The New American Administration

Commentary | February 07, 2017

It's been a couple of weeks since Donald Trump was inaugurated at the 45th president. He has spent that time initiating changes in approaches and policies that have the potential to change U.S. and thus world politics more fundamentally than any time in the last 70 years.

Rather than listing his initiatives—from the wall between America and Mexico, to the ban on certain Muslim travelers to the U.S., to policies on oil pipelines, to the first steps in reassessing relations with Europe, with Russia, and with China—I'll speculate on how to understand changes in Washington, and the impact of those changes.

First, the President is doing what he said he would do. With a few notable exceptions (such as dropping his promise to put Hillary Clinton in jail, or easing his confrontational approach to the leaders of Wall Street), he is beginning to make his campaign promises real. Between November and January, some had hoped that he would moderate those promises, believing he had no true convictions and that he had only expressed himself on such topics as torture to get votes, and thus that he would choose to govern moderately once in office. So far this is not the case. Analysts should no longer state breezily "we don't know what he'll do, and neither does he" as some did before the inauguration.

Second, the President has made clear that he is determined to make the changes he believes his electorate wants. It's important to note, however, how he views his electorate. His inaugural speech was unique in modern times in that it did not stake out a broad vision for all Americans, but rather, articulated the grievances of the core constituency that elected him. This indicates that he intends to pursue those policies he believes will benefit that core constituency. 

Why is this important? For those of us who seek to anticipate his foreign policy moves, it's now clear that the Muslim ban was not about Muslims, his spat with the Mexican president was not about Mexicans, and that his questioning of the One-China policy was not about the Chinese.  Rather, these and other foreign policy statements (and ultimately, the policies he'll pursue) will take place with an eye on those places in the U.S. where he visited shortly after election day on his "victory tour"—the heartland of America and its residents who expressed their dissatisfaction with traditional politics by electing him.  

To understand his foreign policy, we must first and foremost weigh how he thinks his core constituency will respond.  It's less about geo-strategy or global impact, and more about deepening domestic support among those who are already in his corner.  

Third, the mechanics of U.S. foreign policy will change. Two events of these past weeks give us a glimpse of this. First, by accepting the traditionally pro-forma resignations of the senior management team at the State Department—that is, of the career diplomats who run the budgets and personnel and foreign missions and consular elements of foreign policy—the new administration has begun an unprecedented process of breaking down bureaucracy. The tasks these career experts performed for previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, are unique and often arcane, and it will be difficult to find loyalists from the private sector with the proper skill set to carry them out. But that is clearly less important than keeping the promise to change the way we do business in Washington and abroad. Second, the new directive on the role and function of the National Security Council (NSC) announces, for the first time, that White House domestic policy advisers will be members of the NSC. This means that foreign policy debates will never be purely foreign, but rather, always mindful of domestic priorities. Now, domestic priorities have always been enormously important to all presidents. But up to now Presidents have received expert foreign policy advice, expert domestic policy advice, and made determinations accordingly. Under the new system, the President is not likely to receive expert foreign policy advice that has not already been shaped by domestic considerations. 

This is just the beginning of an era, then, that will be new in form and content. For EWI's mission and for the success of our programs, it's critical that we deepen our own understanding of the impact of the major changes underway in Washington.