On the surface, it might seem that Donald Trump’s foreign policy — such as it is — will be the latest casualty in a stream of endless leaks and ongoing investigations into collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice that will cling to his presidency for months, if not years, like a barnacle to the side of a boat.
In a smart column in Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko made the case that Trump’s domestic travails may compel a besieged and beleaguered president to delegate more to the foreign-policy bureaucracy, thus weakening U.S. credibility in the eyes of America’s allies and adversaries who will increasingly question the president’s reliability and longevity. At the same time, Zenko opines that domestic scandal might push Trump in a kind of wag-the-dog scenario to engage in some very risky military business of a kinetic nature, say should North Korea undertake another nuclear test or conduct one involving a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile.
We’re not sure about the about the wag-the-dog thing. But we are convinced the president’s general approach to foreign policy — two-thirds disrupter, one-third mainstreamer — is likely to continue. And while his domestic travails with special counsels and congressional committees may undermine his domestic agenda, they will not constrain what he chooses to do (or not do) abroad.
In short, with the exception of dealing with Russia, Trump’s foreign policy will remain veritably untouchable: In both style and substance, he’s going to have a pretty free hand.
Few domestic constraints: Does anyone really care?
The conduct of U.S. foreign policy is largely an elite issue. This is easy to forget when you’re living inside the Beltway — whether you’re a member in good standing of the Blob or a realist — where every development abroad is hotly debated and seems like it should be the fulcrum of Western civilization. For foreign-policy wonks, the obvious is never so. How come everyone isn’t obsessed with the latest round in the Qatari-Saudi saga?
Like Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, most Americans frankly don’t give a damn about foreign policy: They don’t rank foreign-policy issues, with the exception of terrorism, among their top concerns. Few spend much time thinking about the international issues that consume the attention of the foreign-policy elite when a president’s missteps sully America’s good name, make the United States look weak, undermine its global leadership, or, in an effort to project strength, get Washington into unwinnable wars and conflicts. At the same time, however, a majority of Americans — according to data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs — also support globalization and free trade.
But for several years, the results of other public opinion surveys, most notably by the Pew Research Center, show that Trump is not completely out of touch with broad public sentiments. For example, according to Pew, most Americans prefer that the United States deal with its own problems and let other countries deal as best they can with their own problems; they are also skeptical of global engagement, believe that the United States does too much rather than too little to solve global problems, and favor a more modest U.S. leadership role. A large number of Americans, including former President Barack Obama and previous presidents and secretaries of defense, agree that America’s allies need to pay more for their own defense and do not want the United States to act as the world’s police.
All these views are broadly consistent with Trump’s “America First” philosophy. Here’s the bottom line: Barring a major mistake that puts the well-being of the public at risk or a crisis abroad that tugs at Americans’ pocketbooks, there will be no wave of public opinion or opposition from a Republican Congress that will sweep away this disruptive doctrine. Congress will tweak things every now and again — as it did recently on a nearly unanimous vote on Russia sanctions. But on climate, immigration, terrorism, and Cuba policy, Trump’s rhetoric and politics play extremely well to his base and to enough Republicans in Congress to help inoculate his approach to more mainstream currents of public opinion. (According to a January Pew poll 38 percent Americans surveyed identified climate change as a top priority.) This president has a great deal of latitude and discretion to put the Trump brand on America’s approach to the world.
Discretion to act abroad
Indeed, when it comes to foreign policy, both the U.S. Constitution and the real world guarantee that capacity. Congress and the courts go in and out of session and are largely reactive; when it comes to national security, they simply don’t have the information, capacity, or frankly the desire to intrude, let alone to challenge the White House. In the past 30 years, there have only been two instances in which Congress has voted to override a presidential veto on foreign policy. For the most part, the legislative and judicial branches stay out of the executive’s way on national security. (Trump’s two executive orders on immigration are a notable exception and represent a highly unusual confluence of factors including the administration’s politicization of the immigration issue, the dysfunctional rollout, and the contradictions, illogic, and perhaps illegality of the orders themselves.)
Still, for the most part, President Trump is a relatively free agent to shape the optics and substance of his administration’s foreign policy, for good or ill. Take his most recent trip abroad. In a scant nine days, the president invested Saudi Arabia as the focal point of his Middle East strategy and re-energized the U.S.-Saudi relationship through hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of intended arms sales and investment ventures. And that was just for starters. Trump went on to deliver an anti-Iranian message that exacerbated tensions within the Gulf Cooperation Council and made more difficult the task of putting his anti-Islamic State coalition together; tweeted his preference for taking Saudi Arabia’s side in its conflict with Qatar, further inflaming the crisis; made clear that human rights have no serious place in his Middle East agenda; became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem; offended and insulted European allies on issues including climate change, trade, and defense spending; and blindsided his advisors when he failed to explicitly reaffirm America’s commitment to NATO’s mutual defense guarantee.
And all this in a mere nine days. Whether any of this reflects a coherent strategy isn’t really the point. The larger takeaway is that the president can act unilaterally — as his withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord reveals — with devastating strategic consequences. There are issues, specifically dealing with Russia, where the current domestic controversy will certainly constrain Trump. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine in these circumstances lifting sanctions on Vladimir Putin or playing footsy with him on any significant or sensitive issue. But on most political issues, and perhaps also when it comes to projecting American military power abroad, there are few if any constraints to stop him.
His advisors give him cover and legitimacy
The appointment of several experienced hands in the ways of government and the world — Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly — might have a leavening effect on a volatile and inexperienced president. And although we don’t know what Trump’s foreign policy would look like if these experienced operators were not around, it’s clear that on issues that are important to the president — for example, climate change and turning NATO’s Article 5 into a bargaining chip rather than a commitment — they have not been able to restrain him. Indeed, on far too many issues these advisors seem willing to play along with if not endorse Trump’s self-consciously self-centered nationalism. This White House operates on the premise that nations do not have a stake in cooperating to solve problems they cannot solve by themselves or in one another’s success; instead, Trump lives in a Darwinian dog-eat-dog world where America needs to look to its own interests and cut the best deals it can — allies and adversaries be damned (perhaps minus Putin). When two presumed moderates in the administration — chief economic advisor Gary Cohn and McMaster — basically said as much in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, they gave legitimacy to this deeply flawed view.
Trump also benefits because in Mattis he has an experienced, intelligent, and sensible advisor who understands and accepts America’s responsibilities for global leadership and spends much of his time advising U.S. allies to ignore the tweetstorms from the man behind the curtain. Vice President Mike Pence, Tillerson, and McMaster have also helped to calm the jittery nerves of allies and reaffirm long-standing American commitments — and, in the process, provide cover and legitimacy to Trump’s behavior. These “adults” help foster a perception that the administration continues to adhere to long-standing foreign-policy traditions, even as the president does his best to undermine many of them.
Just enough mainstreaming
Trump’s role as a disrupter is further insulated and protected, paradoxically, because on many other issues, he opts to color between the lines of what has constituted the traditional foreign-policy goals of his Democratic and Republican predecessors. This mainstreaming creates both the impression and the reality that Trump is actually listening to his advisors or that, on certain issues, his own instincts push him toward a less disruptive posture.
For example, he has chosen for now to preserve the Iran nuclear agreement; to accept the “One China” policy and avoid branding Beijing as a currency manipulator or start a trade war; to renegotiate rather than walk away from NAFTA; and to put off moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem out of concern that such a move would undermine his chances to cut what he calls the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. This mainstreaming not only avoids creating major problems on every foreign-policy front, but it also gives the administration more room to maneuver in the key areas where the president wants to pursue far more unconventional policies. The bottom line: Trump upsets the apple cart when not doing so would either directly undermine high-profile campaign commitments he has made to his base or, in his own view, would not cost him anything.
No bungled crisis … yet
It seems likely that the pattern set in the early months of the Trump administration isn’t going to change dramatically any more than the president himself will undergo some kind of profound transformation. The tweeting, the willingness to show disrespect (and at times contempt) for foreign leaders, and the determination to disrupt on issues that either resonate with Trump personally or politically with his base are going to continue. And there appear to be few constraints that offer any prospect of a change in behavior, particularly since his base revels in his sticking it to the “globalists” and “elitists” who are the subject of his rants. A resignation or two of his senior foreign-policy or national security officials might give him pause — as would a major crisis that forces a stumble or more consequential failure. But the former is unlikely and the latter impossible to predict.
For now, what you see in Trump’s foreign policy now is more than likely what you’re going to get in the future: an approach to the world that on far too many issues denigrates international institutions, multilateral agreements, and America’s alliances and partnerships. It defines “America First” to mean America only and harms U.S. national interests and the possibilities of creating a more stable and prosperous world. This is not just a headline; it is likely to be a trend line, too. So to all of you globalists, elitists, and devotees of this magazine (like us) who forlornly believe you’re going to influence this administration’s foreign policy, here’s our advice: Lay down and wait patiently until the feeling — and the Trump administration — passes.