A few days after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump W’68 as US president, a panel of experts convened at Perry World House to assess his cabinet picks and what the election might mean for US foreign policy. Billed as one in a series of PWH “rapid response programs” designed to “examine fast-breaking global affairs events in real time,” the discussion raised significant concerns over the possibility that the Trump administration will pursue a much different course from both Democratic and Republican presidents of recent decades, with one speaker suggesting that it could “represent the end of the post-World War II order.”
PWH Visiting Scholar Dom Tierney, an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, began with a caveat acknowledging the unsettled nature of the immediate post-inauguration world: “My comments may be obsolete by the time I’m finished.”
Tierney divided President Trump’s apparent foreign policy beliefs into what he called “three baskets”: (1) views he has held consistently over the years, including a skepticism about US alliances, his attitudes on immigration and trade, and his positive view of Russia; (2) areas of recent consistency, as in his hardline position supporting Israel; and (3) the “flip-flop issues,” on which he has consistently taken different positions.
Unfortunately, he added, that third category includes “critical issues of war and peace.” He pointed to the president’s contradictory claims about wiping out ISIS, eradicating “radical Islamic terrorism,” and destroying Iran’s “terror networks,” while also favoring withdrawal from US engagement in the Middle East and vehemently disavowing “nation-building.” Despite his claims to the contrary, Trump’s positions have similarly oscillated about the US’s three most recent major wars in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.
This kind of “wild inconsistency” is dangerous, Tierney said, in part because it signals Trump’s “apolitical view of war,” with his concentration on “the kinetic side—bombs destroying things,” rather than resulting consequences. It also suggests an overconfidence common to many fledgling presidential administrations—George W. Bush after 9/11, or Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs—but which Trump’s personality may exacerbate in the event of a foreign policy crisis early on.
Asking whether Trump’s cabinet “can save him—save us,” Tierney expressed his own doubts concerning the president’s nominees, apart from his Secretary of Defense, Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who “seems like a serious pick and not just a yes-man,” as well as someone experienced in war who recognizes von Clausewitz’s dictum about war being an extension of politics. “To a large extent, it is in Mattis we trust,” he concluded.
Thomas Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institute and director of its project on international order and strategy who is a visiting fellow at PWH, echoed some of Tierney’s comments on the president’s worldview. “He is much more ideological than people think,” he said. Trump’s views on trade, US alliances, support for Russia, and sympathy for authoritarianism in general, all go back to the 1980s, he said. These are far from fully developed policies ready to be operationalized in his administration, but “he does have guiding principles,” Wright added. “He’s repeated them all the time” and in the absence of political gain, indicating that they are “sincerely held.” One such view is that “the United States is in trouble and that it’s the fault of foreigners and other countries, and he is going to correct this” by taking advantage of them instead, Wright said, fusing foreign and domestic politics.
The “good news,” he added, is that “very few people” in his administration agree with Trump’s foreign policy views, with the exception of former Breitbart.com editor Steve Bannon, his campaign manager and current chief strategist and senior counselor. The intellectual apparatus of think tanks and academics from which Republican administrations typically draw are “all against Trump,” and “he had to go to other people for his cabinet.” Mattis at Defense, Rex Tillerson (State Department), and General John Kelly (Homeland Security) all expressed divergent views in their confirmation hearings. The expectation is for infighting among what Wright described as “the America First camp” of Bannon and company; those “driven by a desire” to wage a religious war against radical Islam, represented by Trump’s national security advisor General Michael T. Flynn; and traditionalists like Mattis and Tillerson. All three camps distrust each other, “but they need the other to check the third,” he said.
Wright listed four “specific things that worry me”:
First, Trump’s presentation of himself as a “dealmaker” is not likely to be an effective model in foreign relations. Noting that former Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and George Schulz had compared diplomacy to gardening, he added, “You don’t want to tear the plants up every morning to see how much they’ve grown.” As an example of the missteps Trump’s approach can lead to, he cited the then-president-elect’s controversial phone call with Taiwan’s president and subsequent suggestion that preservation of the “One China” policy might be contingent on more Chinese cooperation on trade issues. This suggested that the US “was willing to bargain away its alliances” for economic reasons.
Second, and related, Wright said, Trump has turned out to be more confrontational with China on trade than had been thought, echoing his stance on Japan back in the 1980s. Citing advisors like economics professor Peter Navarro—author of the 2011 book Death by China, which was made into a documentary film the following year—Wright said, “They want to wage economic war against China” and think they can win.
Third, the US-Russia relationship presents dangers beyond the appearance that Trump has a favorable disposition towards Vladimir Putin. The Russian president, Wright said, “has to see this moment as an opportunity—but as a window of opportunity that will close pretty quickly,” as public opinion against Russia grows in the US. Before that happens, Putin is likely pondering “how to achieve something irreversible”—perhaps by provoking a conflict with a neighboring NATO-member state in hopes that the US will refuse to honor its commitment of mutual defense under Article 5, which could precipitate the collapse of the alliance.
Finally, Trump’s own personality poses a strategic risk. “He takes everything so personally,” Wright said. The president’s thin skin and tendency to lash out impulsively both creates a danger for foreign leaders who get on his bad side and a risk that others will use it to exploit him to their own country’s advantage.
Political columnist and reporter Dick Polman, the Maury Povich Writer-in-Residence at Penn, began by recounting his conversation with an Uber driver in Cleveland, where he was covering the Republican National Convention. (Columnists “used to quote taxi drivers,” he explained. “Now it’s Uber drivers.”)
This driver was “wildly enthusiastic” about Trump, Polman said, almost entirely because of his unpredictability, as opposed to any particular action he might take. “There are people who liked the idea that he was going to shake things up in domestic and foreign policy.” In a similar vein, he quoted a reader in Florida who had emailed him that Trump was a “strategic genius” who would engage in “intentional chaos.”
Trump himself during the campaign famously said he didn’t want allies or opponents to be able to predict what he would do as president. But unpredictability and chaos “are not necessarily [desirable] attributes when you’re talking about foreign policy,” Polman noted.
He cited the “worrisome” references in Trump’s inaugural speech charging that the US had placed the interests of other countries above its own in the past, and pledging that in the future it would be “only America First.” Polman worried that this would amount to: “the heck with our NATO commitments and postwar global alliances led by America.” He also singled out the president’s statement during his speech at CIA headquarters about taking Iraq’s oil, apparently promoting the old idea that “to the victor go the spoils,” which would violate The Hague Convention, the Geneva Convention, and UN resolutions as well.
Yet in the short-term, at least, none of this may matter politically, he added. “Generally speaking, most Americans don’t pay close attention to foreign policy unless it hurts their pocketbook and gets Americans killed,” Polman said, noting that this was the pattern with both Vietnam and Iraq, as early support turned to disillusionment and opposition.
The imminence of a shooting war somewhere, or a trade war with China, could change things, but right now foreign policy is far from the minds of the small number of swing-state voters who tipped the election in Trump’s favor, he said. “Those people weren’t voting on foreign policy, but factories closing and just being teed-off at the establishment.”
He ended with another quote from his correspondent in Florida, who wrote that he would “‘stick with Trump as long as I can, because he has’—pardon the expression—‘testicular fortitude.’”
The final speaker was Jean Galbraith, an assistant professor of law at Penn who specializes in US foreign-relations law and public international law. She contrasted the Obama administration—where “you couldn’t turn around without stepping over a lawyer,” starting with the president and vice president—with the Trump administration, which has fewer lawyers and more of an “act first and deal with the consequences later” mindset.
“But law has a way of, when it gets ignored upfront, biting back,” she said. “There are some things a president can do by himself as a matter of law, and there are some things for which he needs affirmative buy-in from other actors,” including Congress, other nations, executive agencies also responsible to Congress, and the courts, although their role is usually to review actions after the fact.
Trump’s flurry of executive orders in the first days of his presidency were predictable and offered a “strong symbolic punch”—as well as representing a “bonfire of US moral capital,” Galbraith added—but have limited practical importance.
Examining the legal parameters constraining the president, she noted that the use of force is not subject to many legal constraints, at least when it comes to initiating conflict, and so is “a space in which Trump has a great deal of room to maneuver.”
In the case of international agreements, the president has the authority to withdraw from them on his own. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was never approved, so Trump’s executive order “withdrawing” from it essentially signaled that it wouldn’t go forward. For established international agreements, the president must comply with provisions in the agreements covering withdrawal. NAFTA, for example, stipulates that signatories can legally withdraw with six-months’ notice to the other parties.
“It’s not crystal clear but seems fairly evident that the president can exercise that on his own without involving Congress,” Galbraith said. However, new international agreements need the consent of the other countries involved, and often the consent of Congress as well, which raises the question of what to replace existing agreements with after withdrawal, similar to the Obamacare repeal-and-replace debate in the healthcare area.
Areas such as immigration and the environment that have foreign policy implications are also regulated as matters of domestic law, she added. “While the president and executive branch have a significant role in determining the precise contours of US policy, nonetheless the broad outlines are fixed by Congressional law,” Galbraith said.
“So on immigration, there is a lot the president can do unilaterally with respect to sealing off our borders from people wanting to come in and shaping US policy with respect to enforcement for undocumented immigrants, but this is not an absolute power. Congress is needed to make changes at a very high level. And even at a mid-level, administrative agencies have legal obligations that are set out by Congressional law.”
Should the Trump administration want to roll back Obama-era climate regulations, she added, there will be a “lengthy procedural and legal process subject to judicial review that the Environmental Protection Agency will have to undertake with respect to that, so in that sense there’s a constraint coming from US domestic law” on what the president can do.
Galbraith described as both “interesting and terrifying” the question of “how much all these separate checks add up to” in limiting President Trump’s actions. “Congress, administrative agencies, and other countries, the courts—none of them on their own has a great deal of punch as a real constraint on presidential power,” she said. “My own view is that collectively they do pack a great deal of power, but that’s something that this presidency is going to test in ways we haven’t seen before.”
In the Q&A following the speakers’ presentations, Tierney began by posing the question—much debated by political scientists—of whether who is president truly matters to how the government functions. While there have been different shades in emphasis, the general contours of US foreign policy have been largely consistent through Republican and Democratic administrations. President Trump, he said, represents “a wonderful experiment” to test if “it matters who wins.”
Polman’s answer was an emphatic yes. He reminded the audience of the key words in Trump’s convention speech in Cleveland: I alone.
“He is willing to go by the gut,” he added, pointing to Trump’s contentious relationship with the intelligence community and general skepticism about its conclusions, as well as his comments in the campaign that signaled a sharp break with past foreign policy, suggesting that people should “take [Trump] at his word” about the direction he intends to pursue.
Wright agreed, noting that an administration’s foreign policy either reflects the views of the president or descends into incoherence—the latter being the best possible outcome in this case, he added. The lack of fellow believers in his administration could limit Trump’s ability to enact his policies, but only up to a point. “Congress and other parts of government are good at stopping a president from doing something, but not so good at making him do what he doesn’t want to do,” he said.
On the question of whether violating the NATO treaty would be considered an impeachable offense, Galbraith said it was unclear, wondering whether that would represent a crime or misdemeanor, which are the only things for which the president can be impeached. But she suggested that, in such an event, opponents of the administration could seize on other causes to pursue impeachment, with NATO being a “background reason” for it.
Polman noted that the president’s conflict-of-interest problems remain unresolved. Aside from the continuing ethical issues that raises, Trump’s branded business empire provides a way that “ISIS could easily test him”—by targeting one of his hotels in a foreign country, for example, prompting an overreaction from the administration.
Searching for a “bright side,” Polman suggested that there would be lots of leaks coming from this White House—which was already apparent less than a week after the inauguration—and that those would result in more insight into what’s going on. “I would not necessarily underestimate the capacity of the press to bring out these internal disputes,” he said.
Regarding what opposition Trump’s cabinet members might mount against remaking American foreign policy in his image, Galbraith pointed to the fact that cabinet officers are accountable to Congress, which also controls their budgets. Historically, she said, many cabinet officers have been independent. Whether Trump’s will be, “we will find out.”
While the secretary of state’s influence depends largely on his or her relationship with the president, the Defense Department has more power and more money of its own, Wright noted. He recommended looking at what Mattis, Kelly at Homeland Security, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford will do. He suggested that the White House might eventually “go it alone” on foreign policy, empowering more “fringe figures” like Bannon and Flynn at the NSC. (Four days later, Trump signed a memorandum removing the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman as a regular attendee of the NSC’s Principals Committee, and elevating Bannon to regular membership.) “But with the Pentagon in relatively safe hands, there’s a limit to what they can do.”
The panel concluded with a discussion about how other countries might respond if the US does abandon the global leadership role it has played for the last half-century.
Galbraith suggested that the US stepping back from funding the UN could lead players like China, Japan, India, and others to step up. Overall, she said, US isolationism “will drive the increasing multi-polarity of the world up another notch.”
Polman emphasized how far the Republican Party had traveled since the 1980s. “The party of Reagan is dead now, really,” he said, though it remains to be seen whether this is a lasting change or will be particular to Trump. He wondered what the Republican-controlled Congress would do, and how far they would indulge Trump’s foreign policy initiatives “in exchange for implementing their long-stymied agenda domestically.”
Tierney offered one possible “silver lining” to US disengagement: when the US leaves, it often happens that its opponents “fall out among themselves,” he said. This happened in the 1970s with China and Vietnam, for example, and a similar process could play out in Afghanistan between the Taliban and its allies.
Wright asserted that other countries cannot replace US security guarantees in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He expressed the hope that there will be more cooperation among nations, but said it was more likely they would “cut their own deals” with China or Russia or embrace their own forms of nationalism or populism.
“I do think the world will become a more dangerous place,” he said. “Most countries are very nervous because they do feel that this potentially will be the end of the post-World War II order and will fundamentally change their strategic environments.” —J.P.