Withering Away? : US Foreign Policy in the Time of Trump

Image credit: The Immoral Minority – blogger


By Kimberley Anne Nazareth      7 August 2018

The world and most of America stood still in wonder when Donald Trump took the center stage and became the 45th President of the US. As the President approaches his midterm, an analysis of his leadership in foreign policy is important.


The ‘buck stops here’ was a plaque on President Truman’s desk, it reiterated the notion of presidential domination as well as unilateralism foreign affairs. Presidents in the past have attempted to dominate in matters pertaining to foreign policy to a larger extent than in domestic affairs as a result of their use of the ‘bully pulpit’.

Presidents have always or at least most of the time wielded limited powers in matters pertaining to domestic affairs but foreign affairs is another subject altogether. During the Cold War, the powers of the presidency grew while some presidents found it easier than others to wield power as a result of Congressional deference or congressional assertiveness. In the recent past, President Obama though popular, used powers at his disposal as a result of the Republican-controlled Congress. This was especially true when it came to Iran. Obama did not put the Iran Deal is a political agreement rather than a treaty as it would require 2/3rd of Congress to vote for it. The Republicans dominance forced Obama to pick an alternative route.

Presidential leadership is the ability to lead is defined as the ability of a president to navigate in domestic as well as foreign policy. With the current administration, leadership is defined  as the ability to wield a ‘big stick’. Historically, ‘the big stick effect’ has been mixed ; with it being a failure in some instances while in others being successful. A president is considered successful through his legislative record though it is early in his term, the President has managed to overturn a number of policies supported by the previous administration, in doing so has upheld his campaign promises.

US leadership both at home and abroad has come under tremendous fire as a result of President Trump. President Trump during his campaign floated several ideas regarding the future of American leadership throughout the world; this included walking away from TPP which was (and still is in some circles) considered disadvantageous to the US, renegotiating’ withdrawing the  Iran Deal and NATO members playing a greater role in the burden sharing to name a few. The  America First strategy was being dubbed as isolationist rather than the usual global outreach of the US.

During the campaign , the then candidate Trump worried many by his rhetoric when it came to the allies as well as adversaries. As President , he has made decisive decisions this is especially true in matters pertaining to foreign affairs. He has in many cases followed a strategy of ‘striking while the iron is hot’ .

Presidential leadership and presidential unilateralism have most part gone hand in hand. The ‘carte blanche’ granted to the president during the cold war was replaced by congressional dominance. The swinging of the pendulum between the executive and congress has always been part of the US started of governance one based on ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances’. President in Trump in most of his foreign policy endeavors has had the support of his party. This included the withdrawal from the Iran Deal and the negotiations with North Korea. Though the President did not receive nannies support

In the  past president’s have found it difficult to navigate their powers in respect to those with congress, this is especially true when the other party controls Congress. For instance, President Obama  found it difficult to exert influence in matters pertaining to foreign affairs as a result of his domestic environment.  In the case of Iran , Obama and his team were successful in negotiating a deal but as opposition  to the deal was high , the president found it difficult to ratify it by Congress. Hence, the Iran deal is a ‘political agreement’ and not a treaty. However, there are times when the President does not receive support from within his own party. Case in point the Helsinki Summit with. Putin. He received a great deal of criticism from his own party in the immediate aftermath of the Summit. The fallout from which had put the President on the defensive in his siding with the Russian Premier rather than his own intelligence agencies over Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential elections.

President Trump’s leadership is closely associated with Teddy Roosevelt; the ‘big stick’ effect. This brand of leadership  states that President’s have the ability by the Constitution to act in the ‘special interest’ of the country. This is a broad definition but one that is used often. This also means Congress is a silent spectator to presidential action. Though there are many within President Trump’s own party that disagree with him, they are in a minority.

President Trump’s foreign policy has been based on ‘America First’ but there is a great deal of fear as to whether this would turn to an ‘America Only Policy’. This is especially true in matters pertaining to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) most commonly known as the Iran Deal. The President at this point enjoys high approval ratings which to a great extent  is indicative of local approval for policy alterations. In spite of the criticism, the President continues to wield enormous power.

Presidential Unilateralism and Trump

For the past two years, President  Trump has wielded immense authority in matters pertaining to foreign policy. On the one hand it maybe too  early to tell whether the magnitude of his actions can be equivalent to the return of the ‘imperial presidency’ as they are to a great extent done with the consensus of congress. For instance,  the current talks with North Korea , though Congress might be apprehensive , they support the president’s endeavors. The Trump-Putin Summit that has perturbed many intellectuals as well as many in Congress(especially Senators like John McCain) was supported by the majority in Congress.

During the campaign, it looked like the international community would have to fend for itself. A reason behind this is that the President has not always stated US interests clearly. On his first day in office, the president withdrew US support from the TPP which worried many of the South Asian allies. The president also called into question NATO and burden -sharing which had inevitably fallen to the US. Then came the JCPOA and the P5. However, in the aftermath of his inauguration has reiterated support to the allies. His various meetings with Abe of Japan and South Korea.

The president’s America First strategy has generated a great deal of support specifically in the rust belt as well as the Bible Belt has created a trust deficit among many in Congress as well as the internal allies. It is this base, made up of the core supporters that the President is focussed on.

The president though has moved away from his anti-alliance rhetoric, has also shored up his support for the allies. He has reiterated through various actions his support for age old allies like the Saudis and Israel – by pulling US support from the Iran deal. On the other hand, Seoul and Tokyo seem to be weary about the trajectory Washington and Pyongyang are taking.

In the final analysis, though the America first strategy has its benefits for the US , it could eventually unravel a system with the US playing a key role as partner. This would mean that the US has or is moving towards an isolationist policy . A role that it has not played since the interwar period. Therefore is the US and the its leadership willing to play such a role?