Incoming Trump Administration Faces Foreign Policy Challenges Aplenty

Nov 11, 2016

Credit Gage Skidmore via Flickr/Creative Commons

How might a Trump Administration handle the many international dilemmas that defy easy answers -- threats from North Korea, European uncertainty after Brexit, and proliferating Middle East conflicts?  

Joining us for the discussion: Kurk Dorsey, professor of history at UNH; Wayne Lesperance, dean of undergraduate studies and professor of political science at New England College; and William Wohlforth, Daniel Webster professor of government at Dartmouth College.   For the full conversation, listen here.

Our guest host is Dean Spiliotes, Civic Scholar in the School of Arts and Science at Southern N.H. University and author of the website, NHPoliticalCapital.


Global response to Trump’s victory?

Wayne Lesperance: Putin sent a telegram almost immediately to Trump and there was talk of a meeting happening. But I think most of the world is waiting to see.  Does he govern --- or does he plan to govern -- the way he campaigned? Was it real? Or was it sort of an act to get elected?

William Wohlworth: Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany’s,  response was the most noteworthy.  She stretched out a hand seeking cooperation but based on the principle of respecting what she regards as core values of the democratic community of nations. And I think that helps you understand the split internationally. I think leaders that strongly identify with this set of western values are a little bit more chary about what Trump might portend, whereas leaders of countries that really like a transactional, national-interest, realist-based approach, see some potential for negotiating  with Trump.

What might Trump’s foreign policy team look like?

Kurk Dorsey:   This is actually going to be a problem, because back in March, fifty,  relatively high-ranking Republicans signed a letter saying that Trump was unqualified. And I’m guessing that Trump’s going to remember all fifty of those names.   

Filling the position of Secretary of State is not necessarily the hard part. It’s filling State Department ranks that could pose a challenge.

Dorsey:  Finding qualified people to be undersecretary and assistant secretary -- that’s where all the work gets done, and they’re going to have a hard time filling all those positions with people that are both qualified and who think Trump ought to be president.

Will Trump surround himself with loyalists?

Lesperance: He has said routinely he wants the best and the brightest working around him, so let’s see if that includes a Democrat.  Newt Gingrich’s name has been mentioned as Secretary of State, as has John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.  

Dorsey: If Trump wants to send a message to the world and to the American people that he’s taking this transition seriously and he’s willing to listen to people who know more about foreign policy – which is a big question whether he’s willing to listen – then this decision between, say, Newt Gingrich and Senator Bob Corker (Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations) is going to be a really big signal in terms of what kind of president he’s going to be in terms of foreign policy.

Wohlworth:  A lot of very qualified people have taken themselves out of the running by either working for Hillary Clinton or being in the “Never-Trump”  Republican national security movement, having signed that widely publicized letter.

Trump is not alone in starting the presidency with little or no foreign policy experience.

Lesperance:  George Bush, too, started with no experience, so he brought on Dick Cheney. Reagan, too, surrounded himself with knowledgeable people…That takes a bit of self-awareness, though -- that you may not be the smartest guy in the room and you need to rely on folks who have the expertise and the depth of experience that can help guide you during negotiation. So, the question becomes: Does Donald Trump have that kind of self-awareness?

Wohlworth:   Trump voters wanted an outsider, they’ve got one. And we have to acknowledge that we’re in guess-land here as to what’s actually going to happen.  It’s one of the greatest political science experiments of all time: Throw this guy in there, and see what happens.

How quickly can a new President without foreign policy experience get up to speed?

Wohlworth: It’s possible if the person has the right disposition. I’m reluctant to make any blanket claims. One of the themes of reporting on the Trump presidential candidacy would lead one to believe that he didn’t have that kind of disposition in terms of studying up on issues before going into a meeting, say, with Vladimir Putin. Is he going to take time to read the memos? To sit down with people who have negotiated with Putin in the past? I certainly hope so.

Does the office shape the president, or vice versa?

Lesperance: I don’t think we should discount the power of the office to shape the individual. Now that Trump will be receiving much deeper, much broader briefings on all of the many foreign policy challenges we face in this country… .The idea that there are quick, easy glib obvious solutions to incredibly complex challenges that we face has to eventually settle in.  There are not always optimal choices. You have to wade through the suboptimal choices when you’re commander in chief of the U.S.   The difference between governing and campaigning is pretty stark.

Wohlworth: It’s certainly possible that when he’s facing the incentives that a president faces and confronting the stakes that a U.S. president confronts, that he will bear down on those details and do that prep necessary to be an effective negotiator.

I think he’s got the negotiator’s disposition. He certainly is advertising that as one of his selling points. But I do think in international politics you’ve got to meld that with taking on board some serious expertise on the person you’re negotiating with and the unbelievably complicated bargains and deals and treaties that are at stake.

An approach that could amount to a dramatic departure.

Wohlforth: To shift to a much more sort of, What’s in it for me, what’s in it for you kind of real-estate transactional approach would be a new departure in American foreign policy, one that at least the foreign policy establishment doesn’t think is a good way to manage a global order that the United States is largely responsible for having created and upheld since the end of the Second World War and since the end of the Cold War.


We will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us. We’ll have great relationships. We expect to have great, great relationships. No dream is too big, no challenge is too great. Nothing we want for our future is beyond our reach. America will no longer settle for anything less than the best. We must reclaim our country’s destiny and dream big and bold and daring. We have to do that. We’re going to dream of things for our country and beautiful things and successful things once again. I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone, with everyone, all people, and all other nations. We will seek common ground, not hostility, partnership, not conflict.  Donald J. Trump

For Trump, nationalism  trumps internationalism.

Wohlworth: What he was trying to say was, look, I’m about American national interest. And the establishment -- the elite, the Hillary Clintons of this world -- are in some kind of global, globe-trotting world that is not really American.

His approach is transactional: I’m going to make bargains, I’m going to make deals, I’m going to find common ground with people, and I’m not going to care that much about their domestic politics, the nature of their regimes, I’m going to reach deals that are good for America. 

An appeal to the military rank-and-file

Wohlworth: The military is not necessarily anti-war; they just don’t like losing. And they don’t like long and ambiguous struggles.  He seems to be portraying this image that will return us to an era when America was great and that was when, if we were going to fight, we were going to win, and it was going to be unambiguous and clear. Of course, I don’t think that’s possible to deliver on in today’s world, but that’s the promise.

Lesperance:  It ought not to be lost on us that by all accounts from the intelligence community, Russia tampered with our election. The Russians intruded in our election and they went after one of our institutions of democracy with the hacking they’ve done, so I’m hoping that’s not just sort of tossed aside because it was the other party, and that that becomes a part of the discussion they’re having in the White House.

Tough on trade and NAFTA.

I intend to immediately renegotiate the terms of that agreement to get a better deal by a lot, not just a little, by a lot, for our workers. And if they don’t agree to a renegotiation, which they might not, because they’re so used to havi

ng their own way -- not with Trump, they won’t have their own way.  Donald  J. Trump

Dorsey: I think he left himself an opening. He’ll send word that he wants to negotiate. Well renegotiating can take a long time.  NAFTA got started in the Reagan administration and didn’t’ get finished until the Clinton administration....Any agreement can be gotten out of, but the consequences of getting out of NAFTA would be very serious.

Lesperance: This is throwback language to a time when the U.S. could dictate terms. Certainly we can still try to do that but for me the real paradox is that Trump seems to be saying he wants to withdraw in many ways, while at the same time engaging on his own terms. And I’m not sure you can do both things. You have to remain engaged in the world.  I’d argue that America remains an indispensable power. That requires American engagement. American interests are best protected when America is engaged.