Where Trump’s eagle flies

Will the midterms influence the US’ foreign policy? The Dems will have a hard time stopping Trump but perhaps a few officials will rein back his excesses

Donald Trump and former Defence Secretary James Mattis. Mattis’ resignation in December is proof of the complicated relations between the US President and his establishment. REUTERS/Jim Young/Contrast
Donald Trump and former Defence Secretary James Mattis. Mattis’ resignation in December is proof of the complicated relations between the US President and his establishment. REUTERS/Jim Young/Contrast

In 1946 Sumner Welles, an American diplomat and one of President Theodore Roosevelt's most trusted advisors, published the book Where are we heading?. The title unquestionably suggested that there was a degree of uncertainty about the United States' foreign policy and the role the American superpower was supposed to play on the world stage from then on. A state of concern which, then as today, had everyone on tenterhooks, both within and outside Washington's institutions and all the way up to the White House.

Today, the United States' foreign policy appears fraught with misgivings as a result of the often excessively eager and aggressive strategy adopted by President Trump. On the one hand, Trump's accession has put an the end to the foreign policy that one of Obama's advisor's referred to as “leading from behind”, which meant gradually encouraging negotiation processes where dialogue could take place, with the focus very much on soft power rather than hard power. On the other, the unrelenting drive towards a more hard-line political approach causes dismay and distrust among the country's allies, in Europe and beyond. Besides Trump's unpredictability and bulimic use of social media aside, he has also shown a great disregard for the authority of international organisations and outright hostility towards the Liberal rulebook. An unscrupulous approach to foreign policy, with the sole aim of promoting the idea of “America First!”, whatever the cost, which, on closer examination, seems to be fuelled by a disdain for the principles, customs and strategies that have steered America's  foreign policy in recent decades.

These few considerations are in many ways akin to those contained in the letter of resignation presented to the White House last 20 December by former Secretary of Defence James Mattis. Resignations that provide further proof of the difficult relations between the President and the establishment and, generally speaking, are symptomatic of the concern that is fuelling the fear  that Trump's dictates may be detrimental to Washington, and could end up hopelessly  undermining the future of America's leadership in the world.

As the reason for this uncertainty seems to be the foreign policy approach that the President is imposing on America – an approach that he is not prepared to alter or discuss with anyone, as the change of two Secretaries of State in just two years would seem to indicate (on average there has been one for each mandate from Carter's time to Obama's) – then clearly almost everyone in Washington is trying once more to answer the same crucial question asked by Welles: where are we heading?

After the November elections, it's worth trying to figure out whether the outcome will influence American foreign policy and therefore whether the Democrats will be able to stop the President or instead President Trump will manage to push on with his plans unhindered until the next Presidential elections.

Thanks to the support of a Republican majority in both Houses of Congress, Trump has encountered no major obstacles to his management of foreign policy for the first two years of his mandate. The mid-term elections held last November have enabled the Democrats to take back the majority of the House of Representatives, without however tipping the scales in the Senate, where the Republicans have actually increased their majority. This essentially hung result, which is neither  a victory for the Democrats nor a defeat for the GOP, ultimately belittles the role of the legislative bodies and leaves plenty of room for manoeuvre for the President in such crucial sectors as security and national defence, alliances and trade policies.

Firstly, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives won't be able to block Trump's foreign policy decisions owing to the subordinate role of Congress compared to the White House. This weakness is due to a political polarisation that dates back to before the Trump era. For a long time now Congress is a body that doesn't produce political decisions. One figure above all is indicative of the paralysis: since the Seventies, the number of laws approved has fallen off drastically. The 115th Congress, which refer to the first two years of the Trump administration, have approved approximately half the laws written by the same institutions in Nixon's day over the same period. While the 93rd Congress managed to approve 26,000 laws, the current one has only got round to approving 13,000.

In actual fact, the role of Congress is even more straightjacketed when it comes to foreign policy. As mentioned in a previous article in the magazine in January 2018, the power of the President prevails and all Congress can hope to do is exercise oversight. In the last fifty years, the number of times Congress has managed to overturn a Presidential veto on foreign affairs issues are no more than a handful. One example came in 1973 when Nixon, after announcing the end of air raids in Cambodia, secretly ordered the mission be continued without informing the nation or Congress. The result was that the legislative body engaged in retaliation against the White House. This however was an exceptional case and we're unlikely to see a repeat.  

Another aspect that plays in Trump's favour is the Democrat's position on many of the more crucial foreign policy issues. In actual fact, quite a few of the main objectives of this administration's foreign policy can actually find Democratic support. One example: although all Democrats claim they are worried by the increasingly strained relations between the White House and the World Trade Organisation, the Democrats have shown to be in favour of the hard line on competition with Chinese goods and have agreed to approve the sanctions, tariffs and protectionist measures implemented against other states. By the same token, although they backed Obama on the Iranian nuclear agreement, the Democrats have hardly stood firm against Trump's decision to call the agreement off and in fact approved the new sanctions against Tehran levied in 2017. Now one can hardly expect the Democrats to worry about the deteriorating relations between the United States and the UN, seeing as the US' membership of the United Nations is not what are known as 'salient issues' for the electorate.

This said, the next two years will still not be a walk in the park for the President. The electoral result has brought about major changes in the Commissions of the House of Representatives. Trump's party has lost the presidency of important Commissions that now have fallen under Democratic control: these include Foreign Affairs, Supervision, Government Reform and Intelligence, and many more.

The three most important Commissions of the Lower House could even make life difficult for Trump in foreign affairs. Eliot Engel, the democrat elected by the State of New York has just taken office as President of the Foreign Affairs Commission and intends to shed light on whether the President's personal economic interests may have influenced the White House's decisions. The Commission will also open an investigation into the private meeting between Trump and Putin last year in Helsinki. No reports have been forthcoming as to what the two leaders discussed and after the announcement of the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, many believe the Kremlin has won out from a geostrategic point of view to an extent that is unacceptable to the American establishment. This situation has caused more friction in Congress. In search of more of the President's weak points, the Foreign Affairs Commission could look into the polls that were taken in 2018 involving American diplomats and officers appointed to international institutions to verify their loyalty to President Trump's political handbook. Other developments could be triggered by an advocacy action to stop the White House's support for Saudi military operations in Yemen.

The new President of the Intelligence Commission, Adam Schiff, has already opened a new investigation into the possibility that Trump's family or their holdings might have had contacts with representatives of the Kremlin, including business men close to Putin and Russian secret services. Elijah Cummings, head of the Supervisory Commission will instead carry out investigations on possible instances of corruption or crime by Trump's staff.

The activity of the Commissions could spring a few surprises on the President, but the outcome of the elections can't be considered a serious obstacle to his plans. Anyone hoping that the Democrats can actually stop Trump, are better advised to place their trust in the administration's bodies that work alongside the political system. A case in point here is the ongoing tussle between the White House and the Pentagon on the 'immediate' withdrawal of American troops from Syria that the President announced in a tweet in December. After the brouhaha that led to James Mattis handing in his letter of resignation, the President is still under pressure by the military top brass who don't want to see the results of their mission going to waste and are asking that the withdrawal of the troops from Syria be delayed for as long as possible. In other words, it's more likely that the so called 'specialists' manage to soften some of Trump's decisions than the Democrats managing to block the President's foreign policy.

Barring the unforeseen, it's hard to see how Democrats will be able to stop the mutation of American foreign policy.


This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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