IN THE JOURNAL | COVER STORY
Venturing into the unknown
January-March 2017
By: Jeffrey A Winters

Under normal circumstances, predicting the likely foreign policy of an incoming American president is fairly straightforward.  Policy positions established across a period of decades, or enshrined in binding international agreements, would form a bedrock upon which a new administration would add its own touches. One would assess whether the president-elect is more hawk or dove, has strong ideological commitments, or perhaps set major policy goals during the campaign. Key cabinet appointments, favoring one faction or the other of the foreign policy establishment, would then fill in the gaps in what to expect.

Assessing Donald J Trump’s foreign policy, however, is complicated by the fact that very little of this applies to him or his incoming administration. No figure like Trump has assumed the leadership of a major global power in the last century. Trump has no experience in public office, no background in foreign policy and he is not connected to any mainstream faction of the Washington foreign policy establishment. The president-elect understands the world from the perspective of a property developer. Because he has a dim view of government in general and policy wonks in particular, he is unlikely to operate within the ordinary boundaries of status quo US foreign policy. 

There is always a surge in concern and uncertainty around the globe when a new American president appears on the scene. US leaders run and win on their domestic politics and platforms and then must become quick studies of international affairs. It takes time for the contours of their foreign policies to come into relief. In Trump’s case, anxieties are higher than usual both at home and abroad because he is not viewed as an authority on domestic or foreign policy. He offered very few details in either realm during the long campaign, and he has positioned himself mainly as an iconoclast. Further complicating matters are reports that he has a short attention span in briefings and is not studious in the Obama mold. George W Bush demonstrated that presidents can get away with inattention if they put an authoritative, if controversial, foreign policy team in charge.



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