Following his prescient piece from last year, Tom Wright has a provocative new essay on Donald Trump’s foreign policy in Politico. He suggests that Trump foreign policy has Jeckyll and Hyde qualities. While Trump (and Bannon) are committed to a radical vision to upend establishment foreign policy, they hold a minority view in the government. To staff his administration, Trump has largely turned to establishments folks like Mattis, Kelly, McMaster, among others. This means that there isn’t really anyone to implement that radical vision, leaving Trump’s views to express themselves on a few issues like Islam and trade where they have wider currency.
Dan Drezner has an interesting rejoinder and notes that one way the Bannonites are able to overcome and enhance their power is by vetoing appointments and through budget cuts. With few political appointees and agencies cash-strapped to do international work, the U.S. government won’t have the capacity to respond to global emergencies when they arise. For the America First and Only crowd, this is exactly as they want it.
Trumpism/Bannonism may currently be self-limited by having few adherents, but as Drezner argues, it is still able to do tremendous harm through personnel and budget processes. A third possibility is more worrisome still. What would happen to U.S. foreign policy if this strain of nationalism were to take root in the Republican party and crowd out establishment thinking?
(To be fair: the foreign policy “blob” has made its share of mistakes [witness Iraq], but as Frank Gavin and Jim Steinberg argue in a recent War on the Rocks podcast, the establishment has much to commend it. Ending and winning the Cold War peacefully anyone?).
Here, Ron Krebs’ important book Narrative and the Making of US National Security may be instructive. Krebs’ reminds us that presidents, particularly during unsettled narrative moments, have tremendous power of the bully pulpit to recast the dominant narrative underpinning U.S. foreign policy. If Trump succeeds in building a coterie of followers and adherents to his vision of the world, it could last well beyond the current moment.
One of my side ventures is serving as one of the editors of International Politics Reviews. In our latest issue, we feature a reviews exchange on Krebs’ book. The exchange includes reviews from Michelle Murray, Dan Drezner, and me, along with a response from Krebs. (All are available open access through the ReadCube platform on the links above).