Imagine your reaction upon finding yourself in the backseat of a taxi driven by Travis Bickle. This is how many Americans feel as they consider the next four years under the leadership of President Donald Trump. While some scholars of foreign affairs share this sense of dread, they also, as social scientists, recognize that Trump’s presidency provides an ideal case for testing the proposition that presidents are less taxi drivers (crazed or otherwise) than train conductors who have little choice but to follow wherever the tracks lead. If such a hypothesis bears out, then perhaps we will all arrive at our destination in one piece.
Contrary to popular belief, American presidents have limited ability to shape United States foreign policy according to their own ideas, interests and preferences. Although presidents may appear to be all-powerful, presidential choice is constrained by broader international and domestic factors, including the institutional checks and balances built into America’s constitutional structure. Even a president such as Donald Trump, who delights in his outsider status and promised to disrupt traditional thinking, must eventually conform to conventional practices and ideas in large degree. As a result, continuity across presidencies typically outweighs change.
Many presidents have entered office with strong foreign policy preferences – sometimes ones at odds with conventional wisdom – only to reverse course under the pressures of international or domestic constraints. In October, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson pledged that “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Only months later, of course, American combat troops were wading ashore at Danang, Vietnam, as Johnson responded to Cold War logic and the fear of appearing weak at home and abroad. As he watched the Vietnam War destroy the prospects for his beloved Great Society programs, Johnson lamented the limits on presidential power: “I feel like a hitchhiker on a Texas highway in the middle of a hailstorm; I can’t run, I can’t hide, and I can’t make it go away.”
Similarly, Jimmy Carter came to office determined to escape the “inordinate fear of communism” that had distorted America’s foreign policy priorities only to embrace classic Cold War policies in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, won the presidency on the back of his criticisms of détente and arms control only to later negotiate away America’s intermediate nuclear forces in a deal with the Soviet Union. George W. Bush ran as a harsh critic of “nation-building” abroad only to later enmesh the United States in two of the longest and most difficult national-building exercises in our country’s history.
Examples such as these suggest that a combination of international and domestic constraints combined with unanticipated events drive presidential foreign policy choices in ways that belie notions of unfettered executive power. Presidents who combine lack of experience with unorthodox ideas about diplomacy are especially likely to suffer from rude awakenings that force them to reconsider their initial inclinations.
Donald Trump’s presidency offers an interesting test of this proposition. With respect to foreign policy, Trump is the least experienced president of modern times. Prior to his recent presidential campaign, he had never campaigned for office, never served in government and had limited international experience. He spent his career as a real estate developer, casino operator and entertainer.
Trump does have a worldview – indeed one that he has consistently articulated over several decades – but it lies far outside the mainstream. Trump scolds allies and embraces rivals (Russia). He praises dictators while showing little interest in the spread of democracy. He spurns freer trade and sets religious tests for immigration. Trump denounces recent wars while promising a major military buildup and rattling sabers over disputes with North Korea and Iran.
Trump see the US as a victim in a hostile world –
- rich and ungrateful allies free-ride on US protection
- terrorists exploit America’s openness and tolerance to threaten our safety
- trade partners build up surpluses with the US through cheating and unfair trade practices
- immigrants enter US illegally and take jobs from Americans
- America spends vast sums in futile efforts to spread democracy and rebuild failed states abroad while its own infrastructure crumbles and our efforts produce hatred rather than gratitude
These views – encapsulated by the slogan ‘America First” – represent a politics of grievance that perfectly suited the rural and white working class voters who made up the base of Trump’s support. They are shared by a small group of outsiders Trump brought to the White House, including Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and, initially, Michael Flynn.
Can Trump carry through with such an idiosyncratic set of foreign policy views and preferences? On issues that Trump has long cared deeply about or which are central to his political appeal, the new administration has already broken new ground. Examples include the rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, Trump’s controversial efforts to stem the flow of refugees and visitors from certain Muslim-dominant countries, his tough approach to undocumented immigrants and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate change.
In many areas, however, Trump’s foreign and defense policies are unlikely to veer as far off-course as his rhetoric might suggest. In fact, Trump has already begun to backtrack from some of the more unorthodox and extreme foreign policy positions taken during the campaign and transition period. Contrary to earlier statements, the U.S. will honor alliance commitments, maintain sanctions on Russia, discourage Israel from building further settlements, continue arms sales to Saudi Arabia, renegotiate rather than exit NAFTA and stick to America’s one China policy. Additional adjustments seem likely.
Why do new presidents – Trump included – find it difficult to carry out or sustain major changes in U.S. foreign policy? The easy answer is that perhaps candidates for the presidency are not sincere about the policy promises they make to voters. Once in office, they quickly abandon vote-getting, but unwise or unrealistic policy positions. While this explanation may suffice in some cases, it cannot explain why presidents often depart from foreign policy ideas that are long- and deeply-held.
A more important factor is that presidents face constraints, both domestic and international, that limit their freedom of action once in office. This is the case even though presidents hold greater authority in matters of foreign affairs than the Congress and the judiciary.
Trump can’t manage U.S. relations with the world without a team of experienced advisers and a permanent bureaucracy to implement his policies. Hundreds of influential positions in the Departments of State and Defense, the National Security Council, the intelligence agencies and other arms of the foreign affairs bureaucracy must be filled. The pool of talent available to staff these positions is limited. Moreover, the number of individuals who share Trump’s own quirky worldview comes down to a handful. While White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon might encourage Trump’s extremist “America First” inclinations, he will receive more measured advise – and pushback – from the likes of James Mattis (Secretary of Defense), Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State) and Mike Pompeo (Director of Central Intelligence Agency). Trumps’ first choice of National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, reflected the president’s own eccentric views – and promptly flamed out. Trump turned to a more mainstream choice, General H.R. McMaster, to replace Flynn.
While Trump does enjoy the advantage of united government (Republican control both houses of the Congress), there still remain significant checks and balances. The courts have already stymied his temporary ban on refugees and visitors from seven countries and will likely support legal constraints on the president’s abilities to revive torture as an interrogation tool, reopen black site prisons or expand domestic surveillance (all promises made during the campaign). The FBI and the Congress continue investigations into alleged Russian interference in the recent U.S. presidential election, despite Trump’s objections. Top Congressional Republicans, including Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), have made clear that they will challenge efforts to weaken U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia or to lift U.S. sanctions against Russia. The Congress has refused to provide funding for a wall along the Mexican border and has pushed back against Trump’s proposals for deep cuts to the non-defense foreign affairs bureaucracy.
Resistance to unorthodox policies also arises within the permanent bureaucracy. Trump’s criticisms of the intelligence agencies have been met with damaging leaks of information harmful to the president or his top aides. The CIA even denied top security clearance to a high-level member of the National Security Council. In response to Trump’s executive order placing a temporary ban on refugees or citizens from seven Muslim countries entering the United States, 1,000 State Department employees registered their objections through the department’s dissent channel. There have also been reports of bureaucrats slow-walking implementation of certain policies.
Trump also faces the reality that the United States is not the superpower of his imagination. Other states have the power and resources to resist American bullying and to push back. If the United States unilaterally raises tariffs on imported goods from China or Mexico, retaliation against American exports to those countries will be swift. The White House is already besieged by lobbyists representing Midwest farmers, high-tech firms and big-box retailers, who would be hurt in any trade war. Trump’s efforts to force allies to raise defense budgets against domestic opposition will meet with the same dismal results as experienced by past presidents. The days when Washington could dictate to the rest of the world – especially in such a belligerent manner – are long gone.
Despite all of this, Trump foreign policy will not be wholly normal. Trump’s management of the White House has been chaotic. He lacks the discipline to learn about issues in depth or to avoid pursuing trivial quarrels. Trump spends much of each day watching right wing cable news shows and seldom reads the memos that his aides prepare for him. Staff have taken to making sure that his own name appears in each paragraph in order to capture his attention.
Trump does not respect the statutory autonomy of certain agencies nor the powers of other branches of government. He has left hundreds of top-level positions unfilled in the State Department and other international agencies. Policy decisions are made abruptly with little input from available experts or procedural deliberation – such as the missile strike against a Syrian air base, which was decided over dinner with President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago. Although Trump and his team will likely learn and adapt over time, foreign policy-making under this president will suffer from an unusually high level of incompetence and mistakes.
Trump has also dug himself into a deep hole by failing to offer transparent explanations for questions related to Russia’s interference in the presidential campaign. Rather than cooperating with the various investigations that are underway, Trump has attempted obstruct them. His campaigns against the media and the intelligence community have awakened dangerous enemies who are now out to bring him down. Trump has no true allies among congressional republicans. Although most Congressional Republicans have avoided direct criticism of Trump, they own him nothing and once they conclude that he is an obstacle to passing their legislative agenda and a threat to their reelection, then support will evaporate overnight. If evidence of real collusion with Russia surfaces, then Trump will not complete his term. Even without evidence sufficient for impeachment, he is already badly weakened and is unlikely to fully recover.
Presidents who are weak at home often look abroad for victories. These may take the form of diplomatic breakthroughs on difficult problems or military action that addresses a threat. The one decision that brought Trump bipartisan praise was his attack on Syria in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. When the question of whether to use force arises in the future, Trump is unlikely to forget that his previous use of force proved politically popular.
Trump will not carry through on many of the radical shifts in American foreign policy that he promised during the presidential campaign. Donald Trump’s presidency will certainly bring much bluster, confusion and unpredictable swings in policy. On the whole, however, the combination of domestic checks and balances and international constraints are likely to force the Trump train back onto the well worn tracks of American diplomacy, despite the inexperience and unsteadiness of the conductor.