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Don't let the Donald get you down (Amended)

There are many precedents of US presidents retreating from their bombastic campaign promises, especially when it comes to foreign policy
Thursday, November 17, 2016 - 05:50

AS THE Great War was raging in Europe in 1916, president Woodrow Wilson was campaigning for re-election, pledging that he would not draw the United States into the hostilities across the Atlantic, and expressing his commitment to "the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned". A year later, Wilson led the United States into a military intervention in Europe on the side of Great Britain and France and against Germany and its allies.

In 1940 and at a time when Germany and Japan were pursuing aggressive policies, then president Franklin Roosevelt promised voters during his re-election campaign that year that he would do everything in his power to keep the United States out of war, insisting that American soldiers were "not going to be sent into any foreign war". After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, he sent American troops to fight in Europe and Asia.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton accused then Republican president George HW Bush of "coddling the dictators in Beijing" following the Tiananmen Square events and pledged that he would punish and isolate them. A few years later as president, he became the driving force in the efforts to normalise US trade relations with China and to bring it into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Mr Bush I's son ran for the presidency in 2000, criticising the strategy pursued by then president Clinton to spread democracy worldwide and engage in "nation building", promising to embrace more "humility" in the conduct of US foreign policy, only to end up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks presiding over the most ambitious policy of trying to democratise the Middle East and of doing a lot of nation building there.

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Politicians do make a lot of policy promises, even commitments, during presidential election campaigns; some of them may seem to be nothing more than attempts to pander to different constituencies. But some of these pledges made during the election season could be quite significant and are taken seriously.

Indeed, American voters in 1916 and 1940 elected as president men who vowed to keep them out of the bloody wars across the oceans. The Chinese were very worried in 1992 that Mr Clinton would try to reverse the policy of diplomatic and economic engagement between the two countries.

Certainly no one in his right mind imagined that president George Bush II - who had no experience in foreign policy and national security and who affirmed the need for humility in dealing with other countries - would eventually decide to launch two major costly wars and invade two large countries in the Greater Middle East.

We need to recall these and many other examples of US presidents retreating from their bombastic campaign promises, especially when it comes to foreign policy, when officials and pundits in Washington and world capitals seem now to be promoting apocalyptic scenarios that envision the world as we know it coming to an end after President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

 One is protectionism and ensuing trade wars that would lead to a worldwide recession and devastate the global economy and end up with growing confrontation with Beijing that could perhaps ignite a nuclear war.

Another is American military withdrawal from the world, or the dreaded "isolationism" that would include the abrogation of US military alliances in the Pacific and the Atlantic, allowing Russia, China and Iran to pursue aggressive military policies that would threaten their neighbours.

 According to the pontificators, we are on the verge of the collapse of the "liberal international order", as Mr Trump's America ceases to commit itself to advancing political and economic freedom worldwide and a bunch of authoritarian, nativist, and protectionist leaders come to power in Europe and elsewhere.

 Much of these and other doomsday scenarios have been embraced by serious political observers who make a simple argument that goes like this: It was candidate Trump who insisted during the presidential primaries and general election that he would pursue an "America First" policy and that the goal of advancing US national interests and not making the world safe for democracy and other liberal ideals would dominate his approach to world affairs.

 And during press interviews and public addresses, Mr Trump seemed to suggest that US allies couldn't expect Washington to subsidise their security and that they need to start taking care of their own defence.

He certainly made it clear that the era of roaring globalisation and never-ending international trade deals was over, and that he was committed to protecting American jobs and even bringing them back home.

 But much of what candidate Trump said about these global policy issues - including foreign policy and international trade as well as immigration - during the election campaign lacked any coherence. These comments sounded more like powerful slogans aimed at rallying support from American voters and less like serious policy proposals.

In fact, Mr Trump has already reversed some of his earlier pledges to deport 11 million illegal immigrants from the United States and to bar all Muslims from entering the country (now he is saying that he would deport criminal illegals and would do a more serious vetting of guests from unstable Middle Eastern countries).

Mr Trump has also refrained from restating other controversial ideas, like imposing punitive tariffs on Chinese imports, and contrary to some reports on the issues, he never really called for abrogating Nato or for encouraging Japan and Korea to go nuclear. His main preoccupation seems to be with the need to provide incentives to allies to pay more for their security and to cease to be "free riders" on US security commitments, a point that was actually made by President Barack Obama several times.

The main problem with the sometimes confusing foreign policy statements made by Mr Trump is that they weren't grounded on any clear view of world affairs or of even a basic understanding of foreign policy.

Unlike other major presidential candidates in the past, Mr Trump doesn't have any "brain trust" of former government officials and foreign policy thinkers working with him and who can brief foreign officials and journalists about what the next president plans to do vis-à-vis China and Russia or how he plans to defeat ISIS.

 This foreign policy tabula rasa needs to be filled as soon as possible and this could certainly happen when Mr Trump announces his candidates to serve as secretaries of state, defence and Treasury. It would then finally be possible to get a real sense of where Mr Trump is planning to go when it comes to global affairs as these designated officials (who would probably be members of the foreign policy establishment) would have to respond to specific inquiries on issues ranging from trade deals to nuclear strategy.

You don't have to be a political forecaster to make a few intelligent guesses that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) accord wouldn't be approved or that the Federal Reserve wouldn't raise interest rates before Mr Trump takes office in January.  

But it would be a mistake to make predictions beyond that and envisage that Mr Trump would revoke all US trade agreements and refrain from concluding new ones, and that he is planning to wreck the entire international system and global economy. What he does want to do is to reassess the grand US geo-strategic and geo-economic commitments made at the height of America's post-Cold War and post-9/11 Unipolar Moment and before the military fiasco in Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis.

It's also important to recognise that US presidents aren't as powerful as many imagine them to be, and their ability to impose their domestic and foreign policy agendas is constrained not only by Congress but also by the so-called "permanent government" that includes the bureaucracy and numerous interest groups, like, for example, the representatives of Corporate America that are expected to challenge Mr Trump if his trade policies are seen as hurting businesses. 

 Moreover, at the end of the day, reality bites. Hence Mr Obama's plans to improve relations with Russia (the so-called Restart) faced a major obstacle that he couldn't have foreseen - a more aggressive Russian foreign policy, including the invasion of the Crimea. Unanticipated international crises are bound to similarly interfere with Mr Trump's grand strategy - if and when he would adopt one.

Veteran Washington observers recall the international hysteria that followed the election of Republican Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. Officials in world capitals feared that the former Hollywood actor, who had been a staunch advocate of extreme right-wing foreign policy causes, would draw the United States into a nuclear war with the then Soviet Union. Instead, the new White House occupant ended up presiding over the end of the Cold War.

Amendment note : 
The article has been amended to correct an earlier misstatement in the third paragraph from the bottom, that starts "It's also important to recognise that US presidents...."

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