Before Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo posted his Instagram account featuring “swagger,” he had repeated the word several times. The first Instagram photo is a mock seal for the “Department of Swagger.” The second post says that Shakespeare wrote about swagger, and mentions General George Patton’s swagger stick. It contains four photos, two of Pompeo, one of Patton, and a drawing of Shakespeare.
Swagger is consistent with other parts of Trump’s foreign policy, particularly the idea of America First. President Donald Trump has used the phrase often, despite its associations with World War II isolationism and anti-Semitism. Let us look at some of Trump’s actions to perhaps derive what “swagger” and “America First” might mean.
As negotiators from Canada and the United States worked on a revised NAFTA agreement, Trump commented, off-the-record, to journalists that he intended not to make any concessions, so that Canada would both be insulted and would have to bend to his will. The comments became public, with speculation that Trump himself had given the go-ahead.
The purpose of the tariffs Trump has levied on a number of products seems to be to generate leverage to force other countries to his terms in trade. A Canadian view reads, “having divided Mexico and Canada to conquer them, he intends to bludgeon both nations with an American-made baseball bat until they cower under the sheer force of American power.”
In negotiations with North Korea, the United States has failed to consult with allies South Korea and Japan. South Korea and North Korea are negotiating independently. North Korea wants an end-of-war declaration. The United States wants a list of all North Korea’s nuclear weapons related sites, or perhaps 60 per cent of its nuclear weapons. They are stalemated, with no apparent diplomacy in progress beyond kind words from Kim Jong-Un to Trump, and Trump’s tweet of thanks.
Having taken the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program – Pompeo presented Iran with a list of 12 demands on changing its behavior. The purpose in imposing this set of disparate demands is not clear. Iran is unlikely to comply with all the demands. Sanctions are scheduled to return in November, which provides a timetable.
Trump expects that other countries, including India, will stop buying Iranian oil as a result of US sanctions. Trump has also berated Prime Minister Narendra Modi on their trade practices and mocked his accent. He has unilaterally ended aid to Palestinians and ordered their diplomatic mission out of Washington.
Michael Green, an Asia advisor to President George W. Bush, summarized the approach on trade for the New York Times, “the White House approach to every country now is that we want you to cave on these random issues we have chosen, which are prioritized by nothing more than presidential whim. And you have to visibly lose on them. There are no win-wins.”
But the approach goes beyond trade as can be seen in the demands to Iran and North Korea. America First seems to mean breaking earlier agreements and imposing unilateral demands. There are no explicit statements of what happens if those demands are not met, and, in the case of North Korea, the demands have been fading as North Korea ignores them. So bluster and swagger are a big part of America First.
It is no accident that the examples of swagger in Pompeo’s Instagram account are men. The word means a kind of walk with extreme confidence, even arrogance. There are a “Premier Modern Men’s Luxury Lifestyle Magazine” and a men’s deodorant called “Swagger.”
From an administration whose face is largely elderly white male, diplomacy is acceptable only as bullying swagger. Not only does insistence on that characteristic marginalize the women working in the State Department, but arrogance is seldom appropriate to diplomacy. Dignity and confidence are the diplomatic qualities that come closest.
It is hard to imagine a foreign policy situation in which swagger will improve things. And, Secretary Pompeo, here is what Shakespeare said about swagger in Henry IV Part 2, Act II, Scene IV:
MISTRESS QUICKLY: If he swagger, let him not come here: no, by my
faith; I must live among my neighbours; I’ll no
swaggerers: I am in good name and fame with the
very best: shut the door; there comes no swaggerers
here: I have not lived all this while, to have
swaggering now: shut the door, I pray you.
Cheryl Rofer is a chemist , retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory after 35 years of service.