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Obama, Trump, and the Future of U.S. Foreign Policy

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Amid all the uncertainty about what a Trump presidency means for the future role of the United States in the world, one possibility is that Trump will embrace some variant of the policies that have been pursued for the past few decades by the nation’s foreign policy establishment. Although Trump may break sharply with the establishment consensus that the United States must play the lead role in imposing order on the world, many signs indicate that Trump will continue to ensure that the United States plays the dominant role in policing the world.

Certainly, many Washington insiders feel differently about Trump. On election day, former State Department official Daniel Serwer presented the standard view of the foreign policy establishment that the “dramatic differences” between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made Trump a problematic candidate. Trump “prides himself on unpredictability” while Clinton “has a long track record well within the post-9/11 foreign policy consensus,” Serwer explained, adding that Clinton “wants to maintain the stability of the international system and restore American authority.” With his remarks, Serwer indicated that the foreign policy establishment could trust Clinton but not Trump to use American power to actively enforce a system of global order.

At times, additional observers issued more serious warnings. On the day after the election, for example, The New York Times warned that Trump would reverse decades of foreign policy practice by withdrawing the United States from its deep engagement with the world. “For the first time since before World War II, Americans chose a president who promised to reverse the internationalism practiced by predecessors of both parties and to build walls both physical and metaphorical,” the newspaper reported. “Mr. Trump’s win foreshadowed an America more focused on its own affairs while leaving the world to take care of itself.” In short, The New York Times captured the basic establishment concern that Trump would no longer enforce the system of postwar order that his predecessors had maintained throughout the postwar period.

Enforcing the International Order

Still, not everyone agrees with the predictions. Although the foreign policy establishment remains concerned with Trump’s unpredictability and perhaps even his neglect of decades of establishment thinking, several high-level officials in the Obama administration have recently begun to suggest that the United States will continue to play the lead role in enforcing a system of international order.

Notably, President Barack Obama has provided some reassurances. Speaking with the press a few days after the election, Obama made the case that Donald Trump would not be able to simply dictate a new strategy to the vast bureaucracy that manages the nation’s foreign policy. The foreign policy decision-making process “is the result not just of the President, it is the result of countless interactions and arrangements and relationships between our military and other militaries, and our diplomats and other diplomats, and intelligence officers and development workers,” Obama explained.

Moreover, Obama insisted that much of the media commentary about Trump missed the fact that most U.S. officials continue to share the same basic foreign policy goals. Certainly, “there’s enormous continuity beneath the day-to-day news that makes us that indispensable nation when it comes to maintaining order and promoting prosperity around the world,” Obama stated. “That will continue.”

Finally, Obama disclosed one more important detail that pointed towards future continuity. Citing the meeting that he held with Trump at the White House after the election, Obama said that Trump “expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships.” Trump, in other words, appeared eager to continue working closely with U.S. allies to enforce a system of global order.

Shared Priorities

Trump and the Obama administration have always shared many of the same foreign policy objectives, even though Trump made every effort during his campaign to condemn Obama’s policies as dangerous and destructive to both the United States and the world.

For starters, both Trump and the Obama administration have made it clear that they intend to ensure that the United States remains the most dominant military power in the world.

In March 2016, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter presented the basic position of the Obama administration when he assured the Senate Committee on Armed Services that the Department of Defense “will keep ensuring our dominance in all domains.” The following month, Trump declared his support for the same objective. “Our military dominance must be unquestioned,” Trump stated.

Furthermore, Trump has displayed similar commitments on other fundamental issues. For instance, Trump has made it clear that he intends to prioritize the interests of the United States above everything else. “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” Trump announced during his campaign. Indeed, Trump insisted that he would base his foreign policy on the premise that the United States should only take actions in the world that work to the advantage of the United States. “We’re going to finally have a coherent foreign policy based upon American interests, and the shared interests of our allies,” Trump stated.

Under Obama’s leadership, administration officials have taken the same approach. Although the Obama administration has not used the same slogan, it has adopted an America First strategy. Vice President Joe Biden pointed to the administration’s strategy when he toured Asia in July 2016 as part of the administration’s “rebalance” to Asia. “We’re not doing anyone any favors,” Biden stated, referring to the administration’s special focus on the region. “It’s overwhelmingly in our interest. Overwhelmingly.” Two months later, State Department official Antony J. Blinken provided more direct confirmation of the administration’s strategy. “We don’t work with other nations as a luxury, or as charity,” Blinken explained. “Our national interest demands our global engagement.”

Even President Obama has confirmed that his administration has adopted an America First strategy. When he recently commented on his decision to commit the United States to the Paris Agreement in order to address the threat of global climate change, Obama confirmed that he was primarily motivated by the U.S. interests at stake. Currently, “the biggest threat when it comes to climate change and pollution isn’t going to come from us — because we only have 300 million people,” Obama explained. “It’s going to come from China, with over a billion people, and India, with over a billion people.” With his remarks, Obama indicated that the United States needed to join the Paris Agreement to prevent countries such as China and India from harming the United States with their pollution.

Shared Approach to the Islamic State

Both Trump and Obama have also made it clear that they intend to completely destroy the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). In November 2015, Trump outlined his position during a radio commercial in which he pledged to “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS.”

In recent months, officials in the Obama administration have articulated similar goals. This past June, for example, State Department official Brett McGurk stood before a map that showed various areas under the control of IS and announced that “we have to wipe them off this map.” A few months later, Secretary of State John Kerry took a similar position. The United States has an interest in “terminating ISIL/Daesh, as fast as possible,” Kerry stated.

In fact, the Obama administration has been busy working to fulfill its mission. In the time since the administration began its air campaign in August 2014, U.S. and coalition forces have conducted more than 15,000 airstrikes against IS and have killed more than 45,000 IS fighters. In other words, the administration has been bombing the hell out of ISIS. Clearly, IS fighters “should sleep with one eye open because we’re not gonna give them a moment’s peace,” U.S. Colonel John Dorrian explained on November 16, 2016.

In the end, the outgoing Obama administration will soon hand over power to a Trump administration that shares some of the very same foreign policy commitments. Despite the fact that the foreign policy establishment remains uncertain about Trump’s intentions, the president-elect has provided many signals that he intends for the United States to continue playing an active role in enforcing a system of global order.

As Trump has put it, using the standard language of the foreign policy establishment, his administration will mainly be “focusing on creating stability in the world.”

Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.

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