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Event Summaries
November 2, 2017

Event Summary: Making Sense of Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy

by
Henry Jackson Society

By Robert Clark

On November 1st 2017 the Henry Jackson Society was delighted to welcome Professor Michael Mastanduno to Parliament for a discussion on President Trump’s foreign policy. Professor Michael Mastanduno is the Nelson A. Rockefeller Professor of Government and was Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College, USA.  His areas of research and teaching specialization include international relations, U.S. foreign policy, and the politics of the world economy.  His articles have appeared in numerous academic and policy journals and he is author or editor of seven books on international relations theory and practice. Professor Mastanduno lectures frequently in Europe and Asia and has been a guest faculty member at the University of Tokyo, the Graduate School of Economics and International Relations at Milan, and the Geneva Center for Security Policy.  He has been awarded fellowships from the Brookings Institution, the Salzburg Seminar, and the East-West Center, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

By kind invitation of Lord Risby, Professor Mastanduno examined the extent to which President Trump’s foreign policy is proving to be a radical departure from postwar US norms and traditions, while examining what implications his Presidency will have for international stability. By beginning his examination, Professor Mastanduno spoke about post-war American foreign policy in order to ground his assessment in a historical context. Ever since 1950, America has had an interventionist policy, at first as a direct consequence of its ideological rivalry with the former Soviet Union and the bipolarity of the international system, and then as a means of further promotion of a neo-liberal economic system. America acted as a global guarantor of security, often perceived of in an arrogant manner by others, yet still reassuring that it did uphold that position.

Whether Trump shares this international view of American responsibility is another question entirely. It comes at a time when the US is beginning to question its global role. Professor Mastanduno believes this has been a gradual process over the last ten years; the political, economic and military costs of the Global War on Terror and the Iraq War, combined with the financial crisis of 2007 – 08, has led to some within Washington of suggesting an often mistaken, uniquely American policy, Jacksonian. Commonly referred to as isolationism, Jacksonian policy (after the 7th US President Andrew Jackson) advocates economic nationalism, an inherent suspicion of free trade agreements, and a defense of sovereignty. It’s regarded as a very strong American domestic policy, and can be seen to have been employed by Presidents Nixon, Ragan and Bush 41. This goes some way to dispelling accusations that Trump is retreating into an insular policy agenda which is not in keeping with the US’s historical foreign policy.

Analysis of Trump’s worldviews can assist in explaining his policy agendas. Firstly, Trump rarely promotes world order, and is never one for speaking about the liberal international order. This has led to allied nations rethinking their own foreign policies; Canada, for instance, declared that it would have a ‘sharp refocus’ of its foreign policy in light of Trumps. German intellectuals have come out recently and declared that Germany ought to have an ‘American policy’, and China has even made remarks about its potential as a world economic leader. Second, since the Cold War, the US and NATO have engaged in burden sharing to deter and defeat common threat perceptions and enemies. Trump is not a fan of this, having called into question numerous times the worthwhile of NATO, and suggested that Japan and South Korea should be responsible for security on the Korean peninsula. He very much sees foreign policy as a zero-sum game; there is a winner, and there is a loser.

However, when considering the three key geopolitical regions for US foreign policy, the Middle East, East Asia and Europe, there seems to be a disconnect between the rhetoric and the policy of Trump. In the Middle East, Trump has long advocated increased military efforts in defeating ISIS, and this appears to be working on the ground. For all of his bluster on Iran, he has yet to do anything about destroying the deal completely, it is still in action. Rather than draw down troop commitments from Afghanistan, he has increased the numbers. Regarding the Middle East, it is still very much a policy of continuation.

In East Asia, Trump was very vocal from even before the election last year about the need to contain China. In practice, he is due to visit Beijing before the end of the year for a state visit, and it will be likely dominated by discussions of how to jointly deal with North Korea. On North Korea itself, Trump has the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that the US could act as a normal power, not as the leader of the global world order. Instead of a North Korean policy of ‘contain and deter’, Trump has repeatedly made existential threats towards Pyongyang, seeing it as a problem to be solved. In Europe, too, Trump has yet to act upon his rhetoric, this time of NATO and European allies; indeed, he has raised troop levels in Poland and the Baltics, reaffirming the US commitment to the defense of Europe in the face of a resurgent Russia.

This disparity between rhetoric and policy has had damaging effects for US foreign policy and, crucially, credibility. First, diplomacy is about words, and the meanings attached to those words. As an important tool in statecraft, it can be a weapon in foreign policy, especially countries such as Russia and China. Second, there needs to be a balance between noise and signals. At the end of the day, people will want to know, ‘What will America fight for?’. Especially considering the ever-escalating war of words between himself and Kim Jong-un, Trump risks in an inadvertent war, one not of design but more of accident. Which leads to the third effect; crisis management. Diplomacy is about giving the other side an option of maintaining face and walking away with something. Trumps rhetoric against Pyongyang is escalating to such an extent that neither may be able to back down, and that is the most dangerous threat in the short term.