Donald Trump will enter the White House next month intent on a disruptive foreign policy. His campaign promises pointed in that direction, his recent key appointments give no reason to doubt his resolve, and his initial free-form contact with foreign leaders provides confirmation. The next four years could bring whole-sale change in the U.S. global position — from trade and regional commitments to nuclear proliferation, human rights, and the environment (to name only the most obvious in what is a long and mind-bending list). On the table are changes greater than anything seen since World War II and the early years of the Cold War.
There are good reason for concern that are intrinsic to the very scope of Trump’s ambitions. Given the magnitude, breadth, and intricacy of the looming policy shifts, the odds on misadventure are quite high. Any big changes carries big consequences that are hard to foresee, and a raft of such changes make the future even more murky, dangers harder to anticipate, and mishaps thus difficult to forestall.
Historical perspective can add an additional layer of concern. The diplomatic record suggests strongly that what presidents know when they enter the Oval Office, how well formulated their ideas are, and how systematically they make their decisions matter a great deal. While these features do not guarantee a successful foreign policy, the absence of any one increases the odds against success.
It may be obvious that knowing something about the world, the U.S. policy record, and the institutions that shape that policy can be extremely helpful to the new inhabitant of the White House. But few postwar presidents have met the mark. The exception are Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and arguably Lyndon Johnson. Ike wrote tellingly on his first day in office: “Plenty of worries and difficult problems. But such has been my portion for a long time — the result is that this just seems (today) like a continuation of all I’ve been doing since July 1941 — even before that.”
If Ike felt that the woes of the world had fallen on him, they were woes he knew. Trump’s woes will be compounded many times over by an ignorance of policy and process deeper than any of his recent predecessors. Will he recognize how little he knows? Does he understand that what he has learned from negotiating deals overseas should not be confused with a command of statecraft? In any case, Trump will learn that limited knowledge carries serious consequences. Presidents who have to embark on a crash course on world affairs are likely to pay tuition for a couple of years (assuming they have the time and discipline to go to class). Meanwhile, world affairs come crashing in on them from all points of the compass, while the bureaucracy clamors for guidance and the public expects reassurance. In the long and awkward interval devoted to on-the-job training, the damage done to the presidency not to mention the country and the international community can be substantial.
Presidents ideally not only know the world but also have managed to assemble their ideas into some coherent form that approximates a strategic vision — some cultivated sense of the forces in play on the international stage and the best way for U.S. policy to engage them. In fact, few presidents have had enough exposure to international affairs and enough time before election to reflect and test their ideas. Nixon is perhaps the most notable and instructive exception. His exposure to varied aspects of U.S. policy extending over years provided more than an education; it forced him to think in an ordered, systematic way about the nature of the global system and the most promising direction to take U.S. policy. In his first weeks in office he began exploring courses of action that would culminate in détente with the Soviet Union and accommodation with China.
Trump does bring some broad policy notions to his presidency. But they don’t amount to a coherent body of ideas grounded in experience. They are rather a hodge podge of undeveloped, even conflicting positions that are likely to produce policy disarray and in turn generate mistrust abroad and dismay at home.
Finally, Trump gives every promises of turning his back on a little noticed and easy to ignore feature of a successful policy: the orderly formulation of policy options followed by their careful evaluation by senior staff with the president’s active, informed participation. A successful policy process requires taking experts seriously and involving them intimately. It also requires that the president listen to senior advisers with the expectation that they will speak candidly in private while executing policy decisions loyally in public.
Attention to staff work at all levels can make an enormous difference, as Eisenhower demonstrated during his eight years in the White House. He had learned the virtues of a good staff during a long Army career including his oversight of the massively complex reconquest of continental Europe in 1944 and 1945. The Kennedy White House was by contrast free-wheeling, and the results were policies that damaged and pained the president. The Bay of Pigs is a good example of the former; the assassination of Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem serves for the latter. From recent presidents, George W. Bush is a good example of the failure of staffing, whereas no-drama Obama has from all appearances been scrupulous in listening to the specialists and engaging in a sustained way with his advisers.
Trump seems likely to suffer the Kennedy fate — or worse. His reported disinterest in receiving daily intelligence briefings, his misplaced self-confidence, his off-the-cuff comments, his love of theater, and his appetite for public acclaim combine to give reason to expect a lot worse.
The coming months will be interesting. Policy veterans inside the beltway, already suffering one heart attack after another, will watch in anguish as things go from bad to worse. The media that Trump likes to bash will make much of his misadventures and the leaks that will begin to flow from his administration like the sap in Spring. The public, perhaps even in the Trump heartland, will begin to recognize that something is amiss. Faced with setbacks to national interests and reputation and mounting criticism, Trump is likely to follow his favored ploys of denying, diverting, discrediting, and decrying. That may suit him and it may work politically but it won’t make the troubles go away. Almost certainly we can look ahead to greater dysfunction afflicting U.S. policy and an acceleration of the national decline already decades in the making. The Trump presidency could be revolutionary — but not in the way intended. It could very well turn his “Make America Great” slogan on its head.