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Tweeting A Cancelled Meeting

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Today Donald Trump just tweeted the following (over two tweets):

“The U.S. has a 60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico. It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers… of jobs and companies lost. If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto responded with a tweet of his own in which he announced his decision not to attend the meeting.  Here I set aside the wisdom of either party’s substantive decisions to focus on the idea—and the possible novelty–of foreign policy decision-making conducted, or at least publicized,  so directly via Twitter.

In a blog post I wrote last October for another venue, I warned that it would be Trump’s rhetoric as much or more as his policy proposals that would pose problems for governance and constitute threats to the regime:

“Trump’s incapacity to exercise self-restraint in speech poses problems beyond stirring up controversy and hurting feelings. Trump fails to appreciate, or even recognize, that what a President says by its mere utterance can become, or be perceived as, policy. If a president casually notes at a press conference that he is pardoning a person, then those persons have just won a claim to have been pardoned. The saying is the doing.

Presidential utterances are especially crucial in establishing our international posture. If a President declares that the United States is at war with a country, then leaders around the world will understand that the United States is in fact at war with that country. When a President says he recognizes the instigators of a military coup as the legitimate government, then – voila – that is our policy. If the President claims that our defense of allies is conditional, then leaders of the world, ally and rival alike, will take note and act accordingly.”

Trump’s tweet this morning may have been deliberately intended as an official foreign policy proclamation–that is, as a direct message to President Peña Nieto.  This would make it a traditional move merely transmitted via a relatively new medium (Twitter).   And as such it also may well have been a calculated and shrewd maneuver in a larger game.

But perhaps not.

It may well have been casual bluster posted while sitting at the breakfast table (presumably eating Wheaties®—The Breakfast of Champions).  We can’t know.  And finally it matters not because what really matters is that it was taken at face value by President Peña Nieto.

To my (limited) knowledge I do not know of another  American foreign policy maneuver of this magnitude (or at least at this level of publicity) which was played out so openly on Twitter.  I confess to being surprised that it occurred so early in Trump’s administration.   It will surely not be the last such occasion, and the prospect is troubling.

As an addendum, I acknowledge I may be mistaken about the unprecedented nature of the tweet.  So here I call on political nerds and history junkies to think of other precedents or parallels for a Twitter-driven foreign policy maneuver involving the United States.  Perhaps I’m overlooking something.   But whether truly precedent setting or not, today’s events are surely a harbinger of a very different kind of foreign policy process going forward. Our Twitter jitters are just beginning.

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About Michael Bailey
Michael is Associate Professor of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, GA. His academic publications address the American Founding, the American presidency, religion and politics, and governance in liberal democracies. He also writes on popular culture, and his articles on, among other topics, patriotism, Church and State, and Kurt Vonnegut, have been published in Prism and Touchstone. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas in Austin, where he also earned his BA. He’s married and has three children. He joined OTB in November 2016.

Comments

  1. Pch101 says:

    Trump has left other politicians and governments with no choice but to use social media to serve their ends.

    Providing him with a monopoly on social media would be akin to having Leni Riefenstahl as the only filmmaker. The best thing that could happen would be for Twitter to shut down his account, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

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  2. Michael Bailey says:

    @Pch101: Ah, I fear that my title for the post makes it seem more about Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto than about Trump, which is the real subject of the essay. I may have to change the title…

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  3. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Policy by tweet seems like an awful silly way for the Republic to meet it’s end.

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  4. Pch101 says:

    @Michael Bailey:

    No, you’re fine, I understood your point.

    I’m merely noting that politicians who want to counter him will have no choice but to do the same. It’s low intrigue, but there is no alternative.

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  5. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    I warned that it would be Trump’s rhetoric as much or more as his policy proposals that would pose problems for governance and constitute threats to the regime

    I think a far bigger danger than rhetoric or policy is when someone tweets something that hurts the feelings of the Thin-Skinned Narcissist Child-President…and he pops off a nuke in response.

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  6. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Approval rating at 36% and falling by the hour.

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  7. Assume for the moment that all world leaders, including the leaders of the United States and Mexico, only tweet after careful consideration.

    (Bear with me here.)

    If this were actually true, then Twitter would be an EXTREMELY effective way to make policy statements. Its very brevity guarantees that any message will be easily understood by all who see it. Many of our historical slogans fit nicely within the 140 character limit.

    “Our Federal Union – it must be preserved.”
    “Fifty-four Forty or Fight.”
    “December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy.”
    “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

    It appears that Kennedy’s statement about landing a man on the moon is a little long, but if Twitter had existed at the time, I guarantee that Kennedy would have tightened it.

    So technically, Twitter is an outstanding method to succinctly communicate policy – provided that the business rules are in place to ensure that the policy is well-developed before the tweet is issued.

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  8. Pch101 says:

    After WWI, the League of Nations was formed in part because of the role that inadequate communications played in the war being started. (The lack of consistent diplomatic channels contributed to nations reacting and becoming aggressive instead of talking and possibly averting crises.)

    Now there is the possibility of the opposite problem: Too much communication that is overly reactionary and too public.

    Trump likes to insult people. If you insult an entire nation, then you are begging for a reaction that is driven by wounded by national pride and a foreign nation’s public that will be offended if they are disrespected.

    Even if foreign leaders want calm, they may have no choice but to respond with overt hostility in order to placate their own citizens. This is potentially how policy gets away from everyone and careens out of control.

    I used to think that this was an act, but now I see that Trump is truly a reactionary moronic bully whose loose cannon routine is genuine stupidity in action, not a tactic. He’s making even Bush 43 look reasonable.

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  9. gVOR08 says:

    I warned that it would be Trump’s rhetoric as much or more as his policy proposals that would pose problems for governance and constitute threats to the regime:

    Sadly, I suspect your wrong. Bad as his tweeting is, wait until his policies take effect.

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  10. Neil Hudelson says:

    I do believe Iran’s Ayatollah routinely publishes both domestic and foreign policy decisions via twitter, and I remember at the very beginning of twitter–2007 or so–various middle eastern officials used twitter to announce major policy moves. A foreign ministry in Egypt comes to mind, but my google-fu isn’t strong enough to find tweets nearly a decade old.

    Edit: So Trump is in great company. Simply the best.

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  11. Argon says:

    In an alternate history: How would the world be different today if Twitter never existed? Or if ‘The Apprentice’ had never been picked up?

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  12. bandit says:

    Too bad bedwetters – watching crybabies have their little breakdowns is the best thing about Trump getting elected.

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  13. DrDaveT says:

    @Pch101:

    Now there is the possibility of the opposite problem: Too much communication that is overly reactionary and too public.

    Amazing. CASE NIGHTMARE ORANGE has just introduced cyberbullying into international diplomacy.

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  14. DrDaveT says:

    @bandit:

    watching crybabies have their little breakdowns is the best thing about Trump getting elected

    This is much more true that you realized when you wrote it.

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  15. An Interested Party says:

    Too bad bedwetters – watching crybabies have their little breakdowns is the best thing about Trump getting elected.

    You’re quite confused…the chief bedwetter/crybaby having little breakdowns is Trump himself…just look at his tweets…

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  16. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Argon: I don’t see much difference. Trump is louder than, but not to any significant degree different from, say, Cruz or Kasich. Hillary might have campaigned differently, but I doubt that she would have been more effective or less pilloried (no pun intended). The names would be changed, but a Cruz or Kasich would be even more amenable to repeal but not replace Obamacare and would be just as bellicose and jingoistic on foreign policy, if not more.

    Now if you want alternate history–what would have happened if Hillary had won in 2008 because Obama didn’t run and he had run against Trump?

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  17. Dazedandconfused says:

    Devil’s Advocate post:

    Trump saw there was no way in hell he could win this “negotiation” and needed to do something to prevent the meeting. Folks, it was either this or nuke Mexico, which could easily have resulted in a full exchange with a shocked Russia.

    IOW, Donald Trump just saved the human race…if not all life on earth!

    (Brietbart is hiring, I hope….)

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  18. al-Ameda says:

    @bandit:

    Too bad bedwetters – watching crybabies have their little breakdowns is the best thing about Trump getting elected.

    lol … you’re like a dog, you never seem to tire of eating crap.

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