Former State Department Official to Trump: Cultivate Alliances

WASHINGTON — A former State Department official during the Bush administration criticized President Donald Trump for his contentious interactions with U.S. allies.

Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies who served from 2007 to 2009 under then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, didn’t mention Trump by name but his comments were clearly directed at the new commander-in-chief.


“The job of diplomacy is to cultivate your alliances,” he said. “This is why I get uneasy when we talk about alliances like they’re real estate deals. They’re not.”


Trump has already gained attention for his rather undiplomatic form of diplomacy. For example, earlier this month he had a sharp exchange with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a call that was abruptly cut short.


Cohen’s remarks came during an event Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., where he spoke to promote his new book, “The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force,” published last month by Random House.


Given the title’s nod to Theodore Roosevelt’s old adage — “speak softly and carry a big stick” — perhaps it’s not surprising that Cohen opened his speech with a line about the 26th U.S. president.


“Roosevelt was the first [president] who saw the United States as a global power,” he said.


The former president’s catchy phrase was actually a West African proverb but quickly became synonymous with American power and might — the idea that peaceful negotiation can succeed in part because of the unspoken threat of an imposing military.


While some may question such a military focus, especially in a changing world and in an America worn by decades of war, Cohen clearly supports the U.S. maintaining a strong military force.


“The fact is that diplomacy and military power go hand in hand,” he said.


Throughout the hour-long talk, Cohen frequently referenced the past 15 years, an era dominated by U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a member of the State Department during the Bush years, Cohen knows full well the controversies of those times and ruminated on the errors made.


“We exaggerated some of the soft power side that we could do to the point of causing a lot of damage,” he said. “Sometimes you’re undermining the government you’re there to support.”

Cohen’s critiques didn’t stop at decisions made by the Bush administration. He also had problems with the way that wars in the Middle East were handled by the Obama White House.


“He launched the third Iraq War,” he said, referring to the return of U.S. troops to Iraq beginning in 2014 to fight militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. “He doubled down in Afghanistan.”


Cohen did say that he didn’t believe Obama did these things because he was reneging on his campaign promises to end the wars abroad. Rather, he thinks Obama made these choices out of duty considering the tumultuous landscape of the world.
“I was a severe critic of the Obama administration,” he said. “But I’ve got to give him credit for his sincerity.”