The U.S. Isn’t the Superpower Trump Thinks it Is
Imagine your reaction upon finding yourself in the backseat of a taxi driven by the wildly unpredictable Travis Bickle from the 1976 movie, Taxi Driver. This is how many Americans, including actor Robert DeNiro, who played Bickle, feels as they consider the next four years under the leadership of President Donald Trump. As viewers on Tuesday night watch the president’s first speech to Congress in what’s expected to be a largely unpredictable address, some foreign affairs scholars share this sense of dread. As social scientists, they also recognize that Trump’s presidency provides an ideal case for testing the proposition that presidents are less taxi drivers (crazed or otherwise) than train conductors who have little choice but to follow wherever the tracks lead. If such a hypothesis bears out, then perhaps we will all arrive at our destination in one piece.
Many presidents have entered office with strong foreign policy preferences—sometimes ones at odds with conventional wisdom—only to reverse course under the pressures of international and/or domestic constraints. In October of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson pledged that “we are not about to send American boys nine or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Only months later, of course, American combat troops were wading ashore at Danang, Vietnam, as Johnson responded to Cold War logic and the fear of appearing weak at home and abroad. As he watched the Vietnam War destroy the prospects for his beloved Great Society programs, Johnson lamented the limits on presidential power: “I feel like a hitchhiker on a Texas highway in the middle of a hailstorm; I can’t run, I can’t hide, and I can’t make it go away.”
Similarly, Jimmy Carter came to office determined to escape the “inordinate fear of communism” that had distorted America’s foreign policy priorities only to embrace classic Cold War policies in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, won the presidency on the back of his criticisms of détente and arms control only to later negotiate away America’s intermediate nuclear forces in a deal with the Soviet Union. George W. Bush ran as a harsh critic of “nation-building” abroad only to later enmesh the United States in two of the longest and most difficult national-building exercises in our country’s history.
Examples such as these have convinced many political scientists that a combination of international and domestic constraints combined with unanticipated events drive presidential foreign policy choices in ways that belie notions of unfettered executive power. Presidents who combine lack of experience with unorthodox ideas about diplomacy are especially likely to suffer from rude awakenings that force them to reconsider their initial inclinations.
Trump’s presidency will certainly offer an interesting test of this proposition. With respect to foreign policy, Trump is not only the least experienced president of modern times, but also one whose views are far outside the mainstream. Trump scolds allies and embraces rivals (Russia). He praises dictators while showing little interest in the spread of democracy. He spurns freer trade and sets religious tests for immigration. Trump denounces recent wars while promising a major military buildup and rattling sabers over disputes with China and Iran.
Can Trump carry through with such an idiosyncratic set of foreign policy preferences? On issues that Trump has long cared deeply about or which are central to his political appeal, the new administration has already broken new ground. Examples include the rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, Trump’s controversial efforts to stem the flow of refugees and visitors from certain Muslim-dominant countries, and his tough approach to undocumented immigrants.
In many areas, however, Trump’s foreign and defense policies are unlikely to veer as far off-course as his rhetoric might suggest. In fact, Trump has already begun to backtrack from some of his more unorthodox and extreme foreign policy positions taken during the campaign and transition period. Contrary to earlier statements, the U.S. will honor alliance commitments, maintain sanctions on Russia, discourage Israel from building further settlements, and stick to America’s One-China policy. Additional adjustments seem likely.
Why do new presidents—Trump included—find it difficult to carry out or sustain major changes in U.S. foreign policy? The easy answer is that perhaps candidates for the presidency are not sincere about the policy promises they make to voters. Once in office, they quickly abandon vote-getting, but unwise or unrealistic policy positions. While this explanation may suffice in some cases, it cannot explain why presidents often depart from deeply held foreign policy ideas.
A more important factor is that presidents face constraints, both domestic and international, that limit their freedom of action once in office. This is the case even though presidents hold greater authority in matters of foreign affairs than the Congress and the judiciary.
Trump can’t manage U.S. relations with the world without a team of experienced advisers and a permanent bureaucracy to implement his policies. Hundreds of influential positions in the departments of State and Defense, the National Security Council, the intelligence agencies, and other arms of the foreign affairs bureaucracy must be filled. The pool of talent available to staff these positions is limited.
Moreover, the number of individuals who share Trump’s own quirky worldview comes down to a handful. While Steve Bannon, his political advisor, might encourage Trump’s extremist “America First” inclinations, he will receive more measured advice—and pushback—from the likes of Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Trump’s first choice of National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, reflected the president’s own eccentric views—and promptly flamed out. Trump has been forced to turn to a more mainstream choice, General H.R. McMaster, to replace Flynn.
While Trump does enjoy the advantage of united government, there still remain significant checks and balances. The courts have already stymied his temporary ban on refugees and visitors from seven countries and will likely support legal constraints on the president’s abilities to revive torture as an interrogation tool, reopen black-site prisons, or expand domestic surveillance. The FBI and Congress continue investigations into alleged Russian interference in the recent U.S. presidential election, despite Trump’s objections. Top Congressional Republicans, including senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have made clear that they will challenge efforts to weaken U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia or to lift U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Resistance to unorthodox policies also arises within the permanent bureaucracy. Trump’s criticisms of the intelligence agencies have been met with damaging leaks of information harmful to the president or his top aides. The CIA even denied top security clearance to a high-level member of the National Security Council. In response to Trump’s executive order placing a temporary ban on refugees or citizens from seven Muslim countries entering the United States, 1,000 State Department employees registered their objections through the department’s dissent channel. There have also been reports of bureaucrats slow-walking implementation of certain policies.
Trump also faces the reality that the United States is not the superpower of his imagination. Other states have the power and resources to resist American bullying and to push back. If the United States unilaterally raises tariffs on imported goods from China or Mexico, retaliation against American exports to those countries will be swift. The White House is already besieged by lobbyists representing Midwest farmers, high-tech firms, and big-box retailers who would be hurt in any trade war. Trump’s efforts to force allies to raise defense budgets against domestic opposition will meet with the same dismal results as experienced by past presidents. The days when Washington could dictate to the rest of the world—especially in such a belligerent manner—are long gone.
If theory and history are reliable guides, Trump will prove unable to carry through on many of the radical shifts in American foreign policy that he has promised. Trump’s presidency will certainly bring much bluster, confusion, and unpredictable swings in policy. Yet the combination of domestic checks and balances and international constraints are likely to force the Trump train back onto the well-worn tracks of American diplomacy, despite the inexperience and unsteadiness of the conductor.
David Skidmore is a professor of political science at Drake University in Iowa. He is the author of The Unilateralism Temptation in American Foreign Policy, 2011.