Foreign Policy and Mixed Signals

18 April 2018, 1209 EDT

Earlier this week, a particularly volatile fissure within the Trump Administration opened up. Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, announced on Sunday that the Administration would be imposing fresh sanctions on Russia. However, the Administration quickly denied that this was true, stating—in fact—that her statement was based on “momentary confusion.” Haley struck back saying that she does not “get confused.” This is not the first issue of unclear signals (see my previous post about this here), but it holds significance for how we approach  signaling in foreign policy.

In the first place, the US does not have a Secretary of State, and many top State Department posts have not been filled. This is not just a problem for the internal organization of the American foreign policy establishment. It also damages US credibility and sends strong (even if unintended) signals about our resolve. For example, Haley’s future statements to the UN have a high probability of being seen as incredible, while at the same time the international community will likely interpret this signaling as a sign of equivocation over harsher foreign policy toward Russia. Without a strong State Department to run point on the coordination of foreign policy, these mistakes will continue to happen.

Additionally, not to put America’s founding mythologies on a pedestal, but this is precisely the reason why a State Department was formed (for an account of this see here). Thomas Jefferson had originally imagined the President as having sole control over issues of foreign affairs, but even in the sparse foreign policy environment of the early United States, Madison proposed the formation of a Department of Foreign Affairs to manage diplomacy directly—with the knowledge that no president could manage these issues alone. In a world of increasing complexity, a strong State Department is more important than ever.

In the second place, we are living in a world in which it is vital for the United States to behave multilaterally, and to have the support of allies. As the post-1945 world order seems to be collapsing around us, America’s status as a moral leader is in question. This is the time for a clear and unified foreign policy stance—not a stance that confirms the worst fears of our allies.

More than these mixed signals, however, is an additional layer of gender politics involved here. Painting Haley as a “confused” woman is part-and-parcel of what Carol Cohn recently referred to as the “perils of mixing masculinity and missiles.” It is not going too far afield to say that Trump’s desire to make last minute shifts in decisions, leave others in the dark, exercise unilateral power plays for the purpose of maintaining a strangle hold on policy-making processes, and scapegoat others by subtly playing on gender stereotypes, contributes to this problem of mixed signals. When we worry about “whose button is bigger?” rather than about how the organization of our foreign policy establishment sends signals and commitments to allies, we are at a dangerous low.