Talking Points for Panel on Trump and Foreign Policy

Donald Trump Signs the Pledge, by Flickr User Michael Vadon

These were my notes for a presentation at a campuswide panel at UMASS delivered on 16 November 2016. They were originally posted then but were lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017. I’m reposting them here, unaltered.

What can we expect from the Trump administration in its foreign policy?

It is difficult to tell. The Trump campaign is perhaps the least vetted on foreign policy since–ironically–the Clinton ’92 campaign. Trump is long on attitudes and chauvinism (in the literal, textbook sense of that word), but he is short on specifics.

Three major trends seem likely:

  1. The liberal trade order will be substantially modified, if not ended.
  2. The U.S.-led alliance system will be substantially weakened, if not catastrophically eroded.
  3. The post-Second World War period of U.S. leadership and hegemony will likely come to a close.

Let me stress that what I am most certain of is the width of the error bars in my predictions, not in the point prediction itself. The Trump administration could be, at best, weakly mediocre in its exercise of U.S. leadership. The depth of foreign distrust and shock in the Trump administration — and in what it represents for U.S. legitimacy — cannot realistically permit anything more than that. The worst-case scenario, to be frank, is the worst-case scenario, and even if that remains unlikely it is much more likely than it was a couple of weeks ago.

Trump’s driving principles do not appear to be ideological but temperamental. He wants to exercise dominance. He wants visible victories, not subtle overall gains. And he is more reconciled to the persistence of foreign autocracy, and less invested in the global spread of democracy, than perhaps any president ever.

These, I should note, constitute a rejection not just of a general set of American principles, but even of  specifically Republican principles of foreign policies. The intellectual case for free trade does not appear to affect him. The thrilling rhetoric of the Bush administration or the McCain campaign about the primacy of democracy does not appear to touch his soul. And the respect he craves appears to come not from traditional U.S. alliance partners — the British, the South Koreans, the Japanese, and the Europeans — but from traditional U.S. adversaries.

All of this, it should be said, needs to be read in the context of an administration that lacks fixed principles beyond the temperamental drive for domination I laid out just a moment ago. Many congressional Republicans and many of the officials that should be able to command a Senate majority do not reject these principles. Yet it is hard to see how binding those constraints will be. Over the past year, we have seen the Trump campaign rupture the Republican consensus, defy it, and nevertheless unify Republican voters behind him. Not since the Andrew Johnson or John Tyler administrations have seen such a “president without a party”, but the degree of polarization and executive influence that Trump will enjoy vastly outstrips what they had available to him.

Management of foreign policy under a Trump administration will be chaotic, divisive, and, frankly, likely incompetent. Coordinating policy across the 16 intelligence community agencies, the State and Defense departments, USAID and US Trade Representative — to say nothing of the myriad minor foreign policies carried out daily by bureaucrats in other agencies — proves difficult under “normal politics”. This is not normal politics. And the varsity Republican foreign policy team, which does exist and which did a fine job under the second term of the second Bush administration, is not cooperating with the Trump administration. Indeed, they seem to be going out of their way to proclaim noncooperation.

The further chaos term comes from the likelihood that the administration will not have a stable set of foreign-policy and national-security advisors. If the management of the Trump presidential campaign is any guide, pockets of intense competence will be married to underperforming, undervetted, and uncoordinated oceans of ridiculousness.

The greatest harms, however, will come from what is not going to happen.

The United States will not lead a coalition to paint ISIS, al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations that target Muslims and only incidentally Americans and Europeans as un-Islamic. Instead, we are more  likely than not to pursue rhetoric and military action that alienates our allies and allies of convenience while also inflaming radicalization.

The United States will not lead on climate change.

The United States will not pursue the sorts of public goods and policy coordination that proves essential for crisis management, as during the 2008 financial crisis or international humanitarian responses.

It is likely that the United States will not invest in maintaining alliance relationships that could serve to contain challenges to the incumbent world order.

None of what I say, by the way, should be construed as saying that Hillary Clinton would have gotten all of this right, or that another Republican would have been just as wrong. If Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio were to be president, I would roll my eyes at some proposals and applaud others; if Hillary were preparing her transition team, I would be worried about some policies.

As they say, this is not normal.

There is some hope that “Congress will save us” on foreign policy. I am deeply pessimistic on this. First, there is no such thing as “Congress”, only a series of committees divided across two chambers with members representing diverse and often self-interested agendas. Coordinating policy within one branch is tough. Doing so across two chambers is even harder. And having a congressional party seek to impose discipline on even a nominal co-partisan is hard.

The best-case analogy is that we will see a mild reprise of the 1920s, a decade in which the United States finally, permanently rejected the League of Nations but also gradually modestly and informally reconciled itself to taking a leading role in the international system — too little, too late. The worst-case scenario is that the transition from unipolarity takes an ugly term. Unipolarity depends more than people realize on the voluntary cooperation of other leading powers and the trust they can repose in the leading state. Those factors, intangible but real, have largely evaporated. And in a world without a focal point and hegemon to sustain cooperation, the dynamics for regional and global challenges are likely to become more pressing than we have seen in the past 100 years.