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When the White House changes hands, it is a dangerous time in foreign policy

- November 10, 2016
The presidential seal is placed on a podium. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

As President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump meet today to discuss the upcoming changing of the guard, it’s a good moment to note that presidential transitions are precarious moments for U.S. foreign policy.

Outgoing, lame-duck presidents tend to channel their remaining energies into ambitious (and sometimes ill-advised) foreign policy agendas. New administrations, however, are “ugly ducklings” lacking the experience to manage the fallout — even when the new president has already been intimately involved in foreign policy, as we’ll show below.

That combination has repeatedly caused problems. At best, allies and adversaries can be unnerved and disoriented by the resulting U.S. policy inconsistencies. At worst, lives can be lost in foreign policy crises.

Lame ducks, constrained at home, throw themselves into ambitious foreign policy agendas

The Obama administration has been on a foreign policy tear. In the past year alone, Obama has signed the Iran disarmament deal, reached the climate change accord, signed the Kigali Amendment phasing out hydrofluorocarbon emissions (HFCs) and finalized a free-trade agreement in East Asia.

While some commentators have decried these actions as overreach, such late flurries of foreign policy activity are actually typical of administrations preparing to leave office. New research by one of the author’s of this post shows that presidents in their last year are far more likely to engage personally in diplomatic initiatives, sign international agreements and use force abroad, than in years prior. In other words, unilateral foreign policy is straight out of the lame duck playbook.

This happens for a few reasons. As an administration’s remaining time in office wanes, the opposition’s incentives to wait it out increase and even the president’s co-partisans in Congress tend to become less loyal. The president’s policy clout get more and more constrained, which can be seen in how rarely the his positions on legislation prevail.

Consider what’s happened — or hasn’t — since the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Obama still had a about year in office when Scalia’s seat was vacated. He nominated Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. appeals court for the District of Columbia, to fill it almost eight months before the election. The Republican-dominated Senate has refused to consider the appointment on the grounds that Obama is a lame duck. There is essentially nothing that he can do about it.

What then is an ambitious president to do? Naturally, administrations try to leave a strong legacy and bind their successors’ hands where they still have some influence: abroad. This comes at a cost. Decision-making gets rushed. Outgoing presidents often launch complex and risky foreign policy initiatives that they don’t have time to see through. For instance, Bill Clinton started an 11th hour effort on the Arab-Israeli peace process at the July 2000 Camp David Summit. Similarly, in the short time between losing the election and leaving office, George H.W. Bush committed thousands of ground troops in Somalia. Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Americans would be “clear of this operation in a few months,” a prediction which did not hold true.

Ugly ducklings — even the most experienced ones — aren’t fully ready to manage U.S. relationships with the rest of the world

For their part, new presidents tend to be poorly positioned to clean up the messes that lame ducks leave behind — this was certainly true for the incoming Clinton administration, which struggled and then withdrew from Somalia. They have campaign promises to fulfill, a brand new administration to manage, and prefer to work on domestic policy early in their term. Consider, for instance, what Obama did with his early electoral mandate. He poured his energy into Obamacare, often at the expense of lofty foreign policy expectations. As a result, most work only sporadically and ineffectively on foreign policy.

Research by Phil Potter suggests that new administrations suffer for their inexperience. Early-term presidential administrations get into far more foreign policy crises than they do later on.

The combination of reckless lame ducks and unprepared ugly ducklings can have serious consequences. For instance, President John F. Kennedy’s early troubles in Cuba really started when his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, reluctantly authorized the CIA to plan an invasion — but on the way out the door failed to inform Kennedy of his own ambivalence about the operation. The result was a debacle at the Bay of Pigs, which arguably emboldened the Soviet actions and contributed to the Cuban missile crisis.

Campaign promises and rhetoric can also lead a new administration into trouble as it tries to shift into handling the realities of the U.S.’s strategic positions. For instance, it’s a time-honored American tradition to demonize China on the campaign trail, only to cooperate once in office.

The historical record suggests that Trump’s personal foreign policy inexperience will be compounded by the disorganization and inconsistencies that come from starting up a new administration. He will need to contend with missing appointees and undeveloped management structures. Consider that George H.W. Bush, the man with the “golden résumé” that included time as vice president and a stint running the CIA, failed to deftly handle his first foreign policy crisis, in which a disorganized Bush White House failed to oust Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega. As Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft said in a Miller Center interview, “We did not act very decisively. This was our first crisis. We didn’t do particularly well.”

How then could the U.S. better manage these hazardous transitions?

One possibility would be to change the way appointments work for key national security positions. Kennedy once said that during “the next major change of administration … secretaries of state … should be nominated first and should work for two months … in between, next to the man they’re succeeding. Otherwise, you have this dangerous interim gap for three months.” Overlap of this sort would help preserve institutional knowledge and make policy continuity possible.

We’ve seen variants of this approach. The incoming Obama administration, for example, kept Robert Gates as defense secretary, which considerably eased the wartime transition in 2009.

Second, steps could be taken to increase the pace and decrease the politicization of political appointments. Foreign policy teams need to be assembled expeditiously. Recent administrations have gone increasingly long periods of time with many unfilled appointments, especially at lower levels that are outside public scrutiny but must still be approved by Congress. This strips the foreign policy team of vitality and leadership at precisely the moment it can least afford it. The corollary, of course, is that these men and women also need to be properly vetted experts rather than politically connected fundraisers.

Third, new presidents can use the inaugural address, the first speech to a joint session of Congress and early travels abroad to make foreign policy positions clear. This would help reduce foreign leaders’ confusion as they try to understand which U.S. policies will continue and which will change.

All democracies are built on regular transitions of power. These transitions present particular challenges for foreign policy. Given what we know, we can assume that the next several months may be a bumpy ride.

Philip Potter is an associate professor in the department of politics and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. 

Tony Lucadamo is the lead policy analyst at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.