Is Foreign Policy Leadership a Fool's Errand?

Is Foreign Policy Leadership a Fool's Errand?

The domestic politics of foreign policy have never been so challenging.

DONALD TRUMP is so singular a figure in background and temperament, so large a personality, and so seemingly immune to the usual pressures and incentives, that it is tempting to imagine that foreign policy under him will be simply the projection of his will. Think again. Like presidents before him, Trump will learn that going solo is not a recipe for an effective and enduring foreign policy. Always fraught and frustrating, the domestic politics of foreign policy have in recent years become even harder for presidents to manage. Trump will be no exception.

Trump the presidential candidate seemed to care little about building a coalition. Deriding the corrupt politics of Washington, he rode a populist wave to the White House. Trump the president needs those very elites whom he had previously spurned. Trump the presidential candidate reveled in the politics of division: American politics had become highly polarized across party lines well before he became a contender for the Oval Office, but Trump carved and mined new seams. Trump the president cannot govern through division alone.

Even a president with greater discipline and thicker skin than Donald Trump, however, would find foreign-policy leadership daunting. Two central tasks—setting the agenda, and building and maintaining a supportive coalition—have become much more difficult as audiences have become increasingly fragmented and diverse and as politicians have refrained from horse trading for fear of WikiLeaks-style exposure. Even if Trump were suddenly to embrace the politics of unity, he would discover that a durable coalition is an unattainable dream.

Presidents have every incentive today to retreat from sweeping narratives, provide very targeted “side payments,” and craft narrow coalitions to support their policy initiatives. Barack Obama’s modest ambitions in foreign affairs, his instrumental rhetoric and his pragmatic inclinations reflected his domestic circumstances as much as they did either the world or his personality. And these same circumstances will confront President Trump.



PRESIDENTS HAVE a much freer hand in foreign than domestic policy. The president is commander in chief of the military and can call upon the State Department, the intelligence community and the larger federal bureaucracy. Not only are Congress’s formal powers in foreign affairs limited—considering treaties for ratification, issuing declarations of war, controlling the purse and holding hearings—but it has eagerly shed what few responsibilities it has. With good reason, presidents look to the international arena to make their mark, especially when their domestic programs are stymied and when they are lame ducks.

But presidents cannot long go it alone in foreign policy. They require funds, and so any major initiative eventually needs congressional authorization. They require at least the acquiescence of the public, as numerous, vocal domestic critics will scare off international partners. Sometimes, they require the public’s more active endorsement, to bolster their leverage with and clarify their intentions to foreign interlocutors. Few presidents concentrated foreign policy in the White House as much as Richard Nixon. But even Nixon knew that détente could not survive without a reservoir of public support. He and Henry Kissinger thus (over)sold détente as heralding a fundamentally changed international order. However, they never really thought of détente as an end to the Cold War, but rather as its continuation in a less confrontational guise. When it became clear that Cold War rivalry had not been extinguished but had merely gone underground, public support withered and détente collapsed.


Presidents used to have an easier time exercising leadership in foreign affairs. This was partly due to the president’s institutional advantages: as holder of the only nationally elected office, somewhat above sordid partisan politics; as commander in chief of the armed forces, in possession of classified information; and as head of the executive branch, with the power to implement and not just pronounce. These, in principle, bequeathed to presidents unparalleled legitimacy and endowed them with special authority, especially on national security. As Woodrow Wilson long ago observed, “There is but one national voice in the country, and that is the voice of the President.”

But the presidency also came to occupy a unique and preeminent place in American political culture. Americans do not look to the president to tell them what to think about specific policy proposals. But they still look to the president to make sense of developments at home and abroad, to render meaningful a world that sometimes seems disconcertingly chaotic and meaningless. As Obama observed at the end of his first term, in a moment of reflective self-criticism, the presidency is not just about “getting the policy right,” but equally about “tell[ing] a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.” The nation’s narrator in chief resides in the Oval Office.

Leadership has never been easy: the bully pulpit has not allowed presidents to bend mass opinion smoothly to their will even on security matters, and persistent opposition frustrated the agendas of even committed, oratorically talented presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. But if they played their cards right, presidents were once able to perform two essential leadership tasks.

The first involves setting the background narratives that underpin security debates and define the menu of legitimate policy options. Dominant narratives—such as the Cold War consensus or the War on Terror—impart meaning and order to global affairs by weaving present challenges, past failures and triumphs, and potential futures into a coherent tale. They limit what political actors can publicly justify and therefore what policies they may pursue. They are the terrain on which politicians, pundits and activists argue over policy. Winning the narrative is at least half the battle, and it is here that presidents have been able to shine—especially when the public has been most in need of reassurance, and when presidents have embraced the rhetoric of storytelling.

Franklin Roosevelt so well defined what was at stake in World War II, the scope of the battlefield and the nature of the adversary, that he bound his own hands when, later, he envisioned a postwar settlement at odds with that story line. George W. Bush was a far less skilled orator, but he nevertheless effectively laid out a lucid narrative after the 9/11 attacks that marginalized real alternatives, set the boundaries of national-security debate for the next decade and tilted the tables on the Iraq War. Presidents’ efforts to fix the security narrative have been more successful to the extent that the president’s voice is more authoritative and that other politicians refrain from advancing competing story lines.

The second entails forging and maintaining a stable coalition, which, in turn, allows the government to mobilize national resources and public opinion. Because mass publics are generally inattentive to politics, especially foreign affairs, they tend to follow the prompts of trusted elites. As the political scientist Elizabeth N. Saunders has suggested, this makes the president’s skill at managing elites, notably potential opponents, crucial. To marshal elite support and limit open opposition, presidents coerce (threaten punishment to compel adherence), bargain (offer side payments or limited policy concessions to procure compliance) and manipulate (manage information flows to coopt and declaw elites). Forming and sustaining a durable coalition, certainly a bipartisan one, has been much easier when politics is less polarized, when elites come from less diverse backgrounds and when horse trading takes place far from the public eye.


THIS SORT of leadership is becoming all but impossible. Three large-scale changes—the erosion of authority and community, the rise of the transnational as a sphere of political mobilization and action, and the information and communications technology revolution—are to blame. They have combined to strip presidents of their narrative authority, curb coalition building and generally handcuff presidential leadership.

The historian Daniel Rodgers has called ours an “age of fracture”—in which traditional claims to authority hold less sway, the producers of culture are multiplying and diversifying, and the bonds of national community are wearing away. As a result, social networks are becoming more homogeneous with respect to both class and political ideology. An ever-expanding array of entertainment and news—made possible first in cable television, but accelerated and expanded by the Internet—has fueled this trend, the political scientist Markus Prior has shown: the disinterested revel in their ignorance, and news junkies feed their passion more richly than ever, sometimes in partisan and ideological echo chambers. The explosion of “fake news” during the most recent U.S. election cycle, combined with unprecedented attacks on the credibility of the mainstream media, is just the next, albeit deeply disturbing, step in this seemingly inexorable process.

As a result, presidents can rarely lay claim to the authority they once did, even on matters of national security. The public sphere has increasingly become a chaotic marketplace of ideas, in which countless speakers vie for public attention and approval. Presidents can no longer count on having the national rostrum to themselves. During moments of crisis, other politicians do seem more inclined to defer to the president. But, even then, the gaps separating elites are so wide that presidents struggle to bridge those divides and lay a common foundation for debate. For years, Obama tried desperately to bring some perspective to public debate on terrorism. His insistence that terrorism is merely one challenge among many the United States faces, not an existential threat, seemed to many to confirm that the president was either naïve or duplicitous. For them, Trump’s tough talk on “radical Islam” was a welcome change. It resonated so powerfully that Trump battered Hillary Clinton with it on the campaign trail, daring her to utter the words and “tell the truth” about America’s enemies.

As our social spheres have contracted, the audience relevant to U.S. foreign policy has expanded. In recent decades, political organization and mobilization have increasingly taken place not just within nations, but between them. Diverse publics, including corporations, nongovernmental organizations and activists, occupy this transnational space. From “all politics is local” to “all (or at least much) politics is transnational.” Setting the agenda and a common ground for debate is hard enough at home. It is that much harder when attentive audiences are also located beyond national borders. Leaders are then tempted to make their case in different ways to different groups, which leaves them vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.

Obama came to office in 2009 determined to reset U.S. relations with Muslims around the world, beginning with his speech in Cairo that June. But, over time, that promise came to seem hollow, and Muslims perceived Obama as either weak or insincere. Their alienation had roots partly in the administration’s deeds: its penchant for counterterrorism by drone strike, its ambivalent response to the Arab Spring, its reluctance to press Israel too hard (though it pressed hard enough to alienate Israelis). But it was rooted also in the Obama administration’s failure to find a common language in which to legitimate these policies to such extraordinarily diverse audiences at home and abroad.

Finally, building a durable coalition for foreign policy has never been harder. Presidents are by no means powerless: they can still coerce, bargain and manipulate information. But these techniques are less effective when politics is more polarized and transparent. Thanks to the revolution in information and communications technologies, alongside the decline of authority, it is harder for governments to keep secrets. Every e-mail or text message sent by officials could become public tomorrow. Presidents are consequently cautious about methods of coalition management that seem at odds with the principles of democracy. Coercion and information manipulation are especially unsavory. But the prospect of WikiLeaks-style revelations impedes even backroom negotiations, which grease the wheels of coalition politics and are sometimes the stuff of lasting partnerships. Trump is the self-declared master of the art of the deal, and he knows that sealing one always requires meeting the other at least part of the way. Today’s politicians, however, fear they will be punished if they are seen as compromising on matters of principle. Small wonder that the Obama administration waged an unprecedented war on leaks and on the journalists who publicize them.


THESE CHALLENGES to presidential leadership on foreign affairs have not dimmed the American public’s desire for such leadership: Americans continue to look to the president to explain a world marked by rapid change and diffuse power, seemingly resistant to coherent narration. But presidents also worry about raising the public’s expectations so high that they cannot possibly satisfy those expectations. This is not just an American phenomenon: as former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso has noted, “The gap between our real power and what people expect from us is the source of the most difficult pressure any head of state has to manage.” In aiming for the rhetorical sweet spot, presidents face a classic Goldilocks problem—not too high, not too low, just right.

U.S. presidents have not managed this balancing act well since the end of the Cold War, and the result has been continual frustration with presidential leadership. George H. W. Bush had an impressive record of foreign-policy successes, yet his ever-prudent ways seemed out of touch with America’s standing as the last remaining superpower. Bill Clinton and his team were continually dismissed as unstrategic, as merely lurching from crisis to crisis. In fact, they were obsessed with unveiling containment’s successor, and if they lurched, it was from slogan to slogan. In the end, not even that remained within their control, as the one label that finally stuck was one a former ally chose, halfway through their time in the White House, deriding their “foreign policy as social work.” George W. Bush was a notable exception: his Manichean post-9/11 narrative—though mocked by foreign-policy elites as simplistic—was clear and ambitious. But the real world proved less accommodating, which reminded Americans that leadership also requires good judgment. By his second term, Bush forty-three was sounding much more like his father than like the cowboy of European nightmares.

Chastened by Bush’s experience, Barack Obama erred on the side of rhetorical caution. As he shied away from the inspiring oratory for which he was justifiably famous, the contrast was striking, and he may be most remembered for “don’t do stupid stuff”—or at least its saltier version. Political allies and adversaries alike have fretted continually in the last eight years over Obama’s modesty in global politics—what the New York Times called his “sadly pinched view of the powers of his office” and his failure to articulate “a strong, overarching blueprint for the exercise of American power.” Frustrated with his critics in spring 2014, Obama defended his record during a press conference with the Philippine president: “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.” From across the spectrum, including those normally in the president’s corner, the response was swift and harsh. Maureen Dowd ridiculed the president: “A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody. It doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like you’re in command of your world. What happened to crushing it and swinging for the fences?”

Obama’s critics seem to think that his rhetorical restraint is entirely a reflection of his temperament or simply a matter of poor judgment. It is certainly consistent with the Niebuhrian cast of Obama’s mind, which inclines the president to humility about his own place in history, attunes him to the unexpectedly tragic consequences of even well-intended action and predisposes him to tone down expectations. It may derive from what David Remnick has called “the archetypal Obama habit of mind and politics, the calm, professorial immersion in complexity.” If Obama never found the right balance, the solution seems straightforward: find a president with a different makeup—who can show some passion, who will swing for the fences, who will embrace and wear proudly the mantle of leadership.


The diagnosis is intuitive, but it is wrong. It attributes Obama’s apparent failures of leadership to his personal failings. But the president’s style and strategy reflected a world of fragmented authority, diverse audiences, and transparent and polarized politics.


ONCE UPON a time, presidents embraced the rhetoric of storytelling. In times of crisis, when the world no longer seemed to make sense, that was their authoritative role in the U.S. political system. As authority has splintered, others have stepped in to meet the public demand for meaning making, and storytelling no longer confers unique advantages on the president. Presidents thus have reason today to shrink from sweeping narratives and turn to other rhetorical modes—from the instrumental argument that Barack Obama favored to the belligerent exhortation that is Donald Trump’s forte.

Presidents once sought to craft enduring foreign-policy coalitions. As politics has polarized, and publics frown on compromise, leaders have three options. They can try to advance a unifying narrative that can serve as a solid basis for coalition building, but that is a tall order in a world of fragmented authority. They can capitalize on division and play the game of wedge politics—as Trump did in getting elected—but that strategy complicates long-term governance of a complex system. Most realistically, presidents can create coalitions of convenience behind particular policies. This is a politics of shared interests rather than contested principles. It involves crafting minimum-winning coalitions, if necessary by providing highly targeted incentives and concessions to mobilize support. It calls for taking issues one by one, on their own terms, and not as part of a grand strategy.

The domestic politics of foreign policy today thus calls for pragmatism. Some say that the world is now too complex and fast changing for any single strategic concept to guide U.S. foreign policy. If that is true, then good politics also makes today for good policy. The Obama administration adopted such a pragmatic approach in mobilizing support for, among others, the pivot to Asia, the nuclear deal with Iran, aggressive counterterrorist drone strikes, military deployments to the Middle East and Central Asia, economic sanctions on Iran and Russia, arms control, and limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. No single coalition could provide stable support for so diverse a range of initiatives that seemed to partake of no orthodoxy. Obama’s foreign policy was often too reliant on force to satisfy the Left, and it was often too enthusiastic about international collaboration and not sufficiently militarist to satisfy the Right. It was well positioned, however, to cobble together fluctuating, temporary coalitions composed of “the center plus.” This is why Obama told the New Yorker, “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now.” His greatest problem in coping with the world’s challenges, he believed, was not a flawed or absent strategy. Rather, he needed “the right strategic partners”—at home and abroad.

The flip side of Obama’s instrumental rhetoric and pragmatic foreign policy is that he has gotten little credit for either leadership or accomplishment in foreign affairs. Postwar U.S. foreign policy has a “containment” idée fixe, as Obama’s allusion to Kennan implies. Never mind that containment meant very different things across the decades, that U.S. Cold War strategy was hardly consistent, that it produced deep insecurity and wanton destruction, and that the United States might ultimately have triumphed over the Soviet Union at much less cost to Americans and non-Americans alike. Thanks to the containment fixation, foreign-policy leadership in the United States means giving voice to a comprehensive worldview and an enduring strategy, and policies appear successful only when they seem to emerge from that strategy.

Obama’s varied array of programs falls far short of that standard, and his administration’s achievements have therefore registered as less than the sum of their parts. His former assistant secretary of defense, Derek Chollet, argues that the administration’s diverse initiatives have been guided by what he calls, following the president’s penchant for sports metaphors, “the long game.” This is less a strategy than a set of vague principles—restraint, patience, precision, balance—and a checklist. The consequence is that Obama, though a master orator, has appeared strangely inarticulate in foreign affairs. Even sympathetic observers, like Thomas Friedman, have gently chided that the president’s “foreign policy is mostly ‘nudging’ and ‘whispering,’” and others, like Daniel Drezner, have criticized him for letting others fill the “vacuum of interpretation.”

Skeptics will object that Obama has gotten low marks for foreign-policy leadership and accomplishment for good reason. They will point to the rise of the Islamic State, Russia’s seizure of Crimea, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, Europe’s persistent lethargy and Libya’s tumble toward state failure. There is no question that, over the last eight years, much has happened not to Washington’s liking. Some of these regrettable outcomes were the result of administration missteps, but many were not. Critics who dismiss the Obama administration’s foreign policy as a wholesale failure presume that it is America’s right and responsibility, and crucially within its capacity, to shape the world at its will and dictate global order. It is this mind-set that gives rise to accusations of the “loss” of X—China in 1949, Iraq today—as if X were America’s to lose. It leads to breast beating and soul searching when things go awry, as if local leaders had the freedom to chart their own course only when the U.S. government erred. It imagines that, when the world does not readily comply with America’s wishes, the president must be at fault.

Skeptics may alternatively object that the Obama administration’s lack of strategy has been its undoing. In principle, clear strategy is valuable. It issues broad instructions to policymakers regarding how they should allocate scarce resources and address challenges as yet unforeseen. It is the compass that allows policymakers to steer a steady ship amidst the storms that regularly roil the seas of global politics. In practice, however, coherent and consistent strategy has typically fallen victim to bureaucratic maneuvering, pressure from other branches of government, the limits of human cognition and the inherent complexity of global politics. When global storms have raged, America’s strategy has often changed so much and so rapidly that it has not been a reliable compass.


FOREIGN-POLICY leadership has become nearly hopeless. No president, judged by the standards of the past, can pass muster. The president’s capacity to fix meaning and set the national agenda is much diminished, even in foreign affairs. So too is the president’s power to forge and maintain an enduring coalition. Meanwhile, the American public still looks to the president for the sort of leadership he can no longer provide, which is a recipe for disappointment and frustration.

President Trump has so far given no indication of even trying to lead, except via invective. He has continued to embrace the politics of division. He has offered a starkly dissenting vision of the world and America’s place in it, but even his own cabinet members have not toed his narrative line. He has spurned coalition building, dismissed the bureaucracy and demonized the media. This is consistent with Trump’s populist political persona. But it does not bode well for his capacity to lead.

To say that Trump cannot lead is not to say that his hands are tied. The president’s foreign-policy power remains immense. If Trump pursues just a fraction of what he promised or hinted at during the campaign, he will have brought about a radical change in America’s foreign policy and global posture. The next president will be able to reverse many of Trump’s policies. But he or she will not be able to reverse the past. Others will have adapted—with glee or regret—and the next president will confront a world made anew, in part, by Donald Trump.

But foreign-policy leadership need not be impossible—if we adjust our expectations to match a world of transnational mobilization, fragmented authority and excessive transparency; if we recognize that coalitional politics must be more issues-based and fleeting; and if we acknowledge the limits of strategy and the virtues of pragmatism. Until then, pity the president.

Ronald R. Krebs is Beverly and Richard Fink Professor in the Liberal Arts and professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. He is the author most recently of Narrative and the Making of U.S. National Security. Portions of this article draw from his forthcoming essay in the Oxford Handbook of International Security.

Image: Anti–Donald Trump protesters in New York. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Mathias Wasik