A former U.S. ambassador speaks out

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

John M. Koenig is a former U.S. ambassador to Cyprus who also held positions in Germany, Greece, and with NATO, an organization that has in recent weeks come under criticism by the new administration. After a 31-year career, Koenig retired in 2015, returning to his native Northwest and settling in Bellingham. I sat down with him recently to get his perspective on foreign relations in these days of President Donald Trump.

Alan Rhodes: Donald Trump had been in office for only one week when you wrote in The Seattle Times, “I have never been so ashamed of American foreign policy.” Please elaborate on that.

John Koenig: That first week came against the background of the transition which also did not make me very proud of what was coming. The way Trump articulates foreign policy is not based on enlightened self-interest, but upon this “America First” notion that in a zero-sum game we should shovel up all the benefits from our relations in the world. That is disastrous as a way of doing business and it also reflects a meanness of spirit that I’ve personally never seen in American leaders before.

AR: What else have you observed now into a few weeks into the administration?

JK: There’s a scattershot enunciation of principles and goals without any consistency across the administration and within President Trump himself.

AR: What things keep you up at night?

JK: The indications that Russia has wielded inappropriate influences over the election and the resistance to transparent investigation of this matter. With regard to our foreign policy I feel that we are losing friends and perhaps courting disaster. There are real threats and challenges in the world and we are not taking the steps to deal with them and are at the mercy of events that could create a crisis.

AR: You spent much of your career working with NATO. What’s NATO’s role in the post-Cold War world?

JK: In a way it’s the same as during the Cold War: to defend the member states of the alliance. It has also been an important transformational organization that has worked with, for example, the countries of the former Warsaw Pact to adjust to the principles that guide representative democracy based upon civilian control of the military.

AR: Trump charges that NATO members are not paying their fair share for defense. Is that a valid charge?

JK: It is, but I’m not sure the way he phrases it is useful or productive. One bit of advice that I occasionally gave to a new administration coming in was to press investment by our European allies earlier, harder and higher. They have been good partners, but failure to make the necessary investment over time could have a corrosive effect on the alliance. What we don’t need is to make the commitment to mutual defense conditional on some kind of pay up or languish. That is unhelpful. I also worry that President Trump, quite apart from NATO, has an even more corrosive view on the European Union and European integration. He seems to welcome countries that turn their backs on the integrative process. He liked Brexit. He seems to sympathize with Marine Le Pen in her desire to diminish France’s commitment to European integration. Peace in Europe is not something we should take for granted. We need to support the institutions that have brought us peace. NATO is one of those, but the European Union is also one. If we allow or encourage the European Union to deteriorate or conceivably collapse, we will be confronted with security problems in a place that we had always regarded as one of the most secure, most reliable partners for the United States.

AR: I was in the Baltic countries not too long ago and people in Lithuania, Latvia, and particularly Estonia are very worried about Putin’s possible designs on them. Is there a real threat there, or is it Putin posturing?

JK: I think there will be a lot of testing by the Russian government to see how far they can push things because they do object to the participation of the Baltic states and other Eastern members in the alliance. I think it’s more than posturing. Six or seven years ago there was a very serious cyber attack on Estonia. Russian military activity has been stepped up and Russia has put missiles in Kaliningrad. The Russians under Putin have been callous and open about manipulating minorities in neighboring states; that was part of the story of what happened in Ukraine. So I think the fears are well grounded.

AR: Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster are known for being scholarly, informed, reasonable men. Is there any chance Trump will actually listen to them?

JK: I hope so, but it’s been very hard to line up the positive things that Secretary Mattis said during his visit to Europe—or Secretary of State Tillerson or even Vice President Pence—with what the president and White House spokesman have been saying. There’s an inconsistency there, but clearly it’s beneficial that this other message is being sent and I hope that they have influence.

AR: McMaster has cautioned against using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” saying that it hinders our ability to work with important Muslim allies. But I don’t think Trump has paid much attention to that.

JK: No, he hasn’t. Clearly this is going to be a work in progress.

AR: What are your observations on the current refugee crisis?

JK: We have the capacity to receive a lot more refugees from Syria. We are shamed by the large number of refugees that Canada is willing to take. The refugees are not a threat. The instability created by the situation is indeed a threat that we have to try to address in a humanitarian way.

AR: In your Sept. 4 opinion piece in The Seattle Times your dismay over the Trump administration was so great that you stated that if you were still working as an American diplomat you would resign “and join the resistance on the outside.” Do you now consider yourself part of that resistance?

JK: I do, and the avenues I have taken include showing up for marches and demonstrations. They are important. I really enjoyed the Women’s March. My wife and I went down to Seattle for it and the atmosphere was heartening and bright. In addition I have been giving talks on what I call the New Cold War. And I will be teaching more in the near future where I hope to introduce ideas that people will be able to use to form their own views on the Trump administration.

AR: Finally, what should concerned citizens be doing?

JK: Keep in touch with your congressional representatives and senators. Keep up with the issues. Pay for subscriptions to good newspapers and magazines that are doing investigative reporting. Stay engaged, vote, volunteer, show up. These things make a difference.

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