Foreign Policy Essay

Why Trump Won’t Be Able to Lead U.S. Foreign Policy—Even If He Tries

By Ronald R. Krebs
Sunday, April 9, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Trump's election and subsequent "malevolence tempered by incompetence" have frightened foreign-policy professionals and many concerned Americans. With all the focus on Trump, however, many have missed how the broader context of foreign policy-making has changed. Ron Krebs of the University of Minnesota argues that it is far harder for presidents to make foreign policy than in previous decades and that chaos and weakness are likely even in a post-Trump era.


Donald J. Trump has learned a lot in his first two months as president. Governing is hard and often frustrating work. Health care is “unbelievably complex.” Add to that list: It’s not easy being “leader of the free world.” Military operations go awry. Tweets and casual remarks spark unwelcome brouhahas. And forget about getting your foreign-policy team to speak with a single voice.

If Trump has learned that running a superpower’s foreign policy is hard, he doesn’t know the half of it—because he has not yet even tried to lead at home. So far, President Trump has continued to act like he did on the campaign trail; he has reveled in the politics of division and has shown little interest in building a supportive coalition. He has remained true to populist campaign form and spurned those corrupt Washington elites. He has returned, time and again, to his safe space: rallies with his adoring supporters.

But, as I recently argued in The National Interest, even a president with greater discipline and a thicker skin than Donald Trump would find foreign-policy leadership daunting today. Such leadership is the foundation for an effective and enduring foreign policy, but its two central tasks—fixing the narrative and mobilizing and maintaining a supportive coalition—have both gotten far more difficult over the last couple of decades thanks to three structural changes.

[Even] a president with greater discipline and a thicker skin than Donald Trump would find foreign-policy leadership daunting today.

First, ours is an “age of fracture.” In the past, Americans looked to the president to make sense of developments at home and abroad, and so presidents enjoyed special authority to articulate the national narrative on security, especially during times of crisis. This combination of moment and institutionalized authority was more important than rhetorical talent. Franklin Roosevelt, master of the Fireside Chats, was thus frustrated in the late 1930s by his inability to banish non-interventionism to the margins. Conversely, after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush, hardly a skilled orator, laid out a clear and simple narrative that became dominant. His administration’s framing of U.S. security challenges sidelined real alternatives to the War on Terror, set the boundaries of security debate for the next decade, and tilted the tables toward the Iraq War.

But Bush may have been the last president to enjoy this rhetorical advantage. For numerous reasons—ranging from growing geographic mobility to increased higher-educational opportunities to changing gender roles—traditional structures of authority have been under assault in the United States for decades. The political sphere, including the presidency, has not been immune. The bonds of national community are eroding, politics is increasingly polarized, and people’s social networks are increasingly politically and ideologically homogeneous. An ever-expanding array of entertainment and news—thanks first to cable television and then to the internet—has been reinforcing and accelerating these trends. As a result, presidents’ claims to authority hold less sway today. They can no longer count on having the national rostrum to themselves, and countless speakers vie for public attention and approval. The public sphere consequently often seems like a chaotic marketplace.

Second, politics today increasingly takes place not just within nations, but between them, in a transnational space occupied by diverse publics including corporations, non-governmental organizations, and activists. Setting a common ground for debate can be hard enough at home—just ask Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, who in vain sought to persuade Americans that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua posed a vital threat to the nation’s security. It is that much harder when attentive audiences are located both within and beyond national borders. As leaders make their case to diverse audiences, in diverse ways, they are especially vulnerable to damaging charges of hypocrisy.

Finally, the revolution in information and communications technologies has made forging and managing a coalition harder than ever. To marshal elite support and limit open opposition, presidents used to threaten punishment, offer sweeteners or limited policy concessions, and manage information flows. But, today, secrets do not remain secret for long, and as a result presidents are cautious about unsavory and undemocratic methods of coalition management. Fearing exposure in Wikileaks-style revelations, politicians are even reluctant to engage in horse-trading, which can grease the wheels of coalitional politics. It is no wonder that Barack Obama went further than his predecessors in waging war on leaks and on the journalists who publicize them.

With authority fractured, the president no longer serves as the nation’s narrator-in-chief.

These three factors have combined to make foreign policy leadership, as we have long known it, nearly impossible. With authority fractured, the president no longer serves as the nation’s narrator-in-chief. And so presidents have shied away from sweeping narratives and turned to other rhetorical modes. Though justifiably famous for his oratory, Obama was the epitome of rhetorical restraint when it came to foreign policy. He may be best remembered for “don’t do stupid stuff”—or its saltier version. His many critics, including frustrated supporters, saw this a flaw of temperament or judgment. But Obama’s instrumental rhetoric was a reflection as much of his circumstances as of his persona.

Presidents once sought to craft broad, enduring foreign policy coalitions—think the Cold War consensus—but in a world of fragmented authority, presidents instead try to create narrow coalitions of convenience behind particular policy proposals. The domestic politics of foreign policy today thus call for pragmatism. Some say that the world has become too complex and fast-changing for any single, grand strategic concept. If that is true, then good politics also makes today for good policy. The Obama administration adopted precisely such a pragmatic approach in mobilizing support for its diverse range of initiatives that seemed to partake of no orthodoxy. This is why Obama told The New Yorker, “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now.”

These structural changes seem to be here to stay. It’s hard to envision the conditions that would suddenly renew traditional authority claims, render politics less polarized, reverse the transnationalization of politics, or put the internet genie back in its bottle. In fact, these forces helped give rise to Donald Trump, and he bolstered them throughout the campaign. Since the election, Trump has notably deepened political polarization, discredited expertise, and undermined the very notion of truth by spewing invective, casting blame on the military and the intelligence professionals, dismissing the bureaucracy, demonizing the media and his opponents, and spreading unfounded accusations. Although candidate Trump welcomed disclosures that harmed his opponent, President Trump has condemned such leaks, but also has not succeeded in stemming the tide—just the opposite. And while Trump the globalization skeptic and nationalist has seemed impervious to global opinion, even he could not ignore the reality of transnational audiences, and so he has dispatched his Cabinet secretaries and vice president to calm the international waters he roiled.

The more these pressures endure, the greater the need for pragmatism in foreign policy—and the greater the need for informed decision-making, good judgment, and reasoned deliberation about specific policy challenges. This does not seem to be the style of President Donald J. Trump—in which case, ignore my advice that we “pity the president” who is condemned to be unappreciated as a leader. Instead, pity us.