Why does the president control foreign policy

Parameters of US foreign policy under President Trump

Even ten weeks after the election, the excitement has not subsided. For the USA itself, it is becoming apparent that the election result is likely to further deepen the already growing division in society. Even if Trump promised on election night that he wanted to be a president of all Americans [2], members of minorities reacted with concern to the election result; two thirds of the black population even stated that they felt fear [3]. Since his election, Trump has not been able to allay such fears, on the contrary, he has further stoked them, for example by appointing Stephen Bannon, sometimes described as racist [4], and a number of prominent Islam critics to his white and male-dominated cabinet [5]. In addition, the hitherto more than bumpy process of the handover from Obama to Trump has already deepened the political rifts between Democrats and Republicans. Refusal to cooperate and rhetorical attacks by the elected president and provocative political “farewell gifts” from the outgoing Barack Obama have further poisoned the climate [6].

On this side of the Atlantic, these domestic political developments are being perceived with concern, but the question of what American foreign and security policy will look like under President Trump is of even greater interest here. Will it be shaped by continuity? Or will there be serious breaks? In this report, we take a look at topics that are particularly relevant from the point of view of peace and conflict research, and venture cautious predictions about the future foreign policy of the United States under President Trump.

Unlike President Hillary Clinton, it is difficult to make reliable prognoses. Trump was an unconventional candidate in every way. He is the first president who has neither a political nor a military background. He waged a scandalous election campaign that practically prevented a serious discussion of his election platform. In many respects Trump is by leaps and bounds. During the election campaign he has demonstrably carried out more than 140 changes of position in 23 subject areas [7]. When asked from whom he was getting advice on foreign policy, he replied, in a general manner, “primarily from myself”. Many announcements from the election campaign are incompatible with the rough guidelines of decades of American foreign policy, let alone with the transatlantic canon of values. High-ranking Republican foreign politicians had therefore refused to support him during the election campaign or even warned him in open letters against a President Trump.

All of this makes it difficult to determine which policies Trump will specifically stand for. However, certain statements can be made on the basis of the following parameters: Trump's personality as well as his worldview / election promises and statements since the election / cabinet and adviser / domestic and international constraints.


Trump's personality and worldview

Hillary Clinton's campaign strategy consisted primarily of portraying her opponent as unsuitable in character for the highest office in the United States. Not least with his sometimes racist, misogynistic and minority discriminatory remarks, with his narcissistic and impulsive manner, which, among other things, expressed himself in responding to accusations or provocations with tweets shot from the hip, and with his obvious unwillingness to be appropriately "presidential" to give, Trump provided her with templates for it on a weekly basis.

The new president seems to want to make a virtue of his personality: America's foreign policy should become more unpredictable [8]. That alone cannot please longtime US allies. In addition, despite all the volatility, three issues can be identified that have been running through Trump's political statements for more than 30 years - and where trouble with the allies is inevitable: Trump's demand for serious changes to the American alliance system, his rejection of free trade agreements and his undisguised sympathy for autocrats [9]. This worldview is incompatible with the non-partisan consensus that has existed since the end of the Second World War to stand up for a world order based on liberal values ​​together with a strong Western alliance. Both in his personality and in his worldview, Trump differs radically from all his predecessors [10].


Election promises and statements since the election

Trump has now outlined his program for the first 100 days in office. Some of the election promises to terminate free trade agreements, for example, can be found in it, others, such as the construction of a wall on the Mexican border, are not. In particular, through a series of tweets and phone calls, Trump has been getting foreign politicians from both parties in motion since the election. He repeatedly publicly attacked China, which he accused of currency and trade manipulation, aggression in the South China Sea and inactivity in dealing with North Korea [11], also announced via Twitter that he wanted to expand the American nuclear arsenal [12], and made a phone call the Taiwanese Prime Minister, which broke with decades of practice and was seen as a serious affront to China [13].

Cabinet and Adviser

Whether Trump, as many hoped, allows himself to be “caught” in office and drifts more politically and ideologically towards the center depends on a number of factors: How diversified are the cabinet and the group of advisors? How much will Trump listen to this? And how strongly will foreign policy be steered from within the White House?

The cabinet will have a disproportionately large number of people with no experience in political office. This also includes the foreign and security policy "cabinet heavyweights": Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent his entire professional career at the oil giant ExxonMobil and both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and National Security Advisor Mike Flynn are ex-generals. It is true that Mattis and Kelly are held in high regard by all parties and could even have a moderating effect on Trump in some points. For example, Trump announced that Mattis had convinced him to reconsider his controversial campaign statements on "waterboarding" [14]. However, the now strikingly high density of ex-generals in Trump's cabinet suggests that the military will play an important role in foreign policy.

Outside of the core foreign policy team, Mike Pence, who is seen as an ideological hardliner, is already emerging as a strong Vice President who - like Dick Cheney under George W. Bush - could exert a great deal of influence on foreign policy at the expense of the State Department. This is also indicated by a number of Trump's first talks with foreign heads of government, in which he refused any advice from diplomats from the Foreign Ministry [15]. Obviously, for example, the breach of convention that the telephone conversation with the Taiwanese prime minister represented did not arise from Trump's inexperience, but was carefully coordinated with Pence [16]. Another argument in favor of a strong role for Pence is that he managed the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration. And since Trump showed no interest in the daily secret service briefings on the national and international threat situation, Pence had himself informed in his place [17]. In addition to Pence, three advisors are likely to have a particularly strong influence on future politics: Stephen Bannon, the aforementioned chief strategist in the White House, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who, as Senior Adviser in the White House, should be responsible for Middle East policy issues, among other things , which is also said to have had a far-reaching influence on Trump [18]. In Kushner's personality, Trump's disdain for the political establishment is particularly evident, but neither of the other two top advisors is part of the Republican mainstream. Von Bannon, who was previously head of the right-wing conservative opinion group Breitbart and manager of Trump's election campaign, is said to have already made contact with European nationalists and right-wingers in order to support them in the coming election campaigns [19]. Flynn is considered eccentric and is said to have a penchant for conspiracy theories [20].

The mix of lateral entrants and hardliners with which Trump surrounded himself in the field of foreign policy shows a fundamental difference to Barack Obama's foreign policy style: unlike his predecessor in office, Trump apparently does not intend to remain a foreign policy officer and commander in chief for long stop by weighing different positions and arguments. Political science research also shows that presidents who are inexperienced in foreign policy generally do not tend to seek different opinions before making decisions [21]. It is therefore to be expected that the influence of consultants like Bannon and Flynn on Trump's politics will be unfiltered and large and that the experienced diplomats and experts in the specialist departments will find it difficult to respond. This tendency is already particularly evident in the tense relationship between the secret services and the new government. Due to various incidents related to the "Trump dossier" and Trump's public and long-lasting dismissal of the assessment of all US secret services that Russia tried to manipulate the US elections, the frustration in the secret service community is deep [22]. However, this is by no means clearly mapped out for the government in important political areas: Flynn, for example, sympathizes - like Trump himself - with Russian President Putin, Pence, on the other hand, takes a more critical attitude towards Russia, and Tillerson also kept his distance in his hearing in the Senate Russian politics.

Domestic and international constraints

In all speculations about the personality and worldview of the president as well as personnel decisions and internal disputes over the direction of the future administration, constraints, both domestic and international, should not be forgotten. In the past, these sometimes had a dominant influence on the foreign policy of US presidents [23]. The hope that has often been heard since the election that Trump's radical political ideas will be “captured” by Congress will not necessarily come true, as Dirk Peters explains in his chapter. The Democrats in Congress are so weakened that they cannot counterbalance them. The Republicans will control the Senate and the House of Representatives for at least the next two years, but are even to the right of the President in many areas of politics, such as the Iran deal or climate change.

Developments in world politics can also disrupt a president's agenda. You at least have an influence on foreign policy. For example, will Russia accept Trump's offer to restart relations? Will Trump actually get the better "deals" he has been calling for everywhere? Will the globalized markets support his protectionist course in trade policy? And how will unforeseeable global political events affect his convictions and decisions? The example of his predecessor George W. Bush can serve as a warning not to put question marks on all forecasts. Bush was elected to office in 2000 with the promise of a "humble foreign policy" and yet would go down in history as one of the most confrontational US presidents.


Contours of Future American Foreign Policy

Based on the parameters presented, the articles in this report make cautious forecasts about future US foreign policy and the consequences for international politics. Shifts are to be expected in four central subject areas.

Great power and alliance politics

The diplomatic approach to the great powers and allies will remain a key issue under President Trump. In the Russian-American relationship, which was at a low point under Obama, a new order based on cooperation seems to be emerging, as Hans-Joachim Spanger explains in his article. On the other hand, Peter Kreuzer sees difficult times for Sino-American relations. There is also a certain ambivalence with regard to the way in which the allies are dealt with: In Israel, according to Aviv Melamud in her contribution, Prime Minister Netanyahu and other foreign policy hardliners are preparing for better relations with the United States. In contrast, the transatlantic relationship is facing major challenges, as Matthias Dembinski explains.

Importance of institutional cooperation

A fundamental change is also emerging with regard to the willingness of future US foreign policy to allow itself to be restrained by international institutions, norms and treaties. This is made clear by the contributions of Giorgio Franceschini on arms control policy and Caroline Fehl on multilateral institutions. After the first few years of the George W. Bush presidency, this would be the second unilateralist turn in US foreign policy in the young 21st century. The policy area of ​​peacekeeping could be an exception, for which Julian Junk expects less change than continuity.

Value-based foreign policy

The at least rhetorical defense of liberal values ​​such as free trade, human rights or democracy is likely to be much weaker under Trump than under his predecessors, as suggested by the chapters by Christopher Daase on counter-terrorism, Annika Elena Poppe on politics to promote democracy and Jonas Wolff and Lisbeth Zimmermann on Latin American politics.

Dealing with trouble spots

The contributions by Marco Fey and Niklas Schörnig on the role of the military in Trump's foreign policy and by Arvid Bell on Afghanistan and Iraq suggest that the occasional hope that under Trump military adventures would be a thing of the past was premature. In view of the various global political crises and trouble spots that Trump “inherited” from Obama, the authors of the report expect the new president to distance himself from his predecessor, in some cases clear, but in some cases only rhetorical. While there is little room for “business as usual” in the crisis surrounding the North Korean nuclear program, as Hans-Joachim Schmidt shows, Daniel Müller and Irene Weipert-Fenner expect more continuity than is often assumed with a view to the conflicts in the Arab world and with Iran . In her article, Antonia Witt describes the fact that American Africa policy has not become a political issue either in the election campaign or since the election, but fears that this policy area will also have negative consequences under President Trump.