Event Summary: ‘What Will Trump Do Next? Lessons from Bush and Obama on How Presidents Learn and Change in Office’


On May 24th, professor William Inboden visited the Henry Jackson Society, discussing American foreign policy in the twenty-first century against the backdrop of president Donald Trump’s first foreign trip. Professor Inboden is the current William J. Powers, Jr. Chair at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for National Security. He served as Senior Director for Strategic Planning and Institutional Reform in president George W. Bush’s National Security Council from 2005 to 2007 after several years of work at the US Department of State.

Professor Inboden’s address challenged misconceptions regarding the foreign policies of presidents Bush and Barack Obama, underlining the fact that both presidents exercised their executive authority and resorted to the unilateral application of military force. It outlined their foreign policies in phases, tracking president Bush’s evolution from a believer in ‘nationalist pragmatism’ to an ideological leader with an ‘agenda of freedom’ and that of president Obama from idealistically ‘hoping for change’ as candidate and president-elect to reverting to policies resembling Bush’s own during his first term in office.

Among these misconceptions was the view of president Bush as a staunch unilateralist, said professor Inboden. Although he neglected traditional symbols of multilateralism like the United Nations, the relationships he established at a bilateral level, with leaders like the United Kingdom’s Tony Blair and Japan’s Junichiro Koizumi, reflected president Bush’s commitment to securing America’s interests with the help of international allies. Nor was his presidency resistant to change, professor Inboden noted, pointing to personnel changes like Condoleezza Rice’s rise to the office of Secretary of State and Robert Gates’ replacement of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense as evidence of president Bush’s evolution.

Professor Inboden contrasted the promises of presidential candidate and president-elect Obama with the policies he ultimately came to adopt. Although the 2008 presidential campaign saw the junior senator from Illinois promise to end America’s military involvement in Iraq and what he viewed as a counterproductive policy of democracy promotion, the rise of ISIS and the outbreak of the Arab Spring led president Obama to resume both, examples that show how American foreign policy is shaped by crises and developments abroad.

That was one of several overarching trends in American foreign policy that professor Inboden identified after a brief assessment of the Bush and Obama presidencies. Looking to the future under president Trump, professor Inboden reassured audience members that whatever candidates may say on the campaign trail, presidents entering the White House inherit certain grand strategic principles and end up maintaining some degree of continuity—principles including democracy promotion, the maintenance of alliances, and the expansion of free trade.

Furthermore, touching upon concerns about president Trump’s lack of political experience, professor Inboden asserted that no amount of experience can prepare one for the presidency, something that entails a number of roles: commander-in-chief, diplomat-in-chief, law enforcement officer-in-chief, and the principal client of the intelligence community, the last of which often leads presidents to appreciate covert action more than they may have on the campaign trail.

Professor Inboden also pointed to two factors whose influence on American foreign policy is often forgotten: domestic politics and foreign leaders. The impact of the Congress changing hands or falling approval ratings can be considerable, and tends to constrain presidents, professor Inboden emphasised. Nor should foreign leaders be discounted as sources of American conduct, he noted, pointing to the great influence that Bush administration officials attributed to prime minister Blair and to the apparent impact of the leaders of Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Jordan on president Trump’s positions on NAFTA, trade relations with China, and the location of the American embassy in Israel.

After his speech, professor Inboden responded to questions from the audience. He explained China’s continued support for the regime in Pyongyang, identifying the reunification of the Korean peninsula under a pro-Western democratic government and the humanitarian crisis that the collapse of the North Korean state would cause as outcomes viewed by China’s leaders as far worse than the status quo. On sectarianism in the Middle East and the Trump administration’s apparent embrace of Sunni Arab governments, professor Inboden asserted that the decision to side with Sunni countries was not deliberate. Rather, president Trump was simply not knowledgeable enough about the nuances of the region’s politics to find the right balance between Shia and Sunni governments. In professor Inboden’s words, there is ‘no coherent strategic design’ informing the White House’s approach to the Shia-Sunni divide. Finally, regarding South Asia, professor Inboden warned that a continued military presence in Afghanistan could combine with deepened Indo-American ties to cause further instability in South Asia given Pakistan’s insecurity.


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