President Trump’s Ukraine call and the dangers of personal diplomacy

tags: Ukraine, diplomacy, impeachment, international relations, Trump

Tizoc Chavez is a postdoctoral fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is completing a book on the history of presidential personal diplomacy.

President Trump’s comments in a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July have prompted the House of Representatives to launch an impeachment inquiry.


This system of leader-to-leader diplomacy has become a key aspect of conducting foreign policy since the early 20th century. Although this can create opportunities to make peace, it can also exacerbate dangers, as Trump has vividly illustrated. Given those newly apparent downsides, we must ask whether this 20th-century model of personal diplomacy should finally be retired.

When designing our constitutional system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers never could have imagined the degree to which modern presidents personally interact with foreign leaders.

In the nation’s first 150 years, presidents had little direct contact with heads of state and government. Presidents set the general strategy for American foreign relations, but the conduct of diplomacy was mostly left to the State Department.

This started to change in the 20th century. Technological improvements in communication and travel made direct and frequent contact between world leaders possible. More importantly, international crises, increasing presidential desire for control and domestic political incentives combined to make personal presidential diplomacy an attractive tool.

Woodrow Wilson was the first U.S. president to interact extensively with foreign leaders. In 1919, he went to the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. Though feted by European governments, his trip provoked a firestorm of criticism back home. Some believed it was unconstitutional. Critics worried that if America’s leader was exposed to Europe’s monarchical pomp and wily leaders, the nation’s republican simplicity was at risk.

Read entire article at Washington Post

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