Buckle up for Trump’s foreign policy, whatever it is

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including  his latest book, “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”

By Marty Rochester

In the words on the cover of the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, it is now “Trump Time.” What are we to make of Donald Trump’s foreign policy, beyond the early tumult over refugees and other issues? What might it look like over the next four years?

It is interesting to speculate about how much freedom he will have to remake American foreign policy in his image, whatever that may be. Although our political system places considerable constraints on the president in conducting foreign policy, he typically enjoys much more leverage and leeway in that domain than in the domestic policy arena. 

Still, American foreign policy since World War II – during the Cold War as well as in the post-Cold War era — has exhibited a relatively stable pattern across administrations, no matter the occupant of the Oval Office or his political party affiliation, suggesting larger forces at work than POTUS whim. The general tendency has been to support America’s role as the chief architect and enforcer of a liberal international order based on international institutions, trade agreements and military alliances. 

To many, that is what is now at risk. As Foreign Affairs puts it,  “When Donald Trump chose ‘America First’ as his presidential campaign slogan,” he offered “a perspective on international politics closer to the nationalism and protectionism of the 1930s than to anything seen in the White House since 1945.”   

According to the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright, Trump’s three core beliefs are “opposition to America’s alliance relationships, opposition to free trade and support for authoritarianism.”  

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However, that may be too harsh a characterization of how far apart Trump is from the foreign policy establishment and how wildly our foreign relations may swing in the next four years.

After all, when Trump badgered NATO allies to pony up and share the military burden, he was arguably merely echoing former American officials from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, who at a 2015 NATO summit warned that “every NATO country needs to meet its commitment to devote 2 percent of its GDP to defense.” Only five of the 28 NATO member states have met that target recently. 

When it comes to alienating allies, how about President Barack Obama upsetting longstanding friends such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines? As for Trump’s sympathizing with authoritarian strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, how about Obama cozying up to dictators such as the mullahs in Iran and the Castro brothers in Cuba? 

There would seem far more to gain from “resetting” our relations with Moscow in a positive direction than reconciling with Tehran and Havana. Hacking or no, a rapprochement with the second-greatest military power on earth and a wielder of veto power on the United Nations Security Council would seem to be in our national interest. 

Likewise, one can only hope and trust that Trump’s flirtation with Taiwan will be short-lived as he realizes the importance of our maintaining good relations with the Commu-nist regime on mainland China. He already is backing away from his support for Taiwan. In any event, befriending tyrants is hardly unprecedented in American history. 

Free trade protectionism? How does that differ from the views expressed by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders during the campaign? 

It is true that Trump displays a distinct, unusual blend of neoconservatism (supporting “American exceptionalism,” flag-waving, unilateralism and a hawkish response to terrorism) alongside neoisolationism (wanting to get our own house in order and cautioning against over-involvement in humanitarian intervention and nation building). If this seems a strange brew, few presidents have been known for entirely coherent, consistent grand strategies.  

Interestingly, Obama was criticized for encouraging American “retreat” from our traditional role as global policeman and presiding over the demise of Pax Americana, with neocons and liberal internationalists alike viewing him as excessively disengaged and timid in Syria and elsewhere as world order unraveled in the Middle East and other regions. 

Is Trump likely to hasten our retreat from globalism, or will he reverse course? 

It is hard to say. On the one hand, the American public is gun-shy about overseas military adventures after stinging defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan and mounting national debt. On the other hand, juxtaposed against growing domestic, populist pressures to focus inward is an increasingly interdependent international system where there is no firewall protecting us from foreign problems, making retrenchment difficult. It will be interesting to see how Trump manages and negotiates these tensions.

In assessing the president-elect in a Dec. 18 interview on “Face the Nation,” Henry Kissinger said that to the extent Trump offers a fresh, somewhat unique approach to foreign policy, it could create “an extraordinary opportunity” to improve world order — or “a serious dislocation.”

International-relations scholars long have debated about “the great man theory of history” and whether single leaders alone can change the course of  human affairs, for better or worse. Karl Marx famously hypothesized that structural factors — objective conditions — trumped, or at least greatly constrained, what any one person could do. (One exception frequently cited is Adolf Hitler, whom Trump has been often compared to, mostly by left-wingers.) 

In contrast, George Washington University professor Elizabeth Saunders, in a November Washington Post  commentary (“What A President Trump Means for Foreign Policy”), contends that “it is well-established in research on foreign policy that leaders’ beliefs matter.” 

Even if beliefs do not matter, what about temperament, personality traits and idiosyncratic quirks of the sort Trump abounds with? Saunders cites research showing that “older leaders — particularly those over 70, Trump’s age, are prone to aggression.” Not to worry; we have a guy whose nickname is “Mad Dog” who has been placed in charge of our military as secretary of defense!

Seriously, retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis is one of the most respected members of Trump’s national security team who, with wiser heads on board consulting with the president, will hopefully keep the ship of state afloat.  

That said, we may all need a good supply of Dramamine over the next four years, as we are likely in for a choppy ride and titanic waves.