Joseph Nye: Trump's tweets harm US soft power

Donald Trump's provocative tweets create problems for US diplomats and are harmful to American soft power, Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye tells DW. He also has some advice for US allies on how to deal with Trump.

DW: In our last interview before the election this past summer you said that Donald Trump has no foreign policy, he has attitudes. Has what you have seen and heard since then from President-elect Trump changed that assessment?

Joseph Nye: Only somewhat. He has now been asked questions and had to answer some. He also made some nominations for appointments, which can give you some more specificity. But, by and large, many of his policies are still very vague. For example on climate change: In the election campaign he was a skeptic, but in an answer in a "New York Times" interview after the election he said maybe there is something in it, and yet he has appointed to the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] a person who is a skeptic. So it is hard to know whether that attitude has changed into a policy.

We have to wait and see how the appointment works out and how the EPA will interact for example with the State Department, where the nominee Rex Tillerson worked for an oil company as the CEO of ExxonMobil, but said there was something to the human role in climate change. So that is just an example of an area where we know Trump's attitude and there has been a little bit more specificity as a result of answers to questions and appointments and nominations. But we still don't know what the policy will be. And that is true of a lot of areas.


Vice President: Mike Pence

Pence (57) is an experienced politician. After working as a lawyer and conservative talk radio host, he served for 12 years in the House of Representatives before becoming governor of Indiana in 2013. The father of three has strongly opposed abortion rights and same-sex marriage throughout his career. He has described himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order."


Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson

The CEO of oil giant Exxon Mobil has close ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin - he was even awarded Russia's "Order of Friendship" in 2013. Despite this, and the Texan businessman's lack of experience in foreign policy, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly approved Tillerson's nomination.


Chief of Staff: Reince Priebus

Priebus (44), a lawyer and familiar face on the Wisconsin political scene, has served as director of the Republican National Committee since 2011. He has said that the Trump administration will aim to "create an economy that works for everyone, secure our borders, repeal and replace Obamacare and destroy radical Islamic terrorism."


Secretary of the Treasury: Steven Mnuchin

After a long career on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs, Mnuchin (53) set up a hedge fund and made millions of dollars buying and rebranding a failed mortgage lender after the 2008 crash. He has since financed several Hollywood movies. Mnuchin wants to cut taxes for businesses and the middle class and will consider public-private partnerships to fund infrastructure projects.


National Security Adviser: Michael Flynn

The retired Army general - and registered Democrat - was fired as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. He has referred to Islamism as "a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet" and his son, a Trump aide, recently lost his job for spreading a fake news story that claimed Hillary Clinton's allies were running a pedophile ring from a Washington pizzeria.


Attorney General: Jeff Sessions

The Alabama Senator was one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump. A former lawyer, Sessions (69) takes a hard line on immigration and strongly opposes legalizing of marijuana. Allegations of racism, including a former colleague's testimony that Sessions joked he thought the Ku Klux Klan were "okay, until I found out they smoked pot," cost him a potential federal judgeship in 1986.


Secretary of Defense: James Mattis

During his 44-year military career, Mattis (66) earned nicknames like "Mad Dog" and "warrior monk." He led the US Central Command from 2011 to 2013, and was a key figure in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His appointment as Defense Secretary would depend on a waiver from the Senate, as US law requires that retired military personnel wait seven years before they can take up this role.


Secretary of Homeland Security: John Kelly

Upon his retirement in January 2016, Kelly (66) was the longest serving Marine general in US history. As head of the US Southern Command, he was responsible for US military activity in South and Central America, which included oversight of the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Kelly's eldest son was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2010.


Secretary of the Interior: Ryan Zinke

The Montana lawmaker and former Navy SEAL commander had been expected to run for the Senate in 2018. Zinke (55) has advocated increased energy drilling and mining on federally controlled land. While skeptical about the urgency of climate change, he does believe it is important for the United States to invest in renewable energy. He describes himself as a "Teddy Roosevelt Republican."


Director, National Intelligence: Dan Coats

The former Indiana senator was US ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2005 under the George W. Bush administration. Coats (73) is considered a mainstream Republican and served on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees. A vocal critic of Russia, he pushed for Moscow to be punished for its annexation of Crimea in 2014.


Director, CIA: Mike Pompeo

The Kansas congressman is a member of the Republican Tea Party movement and a former Army tank officer. Pompeo (52) has defended the use of torture methods, such as waterboarding, and opposes the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison. He once said that Edward Snowden, who exposed the National Security Agency's mass domestic surveillance program in 2013, deserved to receive the death penalty.


Secretary of Energy: Rick Perry

The two-time presidential hopeful said during his 2012 run that, should he get into the White House, he would scrap the Department of Energy. Perry (66), who served as governor of Texas for 14 years, sits on the board for the parent company of Dakota Access LLC, which is pushing to build the controversial Dakota Access pipeline. He once called Trump a "cancer on conservatism."


Chief Strategist: Stephen Bannon

The former chairman of right-wing website Breitbart News became Trump's campaign chief in August. His CV also includes stints as a naval officer, investment banker and Hollywood producer. Ben Shapiro, a former editor-at-large of Breitbart, described Bannon as "a nasty figure" and "a smarter version of Trump".


Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Ben Carson

Carson, a retired neurosurgeon from Michigan, made his first foray into politics as one of Trump's rivals in the Republican presidential primary. During the campaign, Carson made controversial comments on topics such as evolution and climate change.


Secretary of Commerce: Wilbur Ross

The investor and former banker made billions in restructuring failing companies in industries such as steel and coal, later investing in troubled European banks during the financial crisis. Ross, 79, was a vocal Trump supporter during the election campaign and believes the US needs a "more radical, new approach to government."


US Trade Representative: Robert Lighthizer

Lighthizer served as deputy trade representative during Ronald Reagan's presidential administration. He returns to government after working as a lawyer for US steel companies for nearly three decades. Like Trump, the 71-year old has argued that the US needs to defend its economic interests against China more aggressively to reduce the US-China trade deficit.


Secretary of Labor: Andy Puzder

Andy Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants, which runs fast food chains Hardee's and Carl's Jr., has long argued against higher minimum wages and government regulation in the workplace. He has frequently criticized the new Labor Department rule that extends overtime pay to more than 4 million workers, and praised the benefits of automation in the fast food industry.


Secretary of Education: Betsy DeVos

As a prominent figure in the "school choice" movement and chair of the American Federation for Children, DeVos is an advocate of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. She is a long-time Republican Party donor and her father-in-law is Richard DeVos, the billionaire founder of US company Amway.


Secretary of Transportation: Elaine Chao

In 2001, Chao was appointed Labor Secretary under George W. Bush, becoming the first woman of Asian descent to take a US Cabinet position. She previously worked in banking and as director of the Peace Corps, expanding its presence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Chao (63) immigrated to the USA from Taiwan at the age of eight and is now married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.


Secretary of Health and Human Services: Tom Price

The former orthopedic surgeon was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012 and named Budget Committee chair in 2015. Price, 62, is a staunch opponent of Obamacare, advocating a system based on medical savings accounts. Price has voted against federal funding for abortion and opposes gun control.


Director, Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt

Over the past five years, the Oklahoma state attorney general - a vocal climate-change skeptic - has brought multiple lawsuits against the very organization he is now due to lead. Pruitt said: "I intend to run this agency in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses.”


Small Business Administration: Linda McMahon

The former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) spent an estimated $100 million on two unsuccessful Senate campaigns in 2010 and 2012. She has supported reduced financial regulation and a lower corporate tax rate. Trump described her as "one of the country's top female executives advising businesses around the globe."


Director of the Management and Budget Office: Mick Mulvaney

Mulvaney was voted into the House of Representatives in 2011 as a "Tea Party" Republican. As someone who opposes federal governmental spending, the 49-year old from South Carolina could help Trump defund the Affordable Care Act, but might also be at odds with his trillion dollar infrastructure investment plan.


Senior White House adviser: Jared Kushner

Donald Trump's son in law, who already served a pivotal role in his campaign, will also serve as an adviser in the Trump administration. The son of real-estate tycoon Charles Kushner is married to Trump's daughter Ivanka. He previously worked in real estate and publishing and had never worked in politics before the start of the Trump campaign.


US Ambassador to the UN: Nikki Haley

Haley (44) is serving her second term as the Governor for South Carolina. After the mass shooting at an African-American church in Charleston in 2015, Haley, who is the daughter of Indian immigrants, pushed for the confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state house. She referred to Trump's proposal for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US as "un-American."


Secretary of Veterans Affairs: David Shulkin

Shulkin already served as Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Health under President Barack Obama. The 57-year old medical doctor previously also worked as Chief Medical Officer at a university hospital in Pennsylvania.

If one would try to translate Donald Trump's remarks and his cabinet selections into a very basic geopolitical outlook what emerges is that he essentially wants to be friends with Russia and be tougher on China. Do you agree with that assessment and if so is that necessarily wrong?

He has indeed expressed attitudes along those lines of having better relations with Russia and being tougher on China. Again a lot will depend on what that means. If, for example, better relations with Russia means that he maintains the sanctions because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine but tries to work in a business-like manner with Russia on, let's say, the Middle East or proliferation issues, than that's healthy. If on the other hand he gives up the common Western position on Ukraine, I think that's unhealthy.

Regarding China: If being tougher on China means that he will press on some trade issues or reciprocity in the way American companies are treated in China compared to how Chinese companies are treated in the US, that can be healthy. If on the other hand he tries to impose large tariffs on China - which he suggested during the campaign - that could lead to a trade war, which would have a tit-for-tat effect. Both sides would be worse off.

You also said in our earlier interview that the political discourse in the US last year during the election could hurt the attractiveness of the country internationally. How would you describe the effect the election of Donald Trump, and what has happened since, has had so far on America's global image and credibility?

I still believe that the US has lost soft power as a result of the campaign and the quality of the discourse in politics. And I think that continues when you look at the way Trump has continued to use Twitter for provocative statements designed to manipulate the press. Many of these don't create attraction or admiration for the US. On the other hand the fact remains that despite the political differences, which are quite considerable, the US is a stable society which has a transition of power by ballots not bullets. I think that has some effect of enhancing American attractiveness. But, by and large, I think the poor quality of the discourse has probably hurt American soft power.  

Since you mentioned Twitter, what then do you make of President-elect Trump's unprecedented Twitter diplomacy?

It is clearly not what was considered presidential behavior in the past. It's true that presidents like Obama have used Twitter, but they really have been staff-led expositions of policy positions. Trump manages part of his Twitter account by himself, and it often leads to angry and provocative statements which are designed to appeal to the public over the heads of the press, and thereby manipulating the press. So it's a different use of social media, and particularly Twitter, than we have seen in the past, and it looks like it will continue into his presidency.

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Do you think this is, or should be, sustainable as he becomes President Trump?

I think President Trump was an unconventional candidate in the way he used Twitter and the media more generally. And I suspect he is continuing to be an unconventional president in the way he governs. If you look at the fact that his recent press conference was the first in six months, that is unusual. If you look at his constant use of Twitter in a personal capacity, that is unusual. And I think we should expect the unconventional nature of the campaign to continue into the presidency.

Some people have expressed concerns that his tendency to tweet often and quick could perhaps lead to international conflicts or crises. What's your view?

I think it will make some things more difficult to manage, because it is very hard to express nuclear policy in 140 characters. On the other hand, while it will create difficulties of interpretation for the State Department and for foreign ministries, I don't think it will necessarily lead to crises per se.

Finally, many traditional partners of the United States in Europe, like Germany, are deeply worried about the new Trump administration and somewhat puzzled about how to deal with it. What would your advice be?

I think patience as we try to understand a new phenomenon. For NATO partners and for Japan I would notice the administration in waiting, the Trump nominees and appointees, have been trying to express to allies the fact that the rhetoric in the campaign about withdrawing from alliances is not likely; and also that the maintenance of the systems of international alliances that has been central to the international order since 1945 is likely to continue.

But what will it really means in practice and detail? The answer is: We don't know. And at that point I think the key is not to overreact, to use a certain amount of patience and to respond on particular interests, if it is clear what those interests are.

Joseph Nye is a professor at and former dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is considered one of the most influential scholars in international relations and US foreign policy and coined the term soft power.