 

BR:I think President Trump is learning as he gets more experienced, but his view about NATO being obsolete is wrong, I think it is the strongest in the world. It’s close to 30 countries banding together for democratic values, democratic countries. And he’s obviously changing but his emphasis on NATO countries paying the 2 percent - that’s important, but that’s not the main objective of NATO. The main objective of NATO is political and military alliance. And I think as he becomes more experience with issues relating to nuclear weapons, troop levels, Ukraine, many others, he will recognise the importance of the alliance.

SS: But whatever is happening right now - dropping out of the Paris agreement, and the way it looks to us - losing key allies like Germany, alienating itself from Germany - is this a deliberate step from Trump or is this something new for him and he doesn’t really know what he’s doing?

BR:Well I don’t know President Trump that well, I’m a democrat, I was very strong for Hillary Clinton. But it seems he is fulfilling his campaign promises with a very small sector of the American electorate - about 35 %, playing to his base - America first, populism, ‘we’re going to make out allies pay’, ‘we’re going to find ways to not honour international agreements’. It seems like almost everything President Obama did, Donald Trump wants to turn around. Hopefully this will change as he gets more into his presidency and realises that the United States is the world leader, but we need allies and alliances instead of always seeming to fight our friends, like Germany, like Canada, like Mexico. It seems that we’re abdicating the leadership that we’ve long had.

SS: But you know right after the NATO summit Secretary of State Tillerson has said that actually NATO’s Secretary General thanked him, saying now the members are going to contribute more into NATO. Do you think that maybe Trump’s tough posturing strengthening NATO?

BR: I think clearly American presidents have long said that our allies in NATO should pay their 2 % and very few have. So that is the positive side perhaps. But it’s just the tone - coming to a NATO summit and instead of talking about issues that unite us, like Ukraine, like finding ways to preserve the alliance, like fighting ISIS, like participating in the military effort against terrorism, like working together on terrorism, you emphasise the cost, the 2 % as opposed to the importance of the alliance in political and military terms on issues like terrorism.

SS: Yeah, it does seem like Trump is treating his allies like business partners because he always talks about them paying up? 

BR: Well, you know, he won the presidency, I respect him for that, he ran a very good campaign as an outsider. He’s a businessman, he’s a different kind of leader. But I think it’s important that he realises that governments operate differently than businesses and you have to have a combination of diplomacy, of negotiation, but also finding ways of working together rather than just fighting each other all the time as he seems to be doing to get his final objective.

SS: You know, I want to talk a bit about the trade pacts, because a few years ago it was all the rage, but right now we have - T-TIP is dead, the TPP is dead, NAFTA is under fire - what are we seeing right now? Are we back to borders and barriers?

BR: I think it’s important to build bridges and not walls and part of the president’s campaign - there are a lot of American workers that feel that trade agreements are bad for them, that they lost jobs, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the potential trade agreement with Europe, the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. But technology has been responsible for the loss of some of those jobs, but on the whole I believe these trade agreements create jobs for both countries because you have free trade, you have innovation, you have ways which countries interact and increase their exports. My hope is that NAFTA - the trade agreement with Mexico, they make some minor adjustments, my hope is with the Trans-Pacific partnership, which is eleven countries, we don’t abdicate, because China is going to be the beneficiary. And maybe after the relationship with Europe is strengthened again, a common market, the European Union agreement with the United States is brought back again. It’s not dead yet.

SS: Let’s talk about the actual border, the wall with Mexico that President Trump wants to build. He wants to build this wall to stop the illegal inflow of migrants and drugs. Now you’ve been a governor to the state of New Mexico, you’ve experienced this problem firsthand - would you welcome such tough measures of control?

BR: No, I think the wall is a very bad idea. It’s not going to work. First of all, illegal immigration from Mexico is not the main problem, it’s migration from Central American countries fleeing political oppression and they come through tunnels, they don’t necessarily come through crossing the border. Actually immigration from Mexico has dramatically decreased, I speak as a border governor. I think what we need is yes, we got to stop illegal immigration, but you do that with more technology, more boots on the ground, or more border patrol agents. You do it with also recognising that there are eleven million illegal entrants into the United States. All they want to do is feed their families and they do jobs that in the United States in agriculture and technology are important. 

SS: So obviously Mexico is not going to pay it, but Trump feels very strongly about this wall, it’s one of his campaign promises that up to this day he seems to be sticking to. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the Congress, do you feel like they want to pay 20 billion dollars to build this wall? Is this wall going to take place, in your opinion? 

BR: Well, the Congress has already said that it is not going to pay for it. And Mexico is not going to pay for it, so what the president wants to do is maybe an import tax that pays for it. I think he should drop that issue. I think his political base is satisfied, he’s made his case. Let’s move on and build bridges, stronger ties with Mexico. I think the message has been sent. But this continued division, you know, 20 % of the American people are of hispanic origin. President Trump got 90 % of that vote against him. It doesn’t make sense and it divides families. It hurts human beings. It is something that like in Europe - I respect the fact that there are refugees and people like Angela Merkel have welcomed them. They strengthen the fabric of the society. I know there are some security concerns, but lets find ways to integrate these people. All they want to do it better their economic being or they’re fleeing political oppression.

SS: So while the White House is looking for ways to find money and build that wall, we have the Secretary of State Tillerson actually having to defend the cuts in foreign aid. At a recent Senate hearing, lawmakers argued that decreasing foreign aid actually hurts American soft power, but I’ve personally spoken to many presidents and NGO leaders who are saying foreign aid is often misspent, stolen, brings as much harm as it does good - so maybe the Trump cabinet is right in cutting what it sees as wasteful spending?

BR: First of all the Congress makes the decision on spending and I don’t think President Trump is going to get his 30% cut in the State Department or the United Nations. It won’t happen, because the Congress are strong supporters of foreign aid programmes. Because they advance our security, our economic, our educational interests. But it still sends a message that the United States is retreating, that it’s isolationist, that international agreements and international assistance is not important. When it is! When you’ve got so many other problems like endemic diseases, countries in poverty, women being abused. This is funding programmes that advance U.S. interests.  

SS: I want to ponder on what is going inside the State department because some of the employees of the State Department are very critical of Trump’s foreign policy. Now to people outside America that looks a little weird. Do you feel like they’re sabotaging him - or is it just moderation? 

BR: Well no, they’re concerned because the President says he’s going to cut the federal workforce and the programmes that State Department employees implement. The President says he wants to cut 30 % so many of them over the years with the bipartisan republican, democratic presidents, they have not faced this kind of hostility. But I think eventually the President is going to be forced to change either by the Congress that refuses to make these cuts or I think he learns that international understanding is better off when you’re working with other countries, not fighting them all the time.  

SS: But also,even inside his cabinet we see controversies, like the latest was I guess the confusion on the Qatar crisis. You have Tillerson that came out and said that we have to stay calm and the process has to be thoughtful, and we’re all for “thoughtful dialogue” and an hour later Trump joined the anti-Qatar camp and he was saying Qatar is sponsoring terrorism. So we’re a little confused , what’s going on here? Are the just playing ‘good cop, bad cop’ or they really don’t have an agreement on major issues?

BR: Well, every new administration has trouble speaking with one voice, but I think the Trump administration...

SS: Really, you think so?

BR: ...exceeds that. Yea, you know, the President tweets in the morning and he does his own thing and he sometimes doesn’t listen to his cabinet. That’s his style. I don’t think it's good for the United States. And there have been many other instances when the UN ambassador is talking about human rights and the President, Secretary of State are not. And hopefully this will change. It is a problem of messaging. And allies and friends and even foes get confused where we stand. I think this is something that hopefully will be fixed as the President gets his feet on the ground and there’s a more unified message. But you can’t guarantee that.

SS: Yes, a lot of things seemto be out of sync for now, like Rex Tillerson he actually has said that U.S. allies have personally asked him to improve relations with Russia. He said - “I have yet to have a bilateral, one-on-one, a poolside conversation with a single counterpart in any country: in Europe, Middle East, even South-East Asia, that has not said to me: please, address your relationship with Russia, it has to be improved.” Is he going to be able to pull that off, or is the opposition at home too strong?

BR: Well I think the US-Russia relationship is very important and it has suffered and we need to make it better. There’s no question about it. We need to cooperate on so many issues - on nuclear weapons, on Syria, on Iran, on energy, on trade. 

SS: So how do you see improving relations in this paradigm when there’s so much antagonism against Russia and yet Americans feel like the relationship should be improved. What’s the technical thing to do? Because if Trump goes on  easing sanctions against Russia the Senate is not going to be ok with that, so how is that going to play out?

BR: Well I think sanctions should be maintained because of Russia’s action in the Ukraine, Russia’s involvement with the election. I think if Russia changes its behaviour, you change the sanctions. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t other areas where you cooperate. I think you’re seeing maybe a little more cooperation on Syria, I think the President has felt the Russia relationship should be improved, I think he should be supported on that.

SS: I want to analyse what Trump has done so far a bit more. Because everything that he stood for, he did the opposite, for instance - he had a strike in Syria, he’s ramping up the fight in Iraq, he’s not lifting sanctions on Moscow, he’s no longer calling NATO obsolete and he’s also not starting a trade war with China. So everything that he campaigned for, he’s not really doing or not able to do. Why do you think it’s proving so hard to stick to this America first policy? 

BR: Well I think he’s learning, I think the American people don’t support some of this excessive actions and rhetoric that he had in the campaign. I mean he got elected, he got close to 40 %, but he is changing on NATO. I think with North Korea he’s doing the right thing - getting China to pressure North Korea. I worry about too much talk about preemptive strikes against North Korea, but I think here’s an area where Russia can help too. Russia has a strong economic relationship with North Korea, not as strong as China’s... But I think there are a lot of areas of cooperation where the President is learning. However he’s still talking about the wall with Mexico, he’s still talking about getting out of the climate change agreement - he did! That was terrible. He’s still -- we’re in a little bit of a trade war with Canada - a great ally. We fight Australia back and forth, you mentioned the relationship with Germany is kind of frail. We’ve got some building to do on improving our past strong relationships that President Obama had.

SS: Another thing that we’re seeing now is that President Trump is handing more authority to the military - for instance, with the defence department now in charge of troop levels in Afghanistan, as well as Syria, as well as in Iraq. What’s up with that? Is that turning into a mission creep? 

BR:Well, yea, I’m concerned about that. I think diplomats and the President and civilians should make the decision on Afghanistan. It looks like we’re going to increase troops by five thousand, that’s not that much, but there should be a full debate. And it should include the Congress too. It should be a war powers issue, where the President is authorised to take some of these steps. In my view I think it is very important to have military advisers at the highest level of the cabinet, but I’m a little concerned when the Secretary of Defence is a military person, the National Security adviser is a military person, Secretary of of Homeland Security is a military person, you know, I think military persons are very good, but, you know, there has to be a balance and I think the President is abdicating some of his diplomatic leadership a little bit too much in my view.

SS: What I’m concerned about is maybe him handing this authority to military is actually going to ease up the responsibility of the President and the State Department for what’s going to happen and the consequences in those countries like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan?

BR:I want to see the State Department have a stronger role, I think Secretary Tillerson needs to assert himself more, I believe that Secretary Tillerson has the expertise at the State Department, the problem is a lot of the key positions, the undersecretaries, the assistant secretaries for Asia, Europe, Latin America have not only not been confirmed, many have not been nominated. I think the President needs to get his cabinet in all departments, but especially in the foreign policy and the military, even in the Department of Defence, fully staffed. There’s a real slowness which is not good for the country.

SS: So you brought up North Korea.Trump didn’t hesitate when it came to striking Syria, or Iraq - do you think he could take on North Korea?

BR: No, I think it would be a big mistake to do a military strike with North Korea, because we got treaty relationships, we got 30 thousand American troops in South Korea, 50 thousand in Japan - they’d be vulnerable, 25 million South Koreans in Seoul, just the brushfire. Now we’ve got to deal with North Koreans having an ICBM that hits the United States. We shouldn’t let that happen. But I think the answer is diplomacy, the answer is the six party countries, that include Russia, working on an agreement with North Korea, perhaps, freeze their nuclear missile development, freeze it. And then over time negotiate where North Korea gets something in return - they get the end of the Korean war, they get food, they get sanctions relief, it’s a negotiation, but it’s very hard with this new leader of North Korea, who’s very unpredictable, nobody knows what he wants to do.

SS: But why aren’t we seeing a joint force, joint task force, like Russia, China, South Korea, Japan actually working to solve this problem, because they all have stakes in it, like you said.

BR: Because North Korea doesn’t want to talk to anybody, they don’t even listen to their main benefactor, which is China, which gives them food, fuel, 80 percent of their trade. They don’t listen to anybody, so it’s hard to negotiate with a country, that doesn’t want to talk to you. And that seems to be Kim Jong Un's modus operandi right now.

SS: Do you agree with Secretary of State when he says that North Korea right now is the most urgent threat to international peace and security?

BR: Yes, I think North Korea is the most urgent national security threat to peace and security, not just in the Korean peninsula, but around the world. North Korea has 20 - very least, nuclear weapons, has ICBMs, has over a million men in arms, even with conventional weapons they could very adversely affect South Korea. We have a treaty relationship with Japan and South Korea, where we would become embroiled, so I think that is the most urgent national security threat, followed by terrorism and ISIS and then Syria would be the third.

SS: Now you have recently helped get an American student be released from a North Korean prison, but there are American prisoners in  other countries, there are prisoners  in Venezuela, in Iran and President Trump hasn’t exactly been friendly to those countries lately.  What’s going to happen to the prisoners in those countries?

BR: Well, we’ve got three remaining prisoners - I think many of us, my private groups, the government, is trying to get those three out, there’s also one Canadian. My foundation is involved with trying to get one prisoner - Josh Holt, out of Venezuela, several in Africa. I’m going to give President Trump credit - he got a dissident out of Egypt. And that was good, that was important, that was about a month ago with President Sisi. That was a smart move. I want to see more human rights cases where the President and the United States gets involved on behalf of prisoners of conscience.

SS: Alright Governor, thank you very much for this interview.