How’s he doing? A checklist

Cartoon by Norwegian artist Christian Bloom
Cartoon by Norwegian artist Christian Bloom

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:

  1. The president and his advisers begin with relatively little background in foreign policy issues.
    • Yeah, no kidding.
  2. Positions taken during campaign set the administration’s initial course.
    • Unfortunately and tragically. See the annotated list below.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
    • So far we don’t know if he’s done this, though a proposal was floated to reopen CIA black sites abroad, where we know torture was carried out under the Bush administration. Trump has named Gina Haspel, the senior-level official who ran the torture program, as Deputy Director of the CIA.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

We’ve been warned


In a phone call last Saturday President Trump picked a fight with the prime minister of Australia. According to the Washington Post’s report:

At one point, Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day — including Russian President Vladi­mir Putin — and that “this was the worst call by far.”

This morning Trump doubled down on Twitter:

This won’t end well.


Pretty much the opposite of the Obama Doctrine


Early in the summer of 2014, Barack Obama summed up his approach to managing global affairs in four simple words:

“Don’t do stupid shit.”

According to the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama became incensed when this concise statement of the Obama Doctrine was derided (by Hillary Clinton in particular) as not being the sort of organizing principle a great power needs to guide its foreign policy.

When The Atlantic … published Clinton’s assessment that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Obama became “rip-shit angry,” according to one of his senior advisers. The president did not understand how “Don’t do stupid shit” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ ”

After January 20 it looks like the stupid-shit caucus is going to inhabit the Oval Office. Everything we’ve seen so far tells me that, like all things Obama, this is one more area where Trump is set to look at what his predecessor did, and then do the opposite.

Again, don’t take it from me, get your information right from the source, in Trump’s own 140-characters or less missives. Here’s a sampling:

Trump considers the American-led alliance that has maintained peace and security in Europe and beyond obsolete and unfair:

He believes allies should pay if they want American protection:

Trump wants to drag the US and the world back to the days of dangerous nuclear arms races:

Upon learning that North Korea intends to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, Trump used Twitter to draw an apparent line in the sand, but leaves everyone guessing as to how he might back his words with action.

Trump wants to pull the United States out the framework of global free trade:

Threats against specific companies risk igniting trade wars.

He disparages the work of US intelligence agencies while blithely taking Wikileaks’ Julian Assange at his word and continuously sucking up to the Russian strongman who helped engineer his election.

He sees accepting refugees fleeing the world’s worst war zone as threatening the very existence of the United States and Europe.


The Obama Doctrine? Somebody should have told the voters.

Teaching international relations at the dawn of the Trump Era


In two weeks Donald Trump goes from president-elect to president of the United States. As I told the students in my introductory level international relations class at our first meeting yesterday, I feel like all my lectures should now be accompanied by an asterisk, at least for the foreseeable future.

I describe the study of international relations to my students as a search for patterns of behavior and an attempt to identify and understand the underlying dynamics that create and sustain those patterns. Donald Trump, when he assumes office, is poised to blow those patterns up. Figuratively, I hope.

First as a candidate, then as president-elect, Trump has put forward and repeatedly reiterated a series of policy positions on national security, alliance relationships, trade policy, nuclear proliferation, human rights, and more that don’t just undermine but essentially repudiate the fabric of international institutions and norms of behavior that have brought a level of stability and peace amongst the great powers, and order to the international system more generally, that is frankly unprecedented in modern history.

That these institutions and norms were largely created, maintained, and enforced by the United States in the years immediately after World War II, and strengthened and broadened in the years since the end of the Cold War, adds to the tragic irony and irresponsibility of the foreign policy that Trump seems about to unleash on the world. As the world’s dominant actor, with unrivaled military, economic, and political clout, we’ve run the show. And now we’re about to walk away from all that.

In short, the United States will no longer defend the liberal world order that it built. As my friend Bill Ayres writes, this puts us into uncharted waters:

So what happens when a Hegemon abdicates? Nobody knows, because we don’t have a lot of good historical parallels. At the moment neither Russia nor China is a serious Challenger – would either start to think about assuming the US role? Would Europe, cut loose by a feckless Trump administration, go its own way, perhaps taking over the institutions the US developed? Would the Euro become the new world currency?

It’s not that Trump’s ideas are without precedent, either in terms of US foreign policy or in the arena of international politics. It’s just that they’ve been out of circulation, some of them for more than a century. A year ago in an article at Politico, Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution wrote:

One of the most common misconceptions about Donald Trump is that he is opportunistic and makes up his views as he goes along. But a careful reading of some of Trump’s statements over three decades shows that he has a remarkably coherent and consistent worldview, one that is unlikely to change much if he’s elected president. It is also a worldview that makes a great leap backward in history, embracing antiquated notions of power that haven’t been prevalent since prior to World War II.

It is easy to poke fun at many of Trump’s foreign-policy notions—the promises to “take” Iraq’s oil, to extract a kind of imperial “tribute” from U.S. military allies like South Korea, his eagerness to emulate the Great Wall of China along the border with Mexico, and his embrace of old-style strongmen like Vladimir Putin. But many of these views would have found favor in pre-World War II—and even, in some cases, 19th century—America.

In sum, Trump believes that America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order it helped to create and has led since World War II. He has three key arguments that he returns to time and again over the past 30 years. He is deeply unhappy with America’s military alliances and feels the United States is overcommitted around the world. He feels that America is disadvantaged by the global economy. And he is sympathetic to authoritarian strongmen. Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.

But can he do it? That we still don’t know. And that’s what I mean when I say that Trump is poised to blow up the patterns of international politics that we have known for nearly 70 years, and which I have taught my students for as long as I have been doing this.

Robert Jervis of Columbia University, one of the great senior scholars in the field of international relations, sees in the Trump presidency an opportunity to test some of the things we thought we knew about the underlying causal factors shaping the patterns of global politics we observe. For example:

  • How important is the individual head of state in shaping his country’s foreign policy?
  • How strong a constraint on the head of state’s decisions is the foreign policy bureaucracy?
  • Domestic political calculations are presumed to be important influences on a president’s foreign policy agenda. Will Trump prioritize the populist trade and immigration policies that so resonated with his voters? Will he pay a price for his embrace of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s meddling in the presidential election? (Survey data suggests he won’t.)
  • At the level of the broad international system, our theories point to a strong tendency of democracies to cooperate with each other while engaging in more conflict-ridden relations with non-democratic states. Will this pattern hold given the transactional way that Trump conceives of relations between states?

Right now we just don’t have enough information to answer these questions. But we will soon enough. Until then, I’ll have to slap that asterisk on my lectures.