AIDAN TUREK ’20
The recent confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh has revealed much about the American political system, far too much, depending on who you ask. But one important takeaway is that it’s hard to work with a polarized Congress. That’s a bad thing if you’re President Trump. With 2020 on the horizon, and a possible Democratic takeover of the House, the chances of Trump enacting substantive legislation is slim, and there’s only so much doctoring of events the administration can do to offset that fact—regardless of how often Trump derides his opposition as a “radical Democrat mob” that’s “totally unhinged.” Trump’s legacy, and his chances of winning in 2020 might come down to one key policy arena where the President can act freely. Article II of the Constitution grants the President the power to engage in diplomatic relations, revise trade deals, appoint ambassadors, enact executive agreements, and carry out military actions as lie within his authority as Commander-in-Chief. While treaties require ratification by a supermajority in the Senate, the President enjoys a vast amount of independence in implementing foreign policy, and considering the logjam that is Congress, Trump’s legacy and chances at reelection might well come down to his foreign policy.
So, what is Trump doing? The Cold War heavily influence American foreign policy. The fact that 150 countries house 170,000 United States active duty service members is a testament to alliances and antagonisms birthed from the fight against international Communism. While policy varied, the basic premise was securing American military security and preventing the spread of Communism—until the Soviet Union collapsed. Two distinct principles have guided policy formation since national security and the realist school on one hand, and the idealistic democratic world order on the other. The strong interventionism of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, in the Gulf War, NATO action in Yugoslavia, and the Iraq War, has been replaced by a guarded approach to diplomacy reflecting a return to the realist school of thought. The Obama administration tacked away from heavy-handed actions like Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. NATO airstrikes on Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011 succeeded in hastening the dictator’s fall but served also to generate civil war in Libya which continues today. Fresh from this, Obama’s policy towards Syria was one of noninvolvement, with the President deliberately avoiding active military engagement beyond limited airstrikes carried out as much to stop ISIL militants as overthrow the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
Thus, President Trump has inherited a fractured American approach to the world in need of defining. Trump’s approach has been ‘America first,’ though pinning the definition down is difficult. The President has praised the autocratic Vladimir Putin, initiated a trade war with China, and failed to secure nuclear disarmament in North Korea. In less than two years, Trump is on his third national security adviser and second secretary of state, and, most recently, has lost Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations. John Bolton, the current national security adviser, has likely been working against Trump’s talks with Kim Jong Un by forwarding the notion that the U.S. should bomb North Korea just as it did in Libya, keeping in mind that Bolton’s resistance is not unique among the administration. The Trump approach to foreign policy is self-described as “principled realism.” Principled realism reflects a hypothetical middle ground between the realist and idealist dogmas. The product is a somewhat confused and mercurial mindset—consider Trump’s military threats against North Korea delivered in his first UN speech, to his deal-making and praiseworthiness during talks—that suggests an incoherent and opportunistic foreign policy. However, Trump boosters would be quick to counter that Trump is hardly without precedent. Indeed, Henry Kissinger, former National Security Advisor, early Trump supporter, and father of principled realism, was the active head of Nixon’s mission to China, the famed and successful opening of U.S.-China relations undertaken by the stridently anti-communist Richard Nixon. In other words, the carrot and the stick have been waved as hard as Trump.
Regardless of the theoretical foundations of Trump’s policy, its legacy will lie in its raison d’etre—American prosperity. The political dividends of foreign policy success could be huge for Trump, especially given difficulties in legislative action. Trump’s success with North Korea, NATO and Russia, and his diplomatic and economic attacks on China could well decide the election, but that’s only if the average voter feels better off with Trump’s foreign policy. For many Americans, the ever-increasing threat of Russian and Chinese autocracy necessitate a foreign policy less antagonistic towards our allies and more aggressive towards our enemies, making Trump’s principled realism a policy too incoherent to maintain our position as the leader of the free world.