Humphrey School News—December 1, 2016

Dean Eric Schwartz: Foreign Policy Under the Trump Administration

Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, was one of several experts from the School to participate in a November 30 panel discussion on key issues facing the incoming Donald Trump administration. Schwartz spoke about Trump's approach to foreign policy. Here are his complete remarks on the subject:

The United States is confronting national security challenges as profound as any we have encountered in the past 50 years.  Compared to decades past, the risks we face are more serious, more likely to become realities in the short term or over time, and more likely to threaten the well-being of the citizens of our country.  

And that’s why foreign policy matters.

And if this wasn’t challenge enough, we confront these realities at a time in which worldwide power and influence is shifting in a dramatic fashion.  According to the U.S. National Intelligence Council, “the diffusion of power among countries will have a dramatic impact by 2030. Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power… China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030.”

What this means for U.S. foreign policy is simple and straightforward: that while the United States remains the world’s dominant power, our margin for error is diminishing rapidly and inevitably.  In the coming years, sustaining U.S. interests will require the careful marshalling of the tools of U.S. influence. 

In this context, what can we expect from a Donald Trump foreign policy? The short answer is that we do not really know for certain. 

His comments about NATO, for instance, and his expressed willingness to link alliance security guarantees to a willingness on the part of allies to “pay up,” suggest he is disdainful about the benefits to the United States of alliance relationships in which the United States has borne the major share of military responsibilities and costs.

More significantly, and if I may quote our former Humphrey School colleague Michael Barnett, the President-elect’s “vision of America in the world is all power and no purpose, distinguishing him from all recent American presidents.”  To be sure, different U.S. presidents have had different conceptions of American exceptionalism, but to quote Professor Barnett again, “one president after another has insisted that U.S. foreign policy is more than crass self-interest, oil, money or global supremacy.”  And this approach has been a critical component in sustaining U.S. power and influence in the world.

But has the President-elect at least suggested an approach toward engagement in the world?  If he has, it might at this point be best described as what the President himself has called an “America First” approach, informed by a view toward diplomacy that is largely transactional—though some might argue that he may be most closely aligned with what might be termed an uber-Hobbesian approach that suggests the United States must be the “big dog” in the international community, but without a defining set of principles that gives purpose to power.

Because such an approach does not make use of tools of influence that have stood the test of time, it is not a credible path for sustained U.S. engagement, power and influence in the world. 

Thus, I believe a yet-to-be determined approach, informed in large measure by the President-elect’s choices for Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, will have to evolve, but time will tell its contours and its implications for U.S. national security. 

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