Tag: foreign policy

The Enemy Gets a Vote

Resolute Desk

In the week since election night, foreign policy watchers (myself included) have rushed to speculate about the effects that President Trump’s administration will have on the world. The most dramatic effect is the potential upending of the international order that the United States built after World War II. Of course, at this point it is impossible to determine whether or not such a consequence will come to pass, but it deserves consideration.

Baked into the idea that Trump will tear down the international order is the assumption that Hillary Clinton would have maintained the order if she was president. Jeffrey A. Stacey argued as much in Foreign Affairs when he wrote, “The world’s challenges require a determined use of U.S. leadership, not isolationism. And in the areas where Obama’s restraint has failed, the more activist Hillary Clinton Doctrine…could likely prevail.” However, the idea that the United States can influence events through “leadership” ignores the fact that in foreign policy the enemy gets a vote. In other words, the growing relative power of America’s adversaries will still pose a challenge to the international order, regardless of what actions the United States takes or who sits in the Oval Office.

America’s ability to rein in the bad behavior of other states has diminished, not because the United States is in decline, but rather because the power of our adversaries has grown. In East Asia, for example, the two most important challenges to the security status quo are North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s improving conventional military capabilities. Both developments threaten the regional order in East Asia, and resist American attempts to stop them. Multilateral and bilateral sanctions efforts have failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which has come a long way with minimal external assistance.

China’s growing military power enables more assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas, despite displays of resolve by the United States and its allies. While many have criticized the Obama administration for not doing more against China, the simple fact is that as its military grows strong it becomes harder to deter China from using it. Beyond East Asia, after years of neglect following the Cold War, the Russian military is fielding new capabilities and pushing back against NATO expansion to countries along its border.

The growing relative power of America’s adversaries does not make the president obsolete, but the individual behind the Resolute desk is not omnipotent. They cannot always prevent changes in the balance of power or maintain the international order by dialing up the “leadership” they demonstrate. We don’t know what impact Donald Trump will have on the world, but the threats America faces would exist regardless of who won the election. The assumption that Hillary Clinton would be able to prevent negative outcomes through greater leadership on the international stage disregards the growing power and agency of America’s challengers. 

Isolationist or Imperialist?

In the hit musical Hamilton, King George, newly estranged from the revolutionary American colonies, challenges his former subjects to justify their choice. “What comes next?” he asks, “You’ve been freed. Do you know how hard it is to lead? You’re on your own. Awesome, wow! Do you have a clue what happens now?”

We might well ask the same question.

The unexpected elevation of Donald Trump to the Presidency presents a failure for pollsters, a reorientation of American politics, and raises the fundamental question of what kind of policies a Trump administration is likely to pursue. On foreign policy, Trump’s statements throughout the campaign have been profoundly incoherent, ranging from more traditional hawkish Republican views on issues like the Iran deal, to more unorthodox, restrained views on Syria and other Middle Eastern conflicts, to his more conciliatory approach to Russia and truly bizarre fixation with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

So what comes next? How will the Trump administration approach foreign policy? As Elizabeth Saunders notes over at the Monkey Cage, advisors wield substantially more power under an inexperienced president. So to a large extent, Trump’s foreign policy choices will depend on who he chooses, not just to be his key foreign policy advisors, but to staff his administration’s foreign policy positions more generally. There are two potential scenarios that we can imagine:

Trump’s Victory Is a Mixed Bag for China

Xi Jinping FlagDonald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton last night is bound to stir up fears of instability and uncertainty in East Asia, a region that was almost entirely ignored during the campaign. Commentators have rushed to predict that Trump’s campaign rhetoric will turn into reality: the United States will pull back from East Asia, and China will take advantage of the ensuing chaos to seize geopolitical dominance of the region. This morning James Palmer at Foreign Policy writes, “Chinese leaders near me in the palatial complex of Zhongnanhai are surely cracking open the drinks.” This is a pretty scary vision of the future. However, such assessments, which focus solely on Chinese benefits, don’t take into account the complex nature of U.S.-China relations.

President Trump is by no means a clear victory for China. The uncertainty created by his victory could easily produce an economic and geopolitical climate that damages Chinese interests. For example, three of the seven points in Trump’s Plan to Rebuild the American Economy mention policies that would hurt the U.S.-China economic relationship: labeling China a currency manipulator; bringing trade cases against China in the World Trade Organization; and imposing tariffs in response to “illegal activities.” Igniting a trade war with China would pose a severe risk to China’s economy, which is already slowing down. Trump’s stated policies would likely deepen China’s economic woes, thereby increasing the domestic instability that Beijing is obsessed with avoiding, especially in the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress in late 2017.

President Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal; Or, How I Learned to Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb

During the Republican primary season, most candidates railed against the Iranian nuclear deal promising to rip it up. Indeed, Donald Trump, our new President-elect, described the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPoA) as “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen.” With Trump’s unexpected success in yesterday’s election, the future of the Iran deal—one of the major diplomatic successes of Barack Obama’s presidency—has become murky.

Over the last year, Trump’s campaign was impressively inconsistent on the question of the Iran deal. Various Trump surrogates—including Rudy Giuliani in his speech at the Republican National Convention—suggested that Trump would “rip up” the deal on day one in office. Trump himself strongly criticized the deal, promising in a speech to AIPAC in March that dismantling the deal would be his number one priority. Yet later statements focused instead on the idea that he would “fix” the deal, by going back to the negotiating table with Tehran, a line later adopted by many of his campaign advisors.

Unfortunately, though this might indicate that Trump’s stance was more rhetoric than reality, he is likely to face strong pressure from the GOP-dominated congress to upend the deal. The pressure is liable to come from inside his administration too: not only did Mike Pence, Trump’s VP pick, take a hard line on the Iran deal in debates, but several of Trump’s potential advisors have similarly argued that the deal should be destroyed. It’s hard to imagine an administration featuring Bob Corker, John Bolton or Michael Flynn taking a conciliatory approach to Iran on any issue.

America’s Foreign Policy Tribes

Even if one had the stomach for more prognostication after last night, when it comes to Trump foreign policy looking ahead seems like a fool’s errand (see my last op-ed if you don’t believe me). As Max Fisher notes in the New York Times today, Donald Trump has been so inconsistent on foreign policy specifics that no one feels confident in making bold predictions. Uncertainty, at home and abroad, rules the day.

However, even though the election can’t tell us much about what might happen in the future, Trump’s victory does reveal a great deal about how Americans think about politics in general and foreign policy in particular.

One thing we have learned is that the divide in Americans’ foreign policy views now mirrors the broader political fault lines in the nation. As I wrote after the final presidential debate, in the absence of a compelling external threat, Americans have become more polarized as the “national interest” has devolved into an array of competing interests. The foreign policy debate is no longer about how to keep America safe; it’s a clash over competing conceptions of America and its role in the world.

Foreign Policy Schizophrenia

In last night’s presidential debate, policy issues were barely discussed among the conspiracy theories and scandal-mongering. But even the limited discussion of foreign policy highlighted a pretty strange fact: the Republican ticket effectively has two distinct foreign policy approaches. And though it’s hardly unusual for running mates to differ to some extent on issues – indeed, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine differ on some key foreign policy points – Trump’s statements last night, publicly repudiating his running mate’s proposals for Syria, were bizarre.

Despite his choice of vice presidential candidate, Trump and Pence have been largely at odds on foreign policy since day one.  Trump’s approach to foreign policy is highly inconsistent but has certainly been unconventional. The GOP nominee advocates a militaristic, ‘America First’ foreign policy, but differs from GOP orthodoxy on key topics like Russia, the Iraq War, U.S. alliances, and trade. In contrast, Pence is a hawk’s hawk, supporting the war in Iraq, increases in defense spending, and further Middle East intervention. In 2005, then-Representative Pence even introduced a House Resolution which would have declared that President Bush should not set an ‘arbitrary’ date for the removal of troops from Iraq until nation-building was complete.

The result has been a curious dichotomy in the Republican ticket’s foreign policy proposals. At last week’s vice presidential debate, Pence ignored Trump’s prior foreign policy statements, advocating for intervention against the Assad regime, the creation of safe zones in Syria, and a substantially harder line against Russia. Yet last night, when moderators pushed Trump on these differences, the Republican presidential candidate bluntly rejected Pence’s stance, noting that “he and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.”  Trump then further contradicted his running mate, arguing for better relations with Russia, even refusing to attribute recent hacking incidents to Russia despite substantial evidence from the intelligence community on the issue.

Refugees, Immigrants, and the Polarization of American Foreign Policy

If I asked you whether Americans were more likely to name immigrants and refugees a critical threat to the United States in 1998 or in 2016, which year would you guess? Most people, I think, would quickly choose 2016. Most people, however, would be wrong.

According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in 1998 53% of Americans did so, compared to 43% in 2016. The error would be understandable, of course, given the homegrown terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. over the past year, Trump’s tough talk about Muslim immigrants, and the vigorous debate about Syrian refugees. Indeed, at first glance the numbers are puzzling.

When we break down the responses by political affiliation, however, we get our first clue about what is going on. As it turns out, in 1998 Republicans and Democrats were closely aligned in their assessments – 56% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats saw refugees and immigrants as a critical threat, a difference smaller than the margin of error in the survey. But by 2016 67% of Republicans did so compared to just 27% of Democrats.