Wait, what? Or, Trump through the looking glass

20 April 2017, 1701 EDT

The Trump Administration’s foreign policy, if we can call it a policy, has certainly injected a degree of excitement into the foreign policy commentariat and IR classrooms around the world. Reading all the output is a full time job. But it is fair to say that most of the coverage has been, shall we say, less than favorable. Recently, Dani Nedal and Dan Nexon tackled the problems with Trump’s foreign policy unpredictability. Stephen Walt argued that Trump does not really care whether his foreign policy is successful. And the list goes on.


Which is why Matthew Kroenig’s recent piece in Foreign Affairs caught me by surprise. Kroenig, a signatory to the open letter from GOP national security leaders opposing Trump who “vowed to work to stop Trump” has penned a robust defense of the administration’s early foreign policy efforts. There is much to disagree with in Kroenig’s piece (more on that in a minute), but it also raises bigger questions regarding the role of academics as experts and their engagement with the policy world.


In a nutshell, Kroenig argues that Obama left behind a “crumbling international order” but that Trump has assembled a national security team to “help him update and revitalize it.” The reckless talk of the campaign has been left behind and, in the words of foreign policy grandee Henry Kissinger, Trump could go “down in history as a very considerable president.”


Such an argument might be made, but in the face of so much analysis to the contrary, Kroenig has a heavy load to lift. In short, he does not make the case. Here’s why:


  • Climate change. Kroenig never mentions the issue of climate change. For good reason: it is a damning one for Trump’s foreign policy. Trump has gutted the domestic foundations of climate policy, from taking executive action to reverse Obama-era climate policies to appointing a well-known climate denier to lead (and staff) the EPA. Trump has vowed to ‘cancel’ the Paris climate agreement. The record here is an unadulterated dumpster fire. But, as detailed here on the Duck and elsewhere, climate change is a major element of foreign and national security policy and there is no way an assessment of Trump’s policy can leave it out.
  • “In Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Obama left behind a far more dangerous world than the one he inherited in 2009.” Let’s break these claims out.
    1. Europe: “For the first time since World War II, Russia is redrawing the map of Europe at gunpoint. Meeting only a weak response from the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to threaten and undermine the United States and its NATO allies in a bid to break the alliance.” Reasonable people can disagree with Obama’s and NATO’s response to the annexation of Crimea, though sanctions plus a drop in the price of oil put Russia’s economy in a serious hurt locker. NATO upped visible support for its members in the Baltics. But to argue that Trump, who suggested that Russia’s annexation of Ukraine might be acceptable ,who has called NATO obsolete (though he has apparently changed his mind), and whose pro-Russia comments have had a deleterious effect on Ukrainian morale, has done better is a claim without evidence.
    2. Asia: “China has seized contested territory from U.S. allies and is undertaking a massive military buildup that the country’s leaders hope will eventually render the United States unable to keep its security commitments in the Asia-Pacific…Pyongyang now has up to 21 warheads and is on track to have nuclear missiles that could hit the continental United States.” It is true that China ramped up its island building during the Obama Administration, but armed conflict over territorial disputes in the South China Sea goes back to at least the 1980s. Moreover, it is not clear what the Obama Administration, or the Trump Administration, would be able to do to stop Chinese efforts. Kroenig certainly offers no evidence that the Trump Administration has changed course. The same goes for the Chinese military buildup: short of a pre-emptive war I am not sure what any president can do about that. And…the same goes for North Korea. Aside from ineffectually and only sort-of-not-really rattling a saber, the Trump Administration faces the same problem the Obama Administration, and the Bush Administration, and the Clinton Administration, confronted. Short of an unprecedented military strike capable of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear and conventional capabilities simultaneously and unforeseen by the Kim regime (so as to avoid a preemptive strike by Pyongyang), military tools are pretty catastrophic. Nothing, aside from Pence’s flinty stare down, has changed with Trump.
    3. Middle East: “The worst of the Obama administration’s failures took place in the Middle East. The United States oversaw the wholesale disintegration of the region and the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen have failed or are failing as states, turning them into incubators of terrorism” Kroenig is right, these places are horrible disasters. Just as an aside, it is worth pointing out here that a lot of this can be laid at the feet of Obama’s predecessor who I think invaded Iraq and oversaw a civil war and the ethnic partitioning of the country. But beyond that, it isn’t clear what Obama could have done to stop much of this. The region is riven by sectarian divisions and political instability. No president can fix those problems, and as a consequence most of the time are confronted with nothing but bad policy options. Kroenig provides no evidence that Trump will be able to somehow alter that reality.
  • The ‘A-Team’: Kroenig claims that Trump has surrounded himself with the best of the best. With respect to NSA McMaster and SecDef Mattis, there is a strong argument that this is the case. Secretary of State Tillerson is another matter entirely. Running a large oil company that conducts its business in private does not obviously prepare one for the very public or multifaceted role of Secretary of State. More importantly, however, is that this may not matter. It is far from clear that these appointees have the access to the president they need to influence policy. Trump seems predisposed to turn to his children (and, in the case of Jared Kushner, spouses of children) as principal advisors, and he is a 70 year old man with firmly established beliefs about the world that his cabinet members are unlikely to change. So, it is far from clear that Trump has put together an ‘A-Team’ and it is far from clear that it would matter.
  • “To maintain its international position, the United States will need a strong military…The Department of Defense will finally get the funds Obama denied it.” This is just…baffling. The US already spends enormous sums of money on defense. While it varies year to year, the US federal government spends about half of its discretionary budget on the military. In 2015, the United States—which accounts for five percent of the global population and roughly 25 percent of global GDP—accounted for 37 percent of global military spending. The US military is hardly starved for funds. And if the DoD did have to lean out a bit, blame sequester, not Obama.
  • “Trump recognized that the U.S. military must modernize to face a new nuclear age when he promised in an interview with Reuters in February that the United States would be at the “top of the pack” in nuclear capabilities.” Leaving aside whether this is a good idea or not, a Bloomberg headline spells out the problem with this claim very clearly: “Trump’s Nuclear Boast Is Obama’s Modernization Plan
  • “Since Trump’s inauguration, his administration has also shown strong support for U.S. allies.” Another baffling claim. Trump pretty clearly slighted Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trump actively supported Brexit, undermining the EU (and a bunch of NATO allies). Trump has alienated Mexico with his pursuit of a border wall. Secretary of State Tillerson initially planned to skip the first NATO foreign ministers meeting after Trump’s election (and travel to Moscow instead). There are indications that the Trump Administration’s misleading characterization of the deployment of the Carl Vinson has undermined its credibility in South Korea. Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership abandoned several allies and friends in the region, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Singapore. These are hardly actions of ‘strong support’.
  • “Some have criticized Trump for suggesting that NATO members should increase their defense spending, but U.S. administrations from Dwight Eisenhower’s to Obama’s have made this same request. The only difference is that Trump’s approach is working.” Kroenig is correct that a number of US administrations have complained about this, and it is true that NATO members are boosting their military spending. But Kroenig overlooks a couple not-so-minor points. First, NATO spending started to rise in 2014 and accelerated in response to Russian aggression, both of which far predate Trump. Second, Trump’s attacks on NATO and his support for authoritarian leaders may be undermining the shared identity and the associated trust underpinning NATO—leading other countries to hedge against its eventual breakup.


Kroenig concludes that “On almost every front, Trump has begun to correct the failures of the past eight years and position the United States well for the challenges to come.” As I argue here, though, Kroenig has provided no basis to support that claim. Which raises a larger issue. What exactly is the role of academics in bridging the gap between the academic and policy worlds?


Kroenig’s piece is, for lack of better phrasing, a political statement. Indeed, one might easily imagine Sean Spicer writing something very similar (were he better with words). Of course, academics can and do make political statements. But Kroenig published in Foreign Affairs in his capacity as an academic, with the authority that attends. Which raises this question: what responsibility do we have to maintain a degree of integrity with an academic approach and resist becoming political operators? The answer is not an obvious one. Kissinger, whom Kroenig quotes twice, clearly went the route of political operator. And to a degree academics must become political in order for their preferred tribe to pay attention to them. But this is a fraught line to walk. Part, maybe most, of the value academics bring to the table in bridging the divide lies in their analytical mindset and the authority that springs from their expertise. But, like all authority, the strength of academic authority derives from those over whom the authority is exercised. This reality should prompt those who seek to bridge the gap, a noble desire, to think carefully about the foundational legitimacies of academic authority and how to avoid damaging them.