What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How Trump’s love of Twitter translates abroad

President Donald Trump uses Twitter to speak directly to the American people. How is this mode of communication heard in foreign nations? Former ambassador Nancy McEldowney, who is now at Georgetown University, and Kenneth Weinstein, president and CEO of the Hudson Institute think tank, lend their perspectives.

Read the Full Transcript

  • William Brangham:

    We now turn to one of the president's favorite means of communication, Twitter, and how those messages are being read around the world.

    The New Year's tweetstorm is the latest example of President Trump using the medium to conduct foreign policy. And, this time, it runs the gamut.

    On Saturday, he signaled support for the anti-government protesters in Iran, saying, "The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change."

    That provoked a rebuke from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

  • President Hassan Rouhani (through interpreter):

    This guy in America who wants to sympathize with our people today has forgotten he had called Iranian people terrorists a few months ago.

  • William Brangham:

    On New Year's Day, the president took aim at Pakistan, accusing it of harboring terrorists and threatening U.S. aid.

    He tweeted- "The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit."

    That incited protests in Pakistan, with demonstrators burning American flags and chanting anti-U.S. slogans. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un provoked another tweet when he sounded this warning on New Year's Day-

  • Kim Jong-un (through interpreter):

    The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, and a nuclear button is always on my desk.

  • William Brangham:

    Last night, Mr. Trump shot back that he has an even bigger nuclear button.

    And, late yesterday, it was the Palestinian's turn. The president warned the U.S. could cut off financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. His tweet said- "With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"

    Palestinian officials across the political spectrum denounced the threat as blackmail. It's unclear if the president is seriously considering withholding aid to the Palestinians, but this wouldn't be the first time his tweets have gotten ahead of official policy decisions.

    Critics in Congress say his off-the-cuff pronouncements, turning complex issues into simplistic statements, are unsettling allies and encouraging enemies.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer:

    President Trump's foreign policy by tweet is doing serious damage to the country. Where we have serious issues to address abroad, President Trump seems happy with macho boasts and belligerent threats that get us nowhere.

  • William Brangham:

    Even so, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders today defended Mr. Trump's way of doing business.

  • Sarah Sanders:

    I don't think that it's taunting to stand up for the people of this country. I think what's dangerous is to ignore the continued threats.

    If the previous administration had done anything and dealt with North Korea and dealt with Iran, instead of sitting by and doing nothing, we wouldn't have to clean up their mess now.

  • William Brangham:

    So, how is the president's unorthodox style of communicating heard in foreign nations? Is it effective?

    Ambassador Nancy McEldowney was a career Foreign Service officer, severing in a number of senior posts at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff. She's now director of Georgetown University's Master of Science in Foreign Service Program. And Kenneth Weinstein is the president and chief executive officer of the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. He's written widely on international relations.

    Welcome to you both.

  • Nancy McEldowney:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    Nancy McEldowney, I would like to start with you first.

    This is how the president likes to communicate, and he's communicated some substantive foreign policy messages. Now, you can only pack so much into a tweet. I'm just curious, what do you make of this strategy?

  • Nancy McEldowney:

    I think it's very problematic.

    And I will tell you, when you look at the course of the president's tweets, they range from being disruptive to downright dangerous. On the content of the tweets, they're often impulsive, filled with more emotion than real strategic intent or any analysis.

    The process is often very difficult, because it's in conflict with aspects of the policy that are being implemented by other parts of the administration. And then, most importantly, it's confusing to other world leaders, who are often asking, what is American policy, what's the long-term plan, and how are we supposed to react when we don't know whether what comes out of the president's tweets is really what the United States stands for?

  • William Brangham:

    Kenneth Weinstein, what's your take on this method of communication?

  • Kenneth Weinstein:

    Look, the president views himself as having been elected to bring disruption to U.S. foreign policy.

    He saw his election as a means to really shift the direction of policy, policy that he thought benefited America's elites, benefited global elites, at the cost of what the average American voter would have wanted.

    And he views his tweets as a means of communicating directly, frankly, both to Americans and leaders abroad, first and foremost that President Obama's period of strategic — the era of strategic patience is over, secondly, that there's been a shift in sort of — in terms of diplomatic speech, those days are gone, that there needs to be a real focus on policy, on policy direction.

    And even in the tweets that you cited just now, on the Pakistani, the situation with regard to Pakistan, that's been the president's policy almost since day one, since he came in. That's the policy of the National Security Council, which is to say, look, Pakistan cannot be trusted as an ally in the war on terror. We're shifting away. We're pivoting towards India.

    With regards to the Palestinians, Congress has already voted through the House and the Senate the Taylor Force Act, which would cut back 8 percent of funding to the Palestinian Authority, because that money is going to subsidize terrorists and their families who have killed Israelis, others, including Americans, including the soldier Taylor Force.

    So, some of these statements are statements of policy that he is — and he is stating it very directly, very bluntly and getting it around the world instantaneously without the filter of the mainstream media, which has tended to not exactly be the president's best friend.

  • William Brangham:

    What do you make of this? I mean, Kenneth is arguing that it may be blunt, it may be sort of a blunt tool to use, but he's communicating things that he feels deeply and that he wants U.S. policy to reflect.

  • Nancy McEldowney:

    Well, there's no question that the tweets do give us sort of a telescoped view into the president's psyche, his world view, his emotional state.

    The problem is that it is often in direct conflict with the policy that his administration is trying to implement and often doesn't correspond with the facts on the ground.

    So take, for example, the Palestine issue. The reason that we are having difficulty in the peace process right now is because of the decision that President Trump took on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving our embassy there.

    Whether you agree or disagree…

  • William Brangham:

    Which wasn't a tweet. That was a policy choice.

  • Nancy McEldowney:

    That was a policy.

    And whether you agree or disagree with it, that is the policy that was made. But it wasn't done in consultation with either our European allies, any of the countries of the region.

    And so, when you look at the impact, what happens after that, we have universal condemnation of that decision. Our perception, the perception of the United States by other countries, has plummeted around the world. And when there's a vote at the United Nations on this particular issue, over 100 countries vote against us. Only nine vote with us.

    So, we see an erratic, an impulsive quality to Trump's tweets that, in some cases, may accurately reflect the policy of his administration. But, frankly, when you look at it and when other world leaders look at it, instead of a blunt statement of policy, they see a sort of brashness and a buffoonery that is not helping our country and, in fact, is leading us into further isolation.

  • William Brangham:

    Kenneth, I want to ask you specifically about North Korea, because, in this case, we have the president tweeting not-so-thinly-veiled insults at the North Korean leader.

    And he gives just as good back to President Trump in return. But we don't really know what Kim Jong-un wants. We don't know necessarily how well he perceives things, how much he understands what the president might be saying.

    And at its core, we are talking about the possibility of thermonuclear war. Does it not trouble you at all that the president seems to be engaging in a who's got the bigger nuclear button, when the stakes could be incredibly serious?

  • Kenneth Weinstein:

    In April 2016, when Barack Obama was president, he called — publicly called Kim Jong-un erratic, said he was irresponsible, and said that America's nuclear arsenal could — quote — "destroy his country." And those are direct quotes from Barack Obama.

    I think President Trump is simply…

  • William Brangham:

    That's a little different, though, than "Rocket Man" and calling him a child and…

  • Kenneth Weinstein:

    He is erratic, irresponsible.

    What the president is trying to do is bring the attention of the North Korean leader and others around the world that this is a serious problem, that the United States has to deal with this. He's working very closely with the Japanese on this.

    And he's sending a very clear signal that there's not going to be room for some kind of a mealymouthed negotiation that's going to let Kim Jong-un walk away with his weapons at some point.

    And it — I'm not going to defend every one of the president's tweets, but this is an example where he's trying to send a very clear signal that we mean business when it comes to North Korea.

    And, furthermore, I think it's clear what the president is trying to do. And I think it's been putting pressure on Kim Jong-un.

  • William Brangham:

    Kenneth Weinstein, Nancy McEldowney, thank you both very much for being here.

  • Nancy McEldowney:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment