US presidents and foreign policy: intelligent design or evolution?
After US President Donald Trump makes an important foreign-policy decision like his recent announcement that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, the tendency among pundits is to deconstruct the White House’s move and try to discover what it “means” or what the “logic” behind it is.
The conventional wisdom among political journalists and analysts is that this kind of foreign-policy decision is a direct result of long deliberations involving the president and his top national-security aides and that it is part of an effort to pursue a long-term national strategy.
Which explains why a few months after a new US president takes office and as he responds to international crises, the self-proclaimed experts in Washington and other world capitals start debating whether the new White House occupant has a foreign-policy “doctrine.”
Among other things, the tendency is to go through the president’s campaign speeches and foreign-policy addresses, to assess the views of his close advisers and to read their policy papers, such as the just-released US National Security Strategy document, and then explain why the White House’s decision made so much sense.
This approach to analyzing foreign-policy decisions applies to them an “intelligent design” model. The US president just didn’t wake up one morning and decide to drop an atomic bomb on Japan or to invade Iraq or, for that matter, to proclaim Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel.
There is no doubt the decision by president George W Bush to invade Iraq and oust its leader Saddam Hussein was part of a long-term strategy embraced by the White House and top Bush administration officials of remaking Iraq and the rest of the Arab Middle East, by advancing political freedom and engaging in nation building there. It was clearly part of a design, although to describe it as “intelligent” would not make a lot of sense in retrospect. And after the design proved to be a colossal disaster, the US president had to abandon it.
But at the same time, much of what happens in the foreign-policy arena under US presidents, including important decisions, amounts to ad hoc responses to outside events at home and abroad. They are driven by personal and political considerations, and lack a coherent design. They are in essence reactive and not deliberative and involve what we may describe as “muddling through,” an evolutionary process that results in outcomes that no one planned or expected.
Much of what happens in the foreign-policy arena under US presidents, including important decisions, amounts to ad hoc responses to outside events at home and abroad. They are driven by personal and political considerations, and lack a coherent design
From that perspective, the US military intervention in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s that came to be known as the Vietnam War was very much an outcome of that kind of evolutionary process under which four US presidents were drawn gradually, pressured by a successions of crises – and sometimes without any serious planning – into a regional military conflagration with enormous costs in lives and dollars to the American people, not to mention the costs to US diplomatic credibility. No president had designed the Vietnam War – but they all were sucked into it.
There is also very little correlation between what presidents set as their foreign-policy goals when they run for office and what they do after getting elected. Many assumed that president Bill Clinton would oversee geo-economic conflicts with Japan and China; instead, he is remembered for his drive to engage China and other emerging markets in the Pacific region economically.
Much of president Barack Obama’s grand designs – of accommodating the “winds of change” of the so-called Arab Spring, of the strategic pivot to Asia, of pursuing a diplomatic détente (restart) with Russia – failed to gain momentum and had to be put on hold.
Similarly, candidate Trump, who ran for office on an “America First” agenda, pledging to revoke the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports, and to reassess US commitment to its current security alliances, ended up reversing many of his campaign promises. Like his predecessors in office, he has been muddling through, zigzagging to here and to there, and making decisions that confound both his supporters and his critics, who are trying to make sense of his policies.
So President Trump plans to get rid of NAFTA and then ends up re-renegotiating it. Forget about those punitive tariffs on China. We need Beijing to help us with North Korea. And anyway, President Xi Jinping is really a nice guy. At least for now. Things can change.
One case in point was Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, just as he pledged to do during the presidential campaign and just as former presidents Obama and Clinton also did when they ran for office.
If you follow what media pundits have said about it, Trump has made a “historic” decision that will result in the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the end of a role of the US as an “honest broker” in future negotiations. A new Middle East war will ensue. And the End is Near.
But then Trump’s announcement made it clear that the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would not run contrary to current US policy that does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, and states that the final status of the city, including the Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy sites, would be determined in future negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
In fact, Trump stressed before signing the Jerusalem proclamation that it did not in any way reflect “a departure from our commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement” and rejected the idea that he would refer to Jerusalem as “the undivided” capital of Israel.
In short, there would not be any change in the current status quo of Jerusalem and the rest of the Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967. That this was the case was demonstrated by fact that the Americans were not planning to move their embassy to Jerusalem any time soon. Trump has already signed another waiver allowing him to postpone the action for another six months.We will survive!
So expect the media’s pundits to continue searching for Trump’s grand strategy and foreign-policy doctrines, for the intelligent design that supposedly drives his decisions, predicting some major changes in American policies. The disintegration of the international trade system? Nuking North Korea? War with Iran?
Much of what President Trump will decide may not make sense if you assume that he is intent on going to war with North Korea and Iran and igniting a global trade war and that everything will work according to the script.
In reality, instead of broad policy changes, expect incremental changes and a lot of policy experiments that might fail. When reality happens and bites, even the most intelligent designer occupying the White House has no choice but to evolve.