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Breaking Down the Trumpian Foreign Policy Realignment

Donald Trump has sown disagreement and division in the American electorate like few other presidential candidates, much less presidents, in the history of the United States.  Amidst this widespread disagreement, however, the Trump-fueled realignment in the realm of foreign policy thinking stands out for its distinct pattern of fracture.

Image courtesy of The White House, © 2017.

Initially, it was tempting to analyze Trump’s rise from long-shot candidate to eventual winner of the 2016 presidential campaign as a tale of Washington insiders versus heartland outsiders. Still, although some of his early foreign policy moves seem to suit this narrative, such as gathering previously liminal foreign policy positions like trade protectionism and strategic realism under his umbrella, reality—as it often is—remains far more complex. Donald Trump’s ascendant presidency has led to a four-way rather than two-way fracture. He has sparked division not only between “foreign policy insiders” and “outsiders” but catalyzed an even more damaging internecine conflict with his distinct viewpoints.

To be fair, there is some truth to the notion that Trump’s election represents a spring cleaning of sorts in regards to the traditionally insular Washington, D.C. based foreign policy elite. Early on in his campaign, Trump embraced a motley cast of odd-ball and under-qualified foreign policy outsiders as his primary advisors. He also was willing and eager to entertain controversial views, such as questioning the value of U.S. alliance commitments that are anathema to the mainstream Republican foreign policy establishment. This, in turn, led well-entrenched GOP foreign policy figures to not only steer clear of his campaign but publically chastise it.

It is also telling that in this early phase Trump decided to deliver his first major foreign policy speech at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, D.C. The speech was drafted with the assistance of CFTNI board member Richard Burt, a former U.S. ambassador to West Germany and lobbyist for Russian oil interests, and confirmed that some foreign policy realists saw Trump as their quick ticket to policy relevance. Realists, scholars and analysts who believe foreign policy should account for a country’s relative power position and be conducted on the basis of a country’s national interests, generally—in the immortal words of Tufts University Professor Dan Drezner—adopt as their “favorite intellectual position…to be ostracized and right.” Trump, however, offered realists willing to jump onto his bandwagon an opportunity at relevance that they otherwise would have struggled to dream about, much less realize.

Drezner’s own uneasiness with supporting Trump, however, was one of the early indicators that an apparently stark divide between the Washington, D.C. “foreign policy blob” and Trump-supporting outsiders, was bound to founder. Namely, it demonstrated a deep rift amongst realists over Trump’s relationship to their ideals. That Drezner—who although one of the most popularly cited realist pundits remains very much in an oppositional role relative to the actual conduct of foreign policy in D.C.—would publically spit at the Trump bandwagon made it virtually inevitable that others would follow. Indeed, fellow realist Stephen Walt, a Professor at Harvard University, would soon similarly argue that, despite his clear outsider status, Trump, his coterie, and their associated policies were definitively not realist.

Trump thus has not only reiterated an existing insider-outsider cleavage in U.S. foreign policy thought, his candidacy turned presidency has seared a pro-Trump/anti-Trump line across pre-existing ideological foreign policy divides. More importantly, far from being an easily discarded campaign-trail relic, the fracturing of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus along pro- and anti-Trump lines persists. Like the antibodies that Trump’s campaign rhetoric and initial presidential actions have bred, the repercussions of this divide will be far reaching.

For instance, Matt Fay, a foreign policy analyst at the libertarian Niskanen Center, recently argued that libertarians who latched onto Trump’s foreign policy views as “a silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud” were wrong to do so. Indeed, Fay believes that “If Donald Trump’s foreign policy has any relationship to libertarian foreign policy, something is probably wrong with libertarian foreign policy.” Similarly, Walt, although perhaps more cautiously optimistic regarding the prospects of Trump’s foreign policy following his election, maintains that there are challenges ahead. Namely, if “Trump opts for new faces who share his views” on foreign policy, whatever they actually are, “he will be relying mainly on inexperienced officials who are bound to make serious rookie mistakes.”

Other one-time outsiders, however, including some realists, remain confident that following Trump remains worthwhile. Randall Schweller, a professor at Ohio State, writes that “For decades, American citizens, in stark contrast with their leaders, have been more realist than liberal in their foreign-policy orientation.” Moreover, “there is now sufficient compulsion in the United States’ external environment for them to demand a more narrowly self-interested foreign policy.” Trump, in Schweller’s conception, is decisively and provocatively placed to deliver on these demands.

It is important to acknowledge that any prognostications on the future of U.S. foreign policy under Trump remain incredibly premature. There is an almost paralyzing amount of uncertainty regarding what direction Trump’s foreign policy will actually take given that he has yet to fully staff up on foreign policy professionals and must quickly replace some of those he had hired. Moreover, time may help to mend some of the breaks in the foreign policy establishment, although the personal animosities, particularly those held by Trump and his inner circle, have shown no sign of slackening.

American foreign policy has historically been most successful given principled debate and a clear path forward which all debaters can support. When this debate is curtailed or circumvented, as occurred regarding the decision to invade Iraq, disaster inevitably follows. Whether the on-going foreign policy realignment under Trump resolves itself in favor of the former or the latter remains perhaps the most important unanswered question in the fledgling Trump presidency.


Alexander Kirss

Alexander is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at George Washington University. He moonlights as a defense consultant and writes broadly about the intersection of U.S. defense policy, foreign policy, and domestic politics, with a focus on organizational and structural issues. He has previously been published in War on The Rocks, Real Clear Defense, and The National Interest. You can connect with him on Twitter @fpclickbait for far more than just clickbait.
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