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What a President Trump means for foreign policy

- November 9, 2016
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump arrives for his election-night rally at the New York Hilton Midtown in Manhattan on Nov. 8. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States. Among many other things, this means he will take charge of U.S. foreign policy.  Trump will not manage foreign policy alone, but presidents have a lot of power nonetheless. Here are three things we know about leaders, advisers and foreign policy.

Leaders’ beliefs matter, and they tend not to change

It is well-established in research on international relations and foreign policy that leaders’ beliefs matter.  My own book found that leaders’ beliefs about the nature of threats had important implications for when and how they decide to use military force.  I also found that leaders’ beliefs are very stable over time. They tend to be formed before presidents take office, and then leaders view the events and crises of their tenures through the lens of those beliefs.  This is consistent with a long tradition of research on how beliefs and ideas matter.

Other scholars have looked at leader attributes such as age, experience and gender and found that they affect how leaders behave in office.  In their book on the subject, Michael Horowitz, Allan Stam and Cali Ellis found that in democracies and mixed regimes, older leaders — particularly those over 70, Trump’s age — are more prone to aggression.  Traits such as age may interact with core beliefs to affect how leaders make decisions.

So what are Trump’s beliefs?  The best analysis is Thomas Wright’s, who early in the campaign identified the core beliefs that Trump has been articulating for decades.  As Wright summarized more recently, these boil down to three: “opposition to America’s alliance relationships; opposition to free trade; and support for authoritarianism, particularly in Russia.”  Whatever else Trump says or tries to do on foreign policy, we can expect these three core beliefs to shape his goals and to persist throughout his presidency.

Advisers have a lot of power under an inexperienced president

In July, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested that Trump would not make radical moves on foreign policy because his Cabinet would restrain him.  There has been talk already of how his staff or advisers would be a significant constraint. But as I wrote in July after McConnell’s statement, a smart team of advisers cannot substitute for an inexperienced leader.

Worse still, as Dan Drezner has chronicled and reiterated last week, the team surrounding Trump lacks experience and is not from the usual “bench” of Republican foreign policy advisers that one would typically expect to surround the Republican nominee. This is partly the result of the “Never Trump” movement:  Trump’s foreign policy positions and lack of experience have put him significantly at odds with much of the Republican foreign policy establishment.  Even if some Never Trumpers decide to serve in his administration (and he admits them back into the fold) or a few members of the team have experience (Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, for example, is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and rumored to be a candidate for secretary of state), the overall pool of experienced advisers for him to draw on is likely to be smaller.

So Trump is likely to be served by a team of advisers with less overall foreign policy experience than we would usually expect. My research on advisory teams shows that the balance of experience between the leader and advisers matters: Inexperienced presidents are less able to monitor their advisers, question assumptions and plans and diversify advice. This means that these advisers will be greatly empowered, allowing them to pursue initiatives more independently — and enabling or magnifying any biases they have.  The combination of an inexperienced president empowering a team of inexperienced advisers is not encouraging.

Advisers can also send important signals to Congress and the public that have consequences for public support for war and approval of the president. I have found that when presidents act against the recommendation of their advisers when deciding to use military force — whether the decision is to fight or stay out of a conflict — public support for war and approval of the president can flip.

Given that Trump has had a combative and contentious relationship with his advisers to date, and that he is at odds with much of the Republican foreign policy establishment on many issues, we would expect greater-than-average infighting — even if experienced hands serve in a Trump administration. This infighting will have not only political consequences but also potential effects on decisions themselves: Leaks or public statements might affect public or congressional support for Trump’s decisions, or he might listen to certain advisers because he fears the political ramifications of acting against them.

Presidents have a lot of influence on foreign policy, much of it out of public view

Presidents have significant power over foreign policy, and that power has only grown in recent years, including in the Obama era. Some aspects of presidential power are quite visible, such as the use of force, public diplomacy or major international agreements, and there is rightly discussion of how a Trump presidency will affect these aspects of foreign policy.

But there are also other, less visible ways that presidents can shape foreign policy. Their staffing decisions and policy directives — what I called “policy investments” in my book — reflect their core beliefs and can reach deeply into the bureaucracy. Even when presidents do change their minds or are swayed by advisers to make a decision that is out of their ordinary line of thinking, it is hard to shift the bureaucracy on a dime.

During the Iraq War, the Bush administration’s later decision to shift toward nation-building was hampered by the initial decisions Bush made after taking office in 2001 to de-emphasize nation-building and fill his administration with like-minded advisers and staffers. Although many positions are filled by excellent, career civil servants, the direction from the White House is important, if only in the choices for political appointments at the tops of agencies. These appointments and decisions will matter for a host of decisions, large and small.

But none of this means that Trump won’t face accountability for his foreign policy choices. It is true that the public does not pay much attention to the day-to-day details of foreign policy, which is one source of presidential power on international affairs. But elites can be the foreign policy watchdogs — and they are the key group to watch for the next four years.

And although there are major partisan divides on foreign policy, there remains broad consensus among elites on how the United States should position itself in the world. Most foreign policy elites, in both parties, are internationalist, favor maintaining U.S. alliances and oppose authoritarianism. They will the ones to pay attention to the details of Trump’s foreign policy and sound the alarm if it trends in dangerous directions. Even with Republican control of Congress, these voices may be heard, especially if the divide between Trump and Republican foreign policy elites persists.

Elizabeth Saunders is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.