Much was said about the powerful role Vice President-elect Mike Pence could be expected to play in the Trump administration well before he was named to head the transition team. Pundits have been flashing back to July, when, during vice presidency discussions with a senior adviser to John Kasich, Trump’s son allegedly promised that Trump’s VP pick would take charge of domestic and foreign policy while Trump focused on “making America great again” (an incident that Donald Jr. denies).
But let’s be more specific. There is good reason to believe Pence will have a major hand, if not the helm, in shaping the Trump administration’s foreign policy and national security strategy—and not just when it comes to selecting cabinet members and managing the new administration’s relationship with Congress. Yes, notwithstanding his sustained efforts to project the contrary, Pence’s experience in this arena is thin—he served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee for just short of a decade and, from his perch in the Indiana governor’s mansion, used speeches and state trade missions to destinations like Israel and Japan as opportunities to stake out foreign policy positions. But that limited experience is nonetheless quite rich compared to that of his boss. And all that may matter, at the end of the day, is that Pence, a supposed hawk's hawk, has demonstrated an abiding interest in foreign policy and defense issues—an interest that helps explain his readiness to contradict Trump on these matters on the campaign trail.
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If Trump proves uninterested in the daily grind of security decision-making, we can expect that Pence will enthusiastically step up to the plate. This could fundamentally change what experts are expecting from the new administration on issues like Russia in particular and Trump’s asserted inclination toward isolationism in general—and on a host of security issues that the press never got around to deeply prodding Trump about pre-election, like surveillance. Let’s kick off what needs to be a serious discussion by considering a few of these issues in turn.
Those looking to see just how big a role Pence will play in shaping Trump’s national security policy should probably use the administration’s approach to Russia as the single most significant bellwether. If Trump does a U-turn with respect to his friendly overtures to Putin, that would be a signal of major Pence influence.
Because Pence is obviously no fan of Moscow. This is a fact that pundits seized on during the campaign, but mostly as evidence of inconsistency and lack of coordination on the ticket; notably, Pence broke with Trump on the question of whether there was sufficient evidence implicating Russia in the DNC hacks.
The key point, though, is that all of Pence’s statements were consistent with a long-held position on his part that is unlikely to change—a traditional conservative hard line against Russian aggression. Pence’s personal distaste for Putin was on full display during the vice presidential debate; he twice referred to Putin as “the small and bullying leader of Russia” and derided his “crony, corrupt capitalist system” as far inferior to the American political system. But more significant in that debate was how little Pence did to avoid the topic, instead repeatedly taking shots at Russia. When asked about what America should do about Syria, he criticized the Obama administration for getting pushed around by Russia and compared it to the failure of the administration’s Russian reset and Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine. Pence made clear “that the provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength” and condemned its “barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo.” He warned of the close working relationship developing between Russia and Iran. And he rounded things out with a position he has championed for several years, that of building a European missile defense shield to ward off Russian aggression in the region.
None of this sounds anything like Trump, which forces us to critically consider the significance of the supposed Kasich offer in a Trump-Pence administration: Will Pence be running foreign (and domestic) policy while Trump busies himself making America great again? Or will the administration's decisions reflect the campaign views of the candidate?
One note in all this: I am not suggesting Pence’s knowledge runs deep on the select positions he has espoused. That's unclear. During the vice presidential debate, for example, he repeated his years-old criticism of the Obama administration for abandoning plans for an antiballistic missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland back in 2009 and stated that we ought to reverse course. He did so without commenting on or indicating awareness of the United States’ definitive moves to support a NATO-centric variation of the plan, involving a different technology with a different focus: the Aegis BMD system, capable of dealing with short- and intermediate-range missile threats from Iran, and based in Romania (site activated this year) and Poland (ground broken this year).
Russia corollaries: NATO and Syria
Pence’s pre-existing position on Russia and support for the Bush-era European missile defense shield made his NATO remarks on the campaign trail completely unsurprising: he declared that the United States would “absolutely” defend its allies under Trump and uphold its treaty obligations, even while Trump himself spoke dismissively of partners unwilling to make good on their financial obligations.
Trump and Pence’s disagreement on Syria, too, is an extension of Pence’s strongly stated position on Russia. This particular point of friction has been well-documented by the press, largely thanks to Trump’s expression of point-blank disagreement with his running mate during the second presidential debate. But the disagreement may be more superficial than it appears: Trump doesn’t appear to strongly oppose establishing safe zones in Syria, a measure Pence has explicitly supported, and when it was pointed out to Trump during the debate that his own running mate believed the United States should be prepared to use military force against Syrian forces, and against Russian forces to the extent Russia continues to be involved in airstrikes, Trump rejected Pence’s position but also admitted that “[h]e and I haven't spoken” about it. Again, the press made much of the conflict, but given the lack of substantive content in Trump’s statements on Syria even in follow-up interviews, it’s hard to say whether there will prove to be much daylight between the two and, if so, whose position will prevail in the form of policy.
We know that Trump “err[s] on the side of security” when it comes to surveillance. On this, he will find absolutely no pushback from Pence. While in the House, Pence consistently voted to preserve or enlarge the government’s surveillance powers at home and abroad—not just in favor of the Protect America Act of 2007 (amending FISA to legalize a form of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 warrantless surveillance program, i.e., removing the warrant requirement for surveillance of foreign intelligence targets reasonably believed to be located outside the country even if the communications involve U.S.-based senders or recipients) but also on a slew of never-enacted House measures ringing a single theme: the need to accommodate and defer to executive reach in the intelligence domain. More generally, Pence’s House voting record indicates a resolute stance against anything that could be perceived as weakening America in its fight against terrorism, be it closing Guantanamo (which he lambasted as “irresponsible public policy") or a shrinking military.
This catchall—the universe of things that could potentially weaken America—apparently includes rhetoric. An episode that offers a small window into not just Pence's substance but Pence's style: a decade ago, during a highly charged House Judiciary Committee hearing on reauthorization of the Patriot Act (Chairman Sensenbrenner eventually walked out), when representatives of Amnesty International described Guantanamo as the “Gulag of our times,” Pence accused the organization of “anti-historical, irresponsible rhetoric” that endangers U.S. lives and demanded a retraction. He used the opportunity to then launch into an extended history lesson on the horrors of the Gulag, which he emphatically described as a Soviet invention, and he insisted it makes no sense to talk about American Gulags when it’s really North Korea that is the “bona-fide Soviet state.” The bit is odd in its trajectory but consistent with Pence’s general inclination to assert the conservative establishment position whenever an opening appears.
In short, it's clear that, pre-election, Trump and Pence differed dramatically on major planks of Trump’s foreign policy platform—and that these differences seem to boil down to fundamentally different conceptions of America’s rightful role in the world. But whether the disagreement comes to anything now will turn on whether Trump’s stated positions were, in fact, bluster borrowed for purposes of cultivating an authoritative, know-something posture during the campaign, or if they represent genuine convictions on which he means to run his presidency. If they turn out to be the former, we will need to pivot from a literal or philosophical interpretation of Trump’s campaign promises to a close examination of Pence’s.