Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Three Reasons Why Transparency for Foreign Policy in the Oval Office is More Essential Than Ever

By Lydia ZhengPublished February 27, 2017

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Written by Lydia Zheng, 2/27/17 In the wake of Michael Flynn's resignation as national security adviser, Democrats and Republicans alike are regarding the new administration's foreign policy decisions with apprehension. And yet, in a recent press conference, President Trump affirmed that he had no duty to the public or the media to speak of his resolutions concerning international affairs. Here are three reasons he's wrong"”and why it matters.
On February 13th, following widely-publicized events and conflicting reports from White House staff, Michael Flynn resigned as National Security Adviser for misleading Vice President Pence on the nature of his pre-inauguration communications with Russia. A few days later, in a press conference on February 16th, President Trump told reporters, "I will not tell you if there will be a response [to Russia] … I don't have to tell you what I'm going to do in North Korea. I don't have to tell you what I'm going to do in Iran." Here's how this issue is of vital importance for not only our domestic affairs, but also to the international community as a whole.

  1. There is precedent for transparency in the presidential office, especially for foreign affairs—one can look directly to Trump's immediate predecessor to compare. The Obama administration launched a website called Your Seat at the Table, providing records of every meeting involving three or more non-transition team members so that visitors could read non-classified materials provided to White House staff, and even contribute in a public forum, which included materials involving foreign policy decisions. That's not to say that previous administrations have been entirely transparent (e.g. the Obama administration's delayed release on information concerning drone strikes in the Middle East and the Bush administration's attempt to silence federal scientists on climate change); but they certainly have not been opaque to this degree—the citizens of the United States deserve the right to be aware of the people, situations, and influences that lead to important decisions made by their government leaders.  
  2. Within three weeks of holding office, Trump has already chosen not to be transparent in dealing with countries he has significant business interests with—namely Russia. Despite tweeting in July that he had "ZERO [sic] investments in Russia," Trump's son told a Manhattan real estate conference in 2008 that "Russians make up a…disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets…we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia," also remarking that the firm had significant interest in investing in the country. It should also be noted that in his controversial Muslim ban, he excluded countries linked to his business empire—such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. This particular foreign policy decision is acutely questionable, because not a single American was killed on US soil between 1975 and 2015 by citizens from any of the countries included in the ban, while nearly 3,000 Americans were killed by citizens from those Middle Eastern countries excluded from the ban. This is not to say that the ban should have included these countries, but rather that the duplicity of Trump's actions is apparent at best and counterproductive at worst.
  3. American legitimacy in international affairs relies on its soft power—its ability to lead by example. If the Trump administration continues to work under the shadow of opacity, America will inevitably lose its legitimacy. When contradiction between American values and actions is perceived, it impedes upon the United States' ability to effectively solve problems that require foreign cooperation. Recent decline of the United States' soft power has made it nearly impossible for America to achieve its goals sans forcible coercion. For America to retain its role as one of the world's leading powers, it is necessary to have power not only in name, but also in principle. The United States, under the Trump administration, must therefore resolve to act with more transparency in the next four years.