Thirty years ago, writing in the pages of the journal Political Science Quarterly, William Quandt posited that the failure of presidents to exercise strong leadership in foreign policy was not rooted in the Constitutional framework of checks and balances which forces the president to share power with Congress, but in the nature of the electoral system itself.
Quandt’s thesis is pretty simple. With presidents limited to only two terms, presidential elections every four years, and congressional elections coming at the midterm, presidents have little time during their incumbency when they have both the experience and the power necessary for sensible and effective foreign policy:
The price we pay is a foreign policy excessively geared to short-term calculations, in which narrow domestic political considerations often outweigh sound strategic thinking.
Sensible and effective foreign policy is kind of a moot point right now with Donald Trump occupying the White House. Be that as it may, there’s more in Quandt’s argument that rings true. Specifically his description of the problems that first-year-first-term presidents encounter as they try to translate their campaign promises into actual policy.
Here is the basic outline of first-year pattern. Let’s see how many of these ring true:
- The president and his advisers begin with relatively little background in foreign policy issues.
- Yeah, no kidding.
- Positions taken during campaign set the administration’s initial course.
- Unfortunately and tragically. See the annotated list below.
- Policy objectives are set in ambitious terms, but by end of the first year it becomes clear that early policies are on the wrong track.
- This is already true. If we make it all the way to the end of year one it will be even more on target.
- Reassessment begins, but until then time and energy are wasted pursuing false leads and indulging in wishful thinking.
- Reassessment? Hah! That implies recognizing that you’ve made mistakes. OK, OK, they have walked back some of the worst aspects of the biggest blunders, like the travel ban, but only grudgingly and accompanied by Twitter rants from the chief.
Right after the election I posted an updated list of all of the foreign policy and national security relevant statements and pledges that I could remember from the campaign. Here’s that list again, annotated.
- Authorize torture against terrorism suspects to extract information, whether it works or not.
- Use torture against terrorism suspects in order exact vengeance.
- See above.
- Order the US military to commit war crimes, including killing the families of suspected terrorists.
- As far as we know this has not been officially authorized, however, the first special operations mission approved by Trump, a raid in Yemen by Navy SEALS, resulted in the death of dozens of civilians, including the 8-year-old daughter of Yemeni-American terrorist leader Anwar al-Alwaki. One SEAL was killed in action, the first of the Trump presidency.
- Replace military commanders who balk at illegal orders.
- Hasn’t happened yet, so far as is known.
- Abandon longstanding alliances, like NATO.
- Not yet, but leaders of NATO countries have been trying to impress upon the president just how vital US leadership of the alliance remains.
- Abandon longstanding allies to the tender mercies of predatory neighbors.
- In the final days of the Obama administration, the Pentagon deployed additional US forces to Poland to send a deterrent message to Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin. While the future of that deployment remains in question, Poland’s foreign minister has offered an olive branch to Trump remarking that their two countries agree on more issues “than you probably thought.”
- Walk away from defense commitments to South Korea and Japan even if that means they develop nuclear weapons of their own.
- Visiting South Korea this week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis sought to quell those fears and reaffirmed the US security commitment to Korea, “saying that any nuclear attack by North Korea on the U.S. or its allies would receive an overwhelming response.”
- Tear up the multilateral agreement that led to Iran’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons program.
- While it hasn’t torn up the agreement, last Wednesday National Security Advisor Michael Flynn said the he was “putting Iran on notice” following the failed test of an Iranian medium range missile. Meanwhile, worried that Trump will walk away from the agreement, France declared that it would defend the nuclear deal with Iran.
- Unilaterally abrogate longstanding free trade agreements, specifically NAFTA.
- Last Thursday, Trump said he wanted to speed up talks regarding a renegotiation of NAFTA to make it more “fair” to the United States. He has described the agreement as a catastrophe for the United States.
- Wage trade wars against China and other countries he deems guilty of engaging in unfair trade practices.
- Trump staked out this ground in his inaugural address, declaring: “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”
- Withdraw from the World Trade Organization if it does not bend to American will.
- No moves on this one yet.
- Cancel America’s commitment to take meaningful steps to combat climate change under the terms of the historic international Paris climate agreement.
- The groundwork has been laid to withdraw from the Paris accord.
- Close America’s border with Mexico and confiscate remittances from Mexican workers in the US in order to fund the building of the border wall.
- Bar Muslim immigrants and refugees from US soil.
- Yeah, he went there. Let’s just say it’s been a mess. A real mess.
- Bar immigration or the admittance of refugees to the United States from countries or regions plagued by terrorism.
- See above.
- Introduce an ideological litmus test for immigrants and their American-born children.
- Not yet. But there are fears that it’s coming.
- Try American citizens accused of terrorism before military tribunals.
- Not clear, though the administration has signaled its intention to refill the detention center at Guantanamo Bay with terrorism suspects who would be denied access to the civilian justice system.