Those that did not foresee the likelihood or even the possibility of Donald Trump’s victory are going to find it hard to discipline themselves to a balanced projection of his forthcoming first term. To ardent liberals in the United States – not least most of those at the leading American universities – at worst it represents a conspiracy hatched by Russian President Vladimir Putin and at best a ‘Black Swan’ event that could not have been foreseen.
This essay is being written at the end of 2016, with the topic stimulating a series of reactions: bewilderment, then bemusement, then apprehension, then uncertainty, and, finally, curiosity. If President-elect Donald Trump himself knows what he truly plans to do – as opposed to what he would truly like to do – he has hidden it from the rest of us. Although the British government has a long tradition of adjustment to whichever government is in power in any given country of interest, adjustment needs an object or action or policy to which to adjust. Thus far, Trump has not felt the need to provide any of them. And so, we prognosticate in the dark. One only hopes that it is the dark before the dawn.
The international human rights system, with its diverse global movements, is epoch-making, allowing stigma to be applied to errant states on matters of crucial global concern. But promoting its exclusive relevance in the face of injustice, as if the alternative were apathy or despair, is simply not going to cut it.
Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works,” then presidential candidate Donald Trump said at a February 2016 campaign event in Bluffton, South Carolina. “Okay, folks, Torture—you know, half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works, Okay?” Whether or not the President-elect’s promise of a return to Bush era waterboarding (or forced deportations or building his “beautiful wall”) will be realized is anybody’s guess, but the Trump presidency is unlikely to be remembered for its vigorous championing of human rights. Perhaps more surprising is the ever-diminishing place of the United States in the making of a global human rights order long before Donald Trump appeared on the political scene.
If Hilary Clinton had been elected President it would have been a relatively easy to describe her foreign policy commitments, preferences, and likely responses to possible challenges. She is on record at some length on numerous issues as Senator, Secretary of State, and Democratic presidential candidate. Trump, by contrast, is a newcomer to the policy world, and a total novice when it comes to foreign policy. He made some dramatic pronouncements during his campaign and since his electoral victory has largely communicated by late-night tweets. It is hard to say anything meaningful in 140 characters, although the President-elect has demonstrated how easy it is to use this format to garner publicity and show disdain or ignorance of diplomatic norms and existing American policies.
I never thought that I would write the phrase “President Trump,” let alone link it to IR theory. But the former is a great opportunity for the latter. Scholars of international politics bemoan the fact that our sub-field cannot draw on the experimental method. Well, now we can. Although Trump’s election was not a random event, nevertheless much about America’s external environment will remain the same after January 20, 2017 while the country will have a president who has espoused foreign policy views radically different from those of any of his predecessors. Once in office, will he really try to carry out such radically different policies? Or will domestic and international constrains prevail? We are about to run an experiment, and even if the results are not likely to be entirely unambiguous, they should provide us with real evidence. One (analytical) problem, however, is that Trump’s statements in the first weeks after his election indicate that his substantive views may be only weakly held, making any continuity that occurs only a weak confirmation of theories that stress constraints.
The election of a new President typically offers an opportunity to reflect upon the state of international relations and America’s role in the world. This would have been especially true of the 2016 election no matter who won: as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently claimed, many believe that for the first time since 1945 the United States’ relations with the world are unsettled. The unexpected election of Donald Trump only heightens the sense of uncertainty about the future of America’s global role. While much is unknown about President Trump’s foreign policy views, many of his campaign statements are at odds with long-standing American traditions and policies.