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Divergent Views: Donald Trump and his nominees’ opposing takes on U.S. foreign policy

In the week before the inauguration each member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet underwent Senate hearings. As soon-to-be Secretaries and Directors, they were asked to defend their positions on not just a handful of minor issues, but on some of the President’s most contentious foreign policy positions.


The topics ranged from the disputed Southern border wall, a ban on Muslim immigrants, Trump’s potential friendship with Putin, the potential dismantling of NATO and the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the justification of torture. For the most part, the statements made by Trump’s nominees were often in direct opposition of some of the most controversial declarations made by the President. In the area of national security, nominees had divergent views with Trump on almost every major policy.

Some journalists even believe that the nominees were staging a “Reassurance Offensive”, hoping to reassure Congress, and the American people that Trump won’t be able to act on everything he says or tweets. To illustrate this, here are a few examples of major foreign policy issues that Trump and his nominees took very different stances on.

First, the issue strongly voiced by Trump, but not so convincingly by his nominees: can America ever really be friends with Russia? Trump has talked repeatedly about the potential for a strategic relationship with Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin; his comments regarding cooperation with Putin have centered on fighting terrorism in the Middle East.

Perhaps thankfully, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has said that a friendship is not likely to succeed. “We’re not likely to ever be friends,” Tillerson said. “We do not hold the same values.” He also called Russia an “unfriendly adversary” and said he regards Putin as a “regional and international threat”.

Second, Trump has stated there is no longer a need for NATO, but  Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis is not on same page. During his campaign, Trump derided the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as obsolete. In addition, he has said that its members, if they would like continued protection (provided by the United States), would need to increase their military spending.

Tillerson and Gen. Mattis, have agreed to disagree with the President’s statements. Mattis said, “If we did not have NATO today, we would need to create it.”

Third, and similar to his argument about NATO, Trump has advocated for the dismantling of the Iran Deal. Trump has been adamant that the Iran Deal was “one of the dumbest deals ever.” But Gen. Mattis vehemently disagrees with Trump’s insistence to tear apart the nuclear arms deal with Iran. And although Gen. Mattis has said before that that the deal is “imperfect”, he strongly believes that the U.S. must honor the “imperfect ­arms-control agreement” with Iran because “when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”

Fourth, Trump believes the best way to increase the security of the southern border is the immediate construction of a physical wall. In addition, Trump has said he wants to increase the number of border patrol and immigration officers. Trump has repeatedly promised that Mexico will reimburse US taxpayers for the construction costs, a suggestion Mexican officials have rejected outright. Trump has also stressed that the wall would “help Mexico” by deterring illegal immigration from countries further south through Mexico, but Mexican officials do not agree. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who had planned to travel to Washington next week to meet with Mr. Trump, cancelled his trip after the wall was announced.

Fifth, Trump has issued a ban against immigrants from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, who he believes are “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” Tillerson flat out rejected Trump’s call for a Muslim immigrant ban, yet, on Friday, Trump issued a 120 day ban, which may even extend to current green card holders, causing hundreds of people to be detained in a number of U.S. airports. Protests regarding the injustice of this ban have popped up all over the nation, spanning from Los Angeles to Boston.

Sixth, Trump said he would allow — indeed, encourage — U.S. interrogators to torture suspected terrorists. He argued during his campaign that “torture works.” He vowed to resume it “immediately” and to come up with “much worse.” New CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, said he would refuse to carry out any such order. Gen. Mattis, too, expressed his opposition.

Now perhaps, what we don’t understand is that this dissonance among his cabinet nominees does not come as a complete surprise to Trump. Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, explained Trump chose his nominees for their expertise, not for their “ability to parrot his own positions”. Even Trump seems happy about these divergent views: “All of my Cabinet nominee are looking good and doing a great job,” he tweeted on Friday. “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!”

And yet, Spicer did go on to say, “At the end of the day, each one of them is going to pursue a Trump agenda and a Trump vision.”

The future of American foreign policy remains largely up in the air. Only time will tell in what direction we will see these major policies swing. For now, it is clear Trump’s Executive Orders have caused quite a stir among the American people, members of the court, and even state representatives. Signs reading “No Ban, No Border Wall, No Bigotry” seen among the crowds that gathered in Washington DC for inauguration weekend, and now gather in the luggage halls of JFK and Dulles airports seem to encapsulate the overwhelming dissent sweeping across America today.


Ashley Gierlach

Ashley is currently transitioning back from the United Kingdom, where she recently graduated from the University of St Andrews with a MA (Hons) in International Relations. Her areas of interest include International Security, U.S. Foreign Policy, Terrorist Organizations/Incidents, and State Crime. Ashley has been published in the Foreign Affairs Review and as a Research Assistant for the Center for Global Constitutionalism. Ashley was previously a Young Leader for the US Embassy in London, England and also worked for two London-based private security and risk management firms as a Country Reporter and as a Maritime Security Analyst, focusing regionally on West Africa and the Middle East. You can connect with her on Twitter @ashleygierlach.
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