TrumpPolitik: The Art of the Deal Comes to American Foreign Policy

Donald Trump speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference. Flickr/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Trump the businessman and dealmaker is the epitome of pragmatism—a very American tradition.

When paradigms begin to shift and the prevailing Zeitgeist starts to implode, using common terms to describe the changes taking place becomes an exercise in futility. The world before and after Darwin or Einstein looks very different.

It’s too early to figure out whether President Donald Trump would change the world as we know it, as some hope and others fear. In historical perspective, Franklin Roosevelt did just that by creating the modern welfare state. Ronald Reagan made a difference; but he then left the welfare state in place.

It’s more likely than not that the American political system, with its checks and balances and the country’s dynamic civil society, would make it close to impossible for the new president to launch a political revolution, assuming that is what he wants to do. And he probably doesn’t. If anything, Trump the businessman and dealmaker is the epitome of pragmatism — a very American tradition.

More likely, Prime Minister Mike Pence will ensure that members of the Republican establishment, including those #NeverTrump types gradually find a place in Trump’s Washington. And that includes several of the Republican presidential candidate’s neoconservative critics, who would explain, “When the President asks you to serve your country, you do.” (A simpler explanation: “I have to pay my bills.”)

Even when it comes to foreign policy, where our Imperial Presidents can make a difference, some doubt whether the next president would really turn the nation in a more (pick your label) nationalist, unilateralist, protectionist, isolationist direction in a way that would lead to the collapse of the liberal international order.

History is on the side of the skeptics. As the Great War was raging in Europe in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson was campaigning for re-election, pledging that he would not draw the United States into the hostilities across the Atlantic, expressing his commitment to “the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned.” A year later, President Wilson led the United States into a military intervention in Europe on the side of Great Britain and France and against Germany and its allies.

In 1940, a time when Germany and Japan were in the process of pursuing their aggressive policies, President Franklin Roosevelt promised voters during his re-election campaign that he would do everything in his power to keep the United States out of war, insisting that American soldiers were “not going to be sent into any foreign war.” After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he sent American troops to fight in Europe and Asia.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, accused then Republican President George H.W. Bush of “coddling the dictators in Beijing” following the Tiananmen Square events and pledged that he would punish and isolate them. A few years later as president, he became the driving force in the effort to normalize U.S. trade relations with Beijing and to bring China into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

President Bush’s son ran for the presidency in 2000, criticizing the strategy pursued by then President Clinton to spread democracy worldwide and engage in “nation building.” George W. Bush promised to embrace more “humility” in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, only to end up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks presiding over an ambitious policy of democratizing the Middle East and doing a lot of nation building there.

Politicians make a lot of policy commitments during presidential election campaigns, some nothing more than attempts to pander to different constituencies. But some of these pledges can be quite significant and taken seriously.

Indeed, American voters in 1916 and 1940 elected as president men who vowed to keep them out of the bloody wars across the oceans. The Chinese were very worried in 1992 that President Clinton would try to reverse the policy of diplomatic and economic engagement between the two countries.

Certainly no one in his right mind imagined that President George W. Bush, who had no experience in foreign policy and national security and who affirmed the need for humility in dealing with other countries, would eventually decide to launch two major costly wars and invade two large countries in the greater Middle East.

And veteran Washington observers will probably recall the international hysteria that followed the election of Republican Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. Officials in world capitals feared that the former Hollywood actor who had been a staunch advocate of extreme right-wing foreign policy causes would draw the United States into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Instead, the new White House occupant ended up presiding over the end of the Cold War. Oops…

In short, a presidential candidate’s bombastic campaign statements on foreign policy, which, in post-election instant analysis, tend to be inflated by pundits as the new president’s foreign policy “doctrine,” end up crashing into reality in the form of this or that international crisis.

The president, as part of the policy and legislative making process in Washington, and the United States, as a member of the nation-state system, remain dependent variables. Under certain conditions though, like in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, they can become more powerful. U.S. presidents can dramatically transform policies and a militarily and economically powerful United States can be in a position to change the world.

But notwithstanding all the hysteria among western pundits and policymakers, the world isn’t in the midst of a historic crisis, and it is probably more stable than it was in the 1960s and 1970s when American presidents took steps to adjust U.S. interests and policies to changing international realities.