international analysis and commentary

Forecasting Trump’s foreign policy: Unpredictability with a chance of incoherence


As the first American president with no history of military or civilian public service, Donald Trump’s approach to the world would be somewhat unpredictable even in the calmest, most settled era.

And yet the situation he inherits is anything but settled. North Korea is close to demonstrating a true nuclear deterrent capability, European unification is being seriously challenged by a nationalist upsurge, the US remains in an indefinite state of low-level war with terrorist groups, and Russia is increasingly willing to aggressively challenge the precepts of the liberal world order. Successfully managing all of this will require a high degree of flexibility and rapid adaptation for the man stepping into the most powerful office in the world.

Will he rise to the occasion? Since the election, we have not learned a great deal about Trump or his instincts that we did not already know from the primary and general election campaigns. We have learned that being president-elect has not meaningfully affected Trump’s temperament, his usage of Twitter or his penchant for counterpunching against everyone from liberal Representative John Lewis to actor/impersonator Alec Baldwin. His choices for major foreign policy posts in the new administration, however, have given us some indication as to how his team will operate, with a heavy preference for retired generals and businesspeople over those with experience in civilian governance.

While it is by no means unprecedented for presidents to pick some cabinet members from outside the traditional policy sphere, the degree to which Trump has shunned it creates huge uncertainties. That will be particularly true at first, since most of the cabinet will be entering their first jobs in government at once – and, to make matters worse, many critical sub-cabinet posts have not yet been filled. Presidential transitions always see some degree of incoherence while the new administration settles in, but this one gives every indication of being rockier than most.

This is all further complicated by the fact that there is likely to be significant dissension within the Trump administration on a range of key foreign policy issues. With Trump having taken pains to distance himself from the political establishment, it is perhaps no surprise that he will find himself at odds with the foreign policy establishment in Washington as much as with foreign adversaries, until he becomes more establishment or the establishment becomes more Trumpish.

Nowhere is this clearer than on the approach to Russia. While Trump and his closest national security aide, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, have called for closer cooperation with the Kremlin – even amidst the ongoing and evolving story of Russian interference in the US elections – the president will need the Departments of State and Defense to operationalize such a policy. Here, his stated views are quite different from those given in confirmation testimony by Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, and – especially – Secretary of Defense-designate, retired General James Mattis. Nor does there seem to be an effort underway to speak with one voice – Tillerson commented during his hearing that he had not yet specifically discussed Russia with the President-elect, and Mattis’s comments about America’s relationship with its European allies and NATO have been strongly at odds with Trump’s.

Trump will also find opposition in Congress – not only from the Democrats, whose support for multilateralism and traditional alliances will align with their opposition to the new President, but from hawkish Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham as well. Congressional authority in foreign policy is limited by the Constitution, but Congress does have some ability to complicate any plans for a new approach to Russia, especially in terms of presidential authority to levy sanctions.

On China, there is less internal tension, but equal potential to upend years of bipartisan American policy. The relevant members of the new team are all in favor of taking a more aggressive posture towards China using both military and economic tools. Trump’s willingness to break precedent in talking directly to the President of Taiwan, and his subsequent statement that he wouldn’t feel bound by the One China policy, which has been a touchstone for presidents of both parties since 1979, suggests that he will be taking a much more aggressive stance.

Trump’s freestyle approach to public policy makes it difficult to read grand strategic visions into his statements, but he clearly views China as the major strategic threat to the US over the coming decades. In this assessment he is not on a completely different wavelength than the bulk of the American foreign policy establishment – though the amount that he is willing to concede to Russia in order to focus on China is. More importantly, though, the president’s clear eagerness to push the issue immediately, the inexperience of much of his team and his preference for unpredictability and pronouncement-by-Twitter creates a significant potential for miscalculation or mistake. And China is hardly incapable of responding; if it pushes back effectively, differences in risk tolerance between Trump and key members of his foreign policy team may emerge very quickly, which might undermine the strategy.

In much of the rest of the world, Trump’s lack of experience and interest in the nuances of American foreign policy will on balance empower his subordinates – though they will also in all likelihood have to deal with periodic interventions by their boss when his attention falls upon them. Moreover, the combination of conventional and unconventional views held in Trump’s cabinet and the new President’s lack of experience managing federal bureaucracies will make it more critical than ever for those agencies to align their priorities with each other – but it equally raises the possibility that they will be more at each other’s throats than usual, preventing the emergence of a coherent Trump foreign policy even where the President pushes for it.

It is hard to know where all this will lead in the long term. To be sure, Trump’s plans will meet with resistance at home and abroad, and sooner or later he will face crises and setbacks, as all presidents do. The question is how quickly those crises will come and how flexible and creative he and his cabinet will prove once they do.