One of the most common words associated with the candidacy and then presidency of Donald Trump has been ‘unprecedented.’ The President himself has even tweeted it, although his spelling (“unpresidented”) occasioned some ridicule. We hear that Trump has an unprecedented amount of billionaires in his cabinet, an unprecedented number of business conflicts of interest, an unprecedentedly long list of unfilled government positions so far into his term, an unprecedentedly high security budget to cover his weekend trips to Mar-a-Lago, and so forth. Commentary on Trump’s approach to international law has been no exception, stressing its unprecedented or at least highly unusual character. Candidate Trump threatened to “cancel” the Paris climate change accord, “break” the North American Free Trade Agreement, and defy international and domestic legal prohibitions on torture “in a heartbeat.” 
Category: Policy Roundtables
Despite its proximity and importance, Latin America usually does not receive a lot of attention in U.S. elections. After Donald Trump’s shocking and ultimately successful campaign for the presidency, the region may miss being out of the limelight. Somewhat atypically, many of Trump’s campaign promises related to Latin America. Mexico was, and remains, Trump’s villain of choice from the first day of his unlikely campaign. Mexico supposedly sent criminals as immigrants and bested the United States in the countries’ deep trade relationship; Trump granted the Mexican government a level of astuteness and competence that must have surprised many Mexican citizens. Central American migrants, whose remittances are more important to their home states in relative terms, also came under fire. In recent days, Trump has aimed his Twitter feed at transnational, and U.S.-born, street gangs, casting all the blame on neighbors to the south. Trump’s initially pacific tone toward Cuba soured as the campaign progressed. His anti-trade proposals go beyond renegotiating or threatening to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and abandonment of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), and would cut to the core many Latin American countries’ economic strategies, in which access to the U.S. market is the lynchpin.
Nearly twenty years ago, Robert Ross wrote an influential article on the sources of stability in East Asia. He argued that while the United States and China were destined to engage in great-power competition, geography and structural factors would lead to a stable regional bipolar balance. The United States would focus on maintaining its maritime position, and China would focus on securing its interests on land. Neither would find it useful or practical to attempt to change the regional order. “The U.S.-China conflict is a rivalry between a maritime power,” Ross concluded. “This dynamic reduces conflict over vital interests and mitigates the impact of the security dilemma, reducing the likelihood of protracted high-level tension, repeated crises, and arms races.” Military leaders in both countries would have to indulge in heroic assumptions to convince themselves that they could seriously challenge their adversary on its domain. Political leaders in Beijing and Washington would benefit from competing – and cooperating on areas of mutual interest – in a relatively low-risk environment.
European public opinion has a problem with U.S. Republican Presidents. Ronald Reagan was deeply mistrusted in his early years in power; George W. Bush was regarded as a disaster and liability well before the crisis-scarred end of his term. Barack Obama, meanwhile, continued to enjoy excellent approval ratings on this side of the Atlantic. As such it is tempting to dismiss a great deal of the European anguish and anxiety at Donald Trump’s election victory as no more than a confirmation that European opinion – and particularly perhaps the opinion of that part of the European public which is informed about and interested in U.S. politics – is significantly to the left of U.S. opinion and hence bound to regard rather negatively the election and early policy decisions of the 45th President. That Trump’s lifestyle, both before his election and since, also plays into deeply rooted European stereotypes about crass and vulgar American materialism only makes unfavourable European reactions even more predictable.
Donald Trump has never claimed to be a foreign policy expert. He does not like in-depth reading, and prefers one-page policy option papers with “lots of graphics and maps.” He claims to have a “very good brain,” and promises to be a strong leader who puts “America first” and makes it “great again.” Should we believe him? His goals may well be laudable. But if my work on expertise and naïveté in foreign policy decision-making is any indication, President Trump, and his advisors, like other American and non-American leaders and their subordinates, will unconsciously follow a fundamentally biased judgment strategy. They will make the most important decisions of our time, those regarding choices of war and peace, by instinctively employing a “cognitive miser” or cognitive processing cost-minimizer strategy. Whenever system or state conditions are fluid enough for American decision-makers to disagree, to debate the merits of potential foreign policy actions, President Trump will prefer military instruments of policy to non-military instruments of policy, as long as his military experts propose and support such options. Otherwise, he will accept non-military initiatives, if they are offered and endorsed by his non-military specialists. Certainly, Trump appears to have a unique decision-making style, personality, and character; and perhaps each of his advisors does too. This is often the case with foreign policy actors.
This short piece focuses on mapping and evaluating some of the expectations of International Relations (IR) theory with regard to the potential effects of Trumpism and the illiberal turn in world politics on war and peace. Obviously, there is a high degree of uncertainty here, but that does not mean that such an intellectual exercise cannot be helpful in highlighting some of the potential consequences of the major changes taking place on the important subject of war and peace. The mere fact of rising uncertainty in international politics is, by itself, going to have some significant effects, which we should try to explore.
Tell us this cannot happen, the Japanese said to their American friends, listening to Republican Party nominee Donald J. Trump during the 2016 campaign. Trump attacked Japan as an economic predator, disdained American allies as free riders, and broadly rejected the U.S. grand strategy that had benefited Japan tremendously. Friends in Boston and Washington D.C. (and New Hampshire) assured the Japanese that Trump was unelectable, and that under a Hillary Clinton presidency, Japan would resume its place as a valued American ally. Trump’s election was thus a profound shock to Japan—the latest in a long line of shokku from the United States to jolt Tokyo.
Donald Trump made immigration and refugee policy central to his presidential campaign. According to Trump, radical Islamic extremism and the massive refugee flows out of the Middle East combined to created unacceptable risks. Following the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, the Trump campaign called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Trump insisted that his proposal would buy time to review and improve the process for screening new arrivals. He mocked the idea that U.S. procedures for vetting refugees were sufficient to stop terrorists from entering U.S. soil, and he promised to take swift action upon entering office.
The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has prompted deep reflection, even soul-searching, by scholars of international affairs. For the historians among them, the natural tendency is to connect the past to the present, and even the future. What major historical continuities in U.S. Middle East policy is Trump inheriting from his predecessor? Will his administration represent a continuation or a break from these policies? Thinking ahead four or even (dramatic pause) eight years, what legacies will the Trump administration leave?
Trying to make critical sense of the current state of foreign affairs is treacherous business for anyone, but for an historian it comes close to pursuing a death wish. Even with all the advantages of hindsight, the past remains shrouded to varying degrees, while decoding the present is like trying to see through a blinding sandstorm of events. But if there is much that remains unclear, at least the basic frame of mind of Donald Trump’s presidency is known. Recently, Stephen K. Bannon, the President’s Svengali, looked forward to the “deconstruction of the administrative state” in America. Given the tenor of Trump’s comments on international issues over the past year—about foreign trade, NATO, China, nuclear weapons, Russia, the Middle East, etc., etc.—the dismantling of the American-led world order that has been in place since the end of World War II is also a real possibility.