This is a guest post by Manjana Milkoreit, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Purdue University. Her research integrates international relations scholarship and cognitive theory to study actor motivations and policy design in global climate change politics. She is the author of Mindmade Politics: the Cognitive Roots of International Climate Governance (The MIT Press 2017).
If Harvey’s unprecedented battering of Houston can even partly be linked to climate change, you might wonder if the President’s visit to Texas this week made him rethink his current foreign (and domestic) policies. President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and his apparent misunderstanding of its content stand in stark contrast to his predecessor’s sustained diplomatic effort to create the agreement, join it, and ensure that the US would get global leadership credit for its diplomatic efforts to “save the planet.” How is possible for one President to oppose the agreement and for another to support it if both – presumably – acted in “the national interest?”
An objective, rationally determined national interest would have to be independent of the individual holding the presidency. Any person with the relevant information would end up making the same determination concerning the policy choice that is most beneficial for the survival and success of the US, weighing the costs and benefits of the available options. If that is the nature of the national interest – objective, rational, calculable – either Trump or Obama must be wrong. Alternatively, we might have to rethink the notion of the national interest. From a social constructivist position, the national interest is not objective, but ‘intersubjective’: the constantly changing result of social interactions and contestation among different political actors, who can assign different meanings to the same set of facts.
Integrating the rational-choice approach and social constructivist accounts of the national interest with a little bit of cognitive theory, I argue that two Presidents of the United States can take opposing policy positions on a specific issue, and both act in the national interest. When it comes to foreign policy, the US President holds the prerogative over the interpretation of the national interest. As the vocal responses to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement have demonstrated, his definition of the national interest can be out of sync with the majority of the American voters, major states and cities and a large portion of the business community and academic observes (“a major unforced error”). As Jarrod Hayes writes, these sub-national actors challenge Trump’s foreign policy on climate change and potentially undermine the authority (and credibility, influence and effectiveness) of the US government in international affairs. Yet, they cannot change the President’s mind or foreign policy. Hence, when it comes to the national interest, much depends on what individual presidents believe, and who or what influences those beliefs (see Elizabeth Saunder’s post on Trump’s decision-making process and Steve Saideman’s comments on the Great Men theory IR scholarship). In essence, the national interest comes down to one person’s brain functions. Continue reading