Foreign Policy Blogs

Trump’s Foreign Policy


What would Trump say to the other leaders of the world at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017?

Part 2 of 2: A Trump victory is possible. What would President Trump’s foreign policy look like?

Leading in Iowa and New Hampshire, Donald Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination. Whether against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, and possibly Michael Bloomberg, a Trump victory is possible. What would President Trump’s foreign policy look like?

His campaign rhetoric is hyperbolic. A non-exhaustive list includes considering Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists, proposing to ban Muslim immigrants, promising to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” making nice with Putin, threatening a trade war with China, and even bad-mouthing former prisoner of war Senator John McCain: “I like people who weren’t captured.”

But if Mario Cuomo was right–you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose–Trump’s foreign policy approach may be more nuanced. What might shape a Trump Doctrine?

Beginning with the big picture: how does Trump see the world? Is he more of a realist, liberal, or constructivist? His anti-immigration and protectionist proclamations are opposed to the kind of big-business, free-trade outlook one might expect from an international real estate developer. His deal-with-Putin, fight-China, crush-ISIS approach suggests more realism than anything else.

What foreign policy tradition does Trump come from? He seems to be a Jacksonian, combining isolationism and American exceptionalism, judicious but implacable military force, and American honor. Indeed, he won’t be campaigning in Berlin as a “citizen of the world.”

Another approach is to consider foreign policy “personality orientations,” from the work of scholars like Margaret Hermann. If we judge that Trump exhibits strong self-confidence, belief in his ability to control events, distrust of others, and a view of policy options lacking nuance, he might be classified as “expansionist,” “active independent,” or “influential”–aggressive, unilateral, and interventionist.

A 2013 study of “grandiose narcissism” among U.S. presidents examined exhibitionism, attention-seeking, inflated demands of entitlement, and denial of weaknesses. Trump recently boasted that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” The study ranked LBJ highest, followed by Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, FDR, and JFK. Notably, the study linked grandiose narcissism with high marks for public persuasiveness, crisis management, agenda setting, and overall presidential effectiveness.

Who will be Trump’s key foreign policy advisors? This remains something of a mystery: no foreign policy team has been officially named. Some say diplomat John Bolton has served as an advisor; the former U.S. ambassador to the UN has a strongly conservative and pro-Israel record. Last August, Iowa’s Sam Clovis was named the Trump campaign’s national co-chair: the career Air Force officer turned college economics professor left the Rick Perry campaign and brings considerable national security expertise. Moreover, one Trump press release about Muslim immigration relied on the conservative, sometimes controversial, Frank Gaffney.

Trump would probably have a Republican House and a close, possibly Democratic, Senate, each with sharp internal divisions along party lines. What kind of relationship will he have with experienced Congressional leaders? What kinds of people would he appoint to key positions, especially Vice President, State, Defense, Treasury, and National Security Advisor, and what would he expect from them? How would he trust and lead the Joint Chiefs? What respect would he give to existing international treaties, organizations, and obligations, including the Iran deal?

As for domestic popular support, he would likely have gotten a plurality or slim majority of the popular vote. But like President George H. W. Bush and President Barack Obama, Trump would face real disdain and claims of illegitimacy from the outset from a large percentage of the electorate.

And in Trump’s own words? The eleven-step program he offers in his 1987 New York Times bestseller, The Art of the Deal, may offer insight. Reprinted in INC magazine last fall, they are:

1.Think big
2. Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself
3. Maximize the options
4. Know your market
5. Use your leverage
6. Enhance your location
7. Get the word out
8. Fight back
9. Deliver the goods
10. Contain the costs
11. Have fun

This combination of pragmatism, Sun-Tzu, Norman Vincent Peale, Wall Street, and Madison Avenue suggests a strategy of preparation, flash, and substance. Realism, with some good PR.

The Art of the Deal co-author, Tony Schwartz, has made derogatory claims about Trump’s role in the book, including this recent tweet: “I wrote the Art of the Deal. Donald Trump read it.” On the other hand, assuming Schwartz successfully channeled his patron’s ideas, the elaboration of “Deliver the Goods” might be revealing. “You can’t con people,” the book explains, “at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”

Can Donald Trump continue to create excitement, do wonderful promotion, and throw in a little hyperbole during the primary season and the general election campaign (or “insult his way to the presidency,” in Jeb Bush‘s words)? Will he deliver the goods? Or will people eventually catch on?

A Trump foreign policy would seem to be rooted in a populist realism, reliant on abundant self-confidence and corporate leadership, but lacking in political experience and military or diplomatic expertise. Even victorious, he would likely have high negatives in opinion polls. If initial deference and respect for the new President combined with good luck to produce early successes, he could set a path toward effective and popular foreign policies. But managing emerging crises would necessarily rely on the expertise and good judgment of key advisors–and his willingness to trust them. How he deals with any campaign difficulties might offer some insight.

Trump has left the pundits nonplussed so far. Effectively addressing the world’s challenges with contemptuous Democrats and a divided party of his own, and without Washington experience or foreign policy expertise, would be estimable by any measure.

Image: Gorbachev at the UN (Wikipedia)



Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with in Mexico, Russia, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, IEEE, and the Open World Leadership Center. He tweets from @webQuirks