The Only One Who Matters

Alan Zendell, November 6, 2017

The United States State Department has more than 30,000 employees. Most of them are dedicated professionals with no political affiliation. Many have narrow specialties which they’ve been honing for twenty years or more. Many speak multiple languages, have served in the foreign service, and have advanced degrees from major universities.

Why do we need so many of them? Because knowing and understanding the subtleties of foreign cultures is essential to a successful foreign policy. In some cases being able to speak their language can make all the difference in resolving disagreements. Not because they don’t speak English or because they might be offended if we don’t bother to learn their language, but because a language often tells us a lot about how people think.

I learned that when I used all my elective points as an undergraduate to study Russian, back in the Cold War days when it seemed that knowing how to speak Russian might be essential one day. Russian is quite different from the romance languages most Americans study, which makes it difficult for us to master. One reason is the way tenses are defined in Russian. Actually, Russian uses “aspects” rather than tenses, which are just similar enough to what we’re used to in English that basic conceptual differences in meaning can get us into trouble. And that’s without considering cultural influences and the effect that a country’s history may have had on its leaders. Many people think that failing to grasp these subtle differences in meaning may have led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

So when our president, who has demonstrated that he barely understands how our own government functions says vacancies at the State Department don’t have to be filled, he’s making a potentially serious error. And when he has the audacity to say he doesn’t really need them because “I’m the only one that matters,” he’s making an error that could be fatal.

Arrogance and ignorance in our president are a combination that could get a lot of people killed, aside from the fact that so much of what he says makes two-thirds of the nation cringe. The thought of Donald Trump ignoring State Department experts when he negotiates with Russia, China, the Koreas, and Japan is staggering. This isn’t a poker game among old friends. It’s nuclear roulette.

I’m still not sure what National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster meant when he said the president would not temper his language during his trip to Asia. Was he encouraging Mr. Trump to keep shooting from the hip without filtering his words or was he acknowledging that it was impossible for his advisers to control him?

Some people think Trump’s brash, boastful style combined with his unpredictability have earned him the respect of our adversaries. Yet, I have the sense that seasoned old warriors like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and even South Korea’s Moon Jae-in feel like they’re playing chess with a rube. I think they lick their chops when they see him coming, knowing his need to be adored and praised leaves him vulnerable to deceit and manipulation.

When our pipes leak we hire a plumber. When our lights go out we hire an electrician. And when we’re sick we see our doctors. We don’t argue with those people who have spent their lives learning their professions, and it’s no different with diplomacy. In many ways it’s more important, because it’s not only one person or one home that’s at stake. What happens on this Asia trip can affect our country and the world for decades to come. It can alter the world our grandchildren live in. So when our President says he’s the only one who matters, I can only shudder and hope that his advisers can rein him in and keep him from making grievous errors.

The president views himself as a savvy businessman who is now the CEO of the United States. His management style may work in a family-owned business, but even in the business world he surely knows that a CEO of a major corporation who continually ignores his board of directors and stockholders will eventually go down in flames.

This is the world stage, Mr. Trump, and you are not the only person who matters.

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