Slowly but surely the presidency of Donald Trump is being normalized. By normalized it is meant that the Trump presidency is increasingly being captured and confined by the institutional powers and realities of American and world politics. This is something that Steve Bannon feared, and that both Trump’s supporters and detractors should recognize.
There is a political-science and political adage that declares that presidents have more authority and freedom to act internationally than they do domestically. This is because while the structures of the Constitution – such as checks and balances and separation of powers – limit the domestic power of presidents, they are freer to act internationally, especially with either congressional acquiescence or affirmative grants of power.
This recognition that presidents have more autonomy internationally is rooted in a famous Justice Robert Jackson concurrence in the 1952 Supreme Court case Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer. Yes, in many ways this dicta is correct constitutionally, but it misses something far more powerful when it comes to defining presidential authority — specifically, the political and institutional constraints on presidents and how, as Stephen Skowronek argues in “Presidential Leadership in Political Time,” how history and context define presidential power.
Look to the predecessor
Back in 2008, during the U.S. presidential elections when lecturing in Europe, I was asked how the presidency of Barack Obama would differ from that of George Bush in the area of foreign policy. I argued that the best predictor of a new president’s foreign policy was to look to his predecessor’s. Presidents really have far less freedom to depart from the past than many think. The foreign policy establishment is big and powerful in the U.S., and it is largely bipartisan. Geopolitical forces such as the state of the world economy, the political interests of other nations, and the overall limits on U.S. power and reach also further define what presidents can do. Yes, some may claim some presidents made major shifts – Nixon and China – but the changing geopolitical role of China in the world made such a choice inevitable.
Obama proved that. After making numerous promises, the Obama foreign policy was defined by choices made by Bush. The war on terror continued, troops remained in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gitmo was not closed, drone attacks persisted, and the U.S. did not fundamentally change Middle East politics even after the Arab Spring opening because entrenched support for Israel did not change. Even Obama’s effort to make an Asian pivot has had mixed results, and he was unsuccessful in making many changes in how to handle Syria and North Korea. Yes, Obama did make some marginal changes, but fundamentally there was more continuity with Bush than a break.
The same is now true with Trump. Candidate Trump disagreed with almost all things Obama. The Iran nuclear deal would be torn up. Trump pledged a Mexican wall, declare China a currency manipulator and impose tariffs on their products. NATO was obsolete, the Syrian policy wrong, Putin and Russia a friend, and global engagement must be retracted to put America first. Great rhetoric, but the reality is that slowly the forces that constrained Obama are constraining Trump.
A new Trump
One now sees a new Trump. The bombing of Syria, while a departure perhaps from what Obama did, is something that Hillary Clinton and most Republicans and Democrats in Congress support. It produced a rift with Russia that now leads Trump to muse that perhaps our relations with that country are the worst ever (they are not). Moreover, despite tough talk, Trump’s options with Syria are limited, as they are throughout the Middle East. Expect no major change in politics toward Egypt and Israel, and do not expect any major break in addressing the Palestinian quest for a homeland.
NATO is good, and China will not be declared a currency manipulator, and, in fact, if they help Trump to contain North Korea’s nuclear program, he will give them a great trade deal. This statement is recognition that despite the show of force the U.S. is demonstrating in sending ships to North Korea, there is little he can do along to change the politics in that country. Gitmo will not be closed, the policy toward Cuba not reversed, and even the dropping of MOAB – the mother of all bombs – on Afghanistan was a policy in the works under the Obama administration. Trump’s enhanced deportation policy and extreme vetting looks more and more like a variation of what Obama did – partly courtesy of the federal courts – and there will be no shift in the drone war.
Nearly 90 days into the Trump presidency one can already see more continuity with Obama than breaks. Yes, there are still rough edges; yes, there appears to be no Trump grand strategy, but that leaves a void to be filled by the bureaucracy and foreign policy establishment. All this is exacerbated by the fact that Trump has not filled many key State Department and foreign-policy positions, but that only means that the weight of the status quo is filling the void.
Bureaucracy smashed Bannon
The real sign of Donald Trump’s education or normalizing was the removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council. Bannon saw the power of the bureaucracy and wanted to smash it. Instead it smashed him and may soon lead to his ouster from the Trump administration in total. That was a Trump presidency turning point.
It seemed just a few weeks ago people were talking of a failed Trump presidency, impeachment, or a major international crisis. Yet increasingly likely is that an incompetent Trump will create the space for the bureaucracy to take over in the realm of foreign policy, for good or bad, and to the fear or delight of his supporters and detractors.
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