The Trump Administration Will be Hawkish

November 18, 2016

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Donald Trump’s presidential transition is in transition. With Chris Christie and Mike Rogers out, Trump loyalists bickering with Republican establishment types, a purge of lobbyists,and a president-elect known for helter-skelter management, the incoming administration’s policy direction remains unclear. That’s especially true of foreign policy, the area where candidate Trump was most at odds with GOP orthodoxy.

That said, I predict, in contrast with many in Washington, that Trump’s presidency will prove conventionally hawkish. Trump is likely to jettison his vaguely non-interventionist campaign rhetoric, make nice with allies, and maintain tense relations with Russia and China. He’ll support the current wars and may start more.

That outcome would be a relief to Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which fears Trump’s isolationist tendencies and largely supported Hillary Clinton. But anyone hoping for a more restrained and peaceful foreign policy should be worried by an interventionist President Trump with the weight of U.S. military power behind him.

Trump inherits U.S. wars that span seven foreign nations and powers to start new ones at his discretion. He’ll command military forces committed by treaty to defend more than 50 nations, which requires threatening war on their behalf. Contrary to Trump’s claims that U.S. armed forces are a “disaster” and in “shambles,” they remain far superior to all others and capable of quickly delivering mass destruction virtually anywhere.

Trump’s lack of experience in public office, ignorance about foreign policy, and penchant for shifting positions makes it tough to predict how he’ll manage these responsibilities. But his personality, positions, and the politics he’ll face as president-elect give reasons to doubt that his administration will take an isolationist turn away from wars and allies.

Trump is known for his self-regard, impulsiveness, vindictiveness, and sensitivity to slight. That doesn’t mean he’ll treat international relations like a celebrity Twitter spat or that he would really bomb Iran because its sailors made rude gestures at ours. But Trump’s personality hardly inspires confidence that he’ll soberly navigate crises and separate the national interest from personal pique.

Nor did Trump take reliably non-interventionist positions as a candidate. Yes, he attacked Republican rivals and Hillary Clinton for supporting the Iraq and Libya wars. But Trump only opposes past wars. When those wars began, Trump was a cheerleader. He criticized nation-building but praised the Iraq surge, and suggested plundering Iraq’s oil. He sensibly criticized Clinton for wanting to depose Bashar al-Assad in Syria but supports heavier bombing.

Trump’s election also boosts the odds of war with Iran. Like most Republicans, Trump says we should withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. That would likely further destabilize the region and put Iran back on the path to building nuclear weapons. Most Congressional Republicans would then likely advocate bombing. Trump hasn’t explicitly agreed, but his rhetoric isn’t reassuring.

Trump’s views on allies are also friendlier than they initially appear. Musing about exiting the NATO treaty or Asian alliances is certainly at odds with modern foreign policy conventions. But Trump seems to view such talk as a way to get more from allies. He essentially argued in the final debate that unconditional support for allies leaves you without leverage over them. Trump also seems likely to accept minor increases in allied efforts. His false claim that NATO changed counterterrorism policies because of his critique is suggestive. He may be less interested in  squeezing the maximum out of allies than in shows of deference and praise for his deal-making prowess.

But what sort of hawk will President Trump be? One possibility is the Republican establishment socializes Trump. That wouldn’t affect Trump’s stances on Iran and ISIL but would mean getting tougher, not friendlier, with Russia and China, while keeping current alliance commitments. The other possibility is that Trump remains at odds with the establishment and sets a Jacksonian course. That means hostility to international cooperation, including alliance commitments, pragmatic dealings with big rivals, and willingness to attack weaker states and Islamist insurgents.

The second possibility sounds more like the guy we saw during the campaign. Still, I bet that the power of the status quo will make Trump into more of an establishment hawk. Keep in mind that something similar occurred with Presidents Bush and Obama. As a candidate, George W. Bush was skeptical about nation-building. After the September 11 attacks generated broad support for wars and subsequent nation-building efforts, he became their champion. Obama campaigned on his opposition to the Iraq War before retaining most of Bush’s security policies, including the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, while expanding the war in Afghanistan and drone strikes. Though Obama became a critic of the foreign policy establishment’s “playbook,” he struggled to escape its conventions.

Three factors constrain presidents from ditching established foreign policy. The first is the continuous nature of policy. Policies outlast those that make them. So do the agencies that execute policies. Diplomats, military officers, and civil servants ensure that commitments endure. With concerted effort, presidents can buck the bureaucracy, but that takes focus that Trump seems to lack. His disinterest in policy detail and inexperience suggest that he’ll manage loosely and rely on aides.

Appointees to foreign policy posts are a second constraint. With limited time and thousands of spots to fill, presidents naturally turn to the foreign policy establishment housed in think tanks, law firms, and consultancies. These experts,  who are highly interventionist and pro- alliance, regardless of party, gain considerable sway, especially when the president is inexperienced and focused elsewhere. Trump increasingly relied on Washington insiders as his campaign advanced. His defense proposals reflect that. It would be difficult for Trump to find enough non-interventionist experts to fill key security posts, if he were inclined to try. And if rumors about likely appointees are even part right, he isn’t. No one among Rudy Giuliani, Michael Mukasey, Jeff Sessions, Duncan Hunter, Jim Talent, and John Bolton seems likely to favor a turn away from military interventions and alliance commitments.

Finally, there’s Congress, whose members naturally defend policies that they helped make. Ideally, Trump’s election would alarm legislators into constraining his war-making powers. But the Republican majority didn’t do that even with a Democratic president fond of unauthorized bombing campaigns. They instead criticized his passivity. The incoming Congress will press Trump to maintain present alliances and wars, or worse.

Public opinion is a potentially countervailing factor. The American electorate is consistently more skeptical of wars and military hegemony than elites, and its appetite for war remains limited. Still, the public, including Trump voters, is supportive of allies and aggressive efforts to combat ISIL. Moreover, security issues typically lack electoral importance because their direct consequences for voters are limited. Leaders can usually buck public opinion without losing votes. Public opinion then constrains Trump’s hawkish moves only if he anticipates high costs.

U.S. institutions — the Electoral College and an increasingly unconstrained presidency — have produced exceptional danger. Unparalleled powers of destruction will soon pass to a novice politician famous for impetuousness, vengefulness, grandiosity, ignorance of policy basics, and contempt for intrusive facts. His rhetoric about wars during the campaign was flippant and bellicose. Checking presidential war powers should now be a bipartisan fixation. But by adopting more conventionally-hawkish views and placating Republican leaders, Trump may avoid restraint.


Benjamin H. Friedman is a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies at the Cato Institute.

Image: Max Goldberg

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9 thoughts on “The Trump Administration Will be Hawkish

  1. Comparison is needed to understand the level of Hawkish-ness in a Trump administration. First, an anecdote, my father, a longtime liberal democrat informed me of his concerns that Trump would “get us into a war in Syria”? We already at war in Syria, an air war, with an air and ground war in N. Iraq. This occurred under President Obama and would certainly have continued under a President H. Clinton. So the real concern is a “new” war somewhere else. China? Not likely, say what you want about Trump…but he is, as Dickens might have written, a “man of business”, and war with China would be bad for business. Russia? I think we know which party was more bellicose on the issue of Russia. Iran? We have been at war with Iran since 1979, although the nuclear deal simmered that conflict down a bit, just like Bill Clinton’s agreed framework did in 1994 with North Korea, so how has that worked out?
    This is my long-winded way of saying that Trump’s presumed “hawkish-ness” looks distinctly less hawkish than that of Hillary Clinton, who after all was guns a blazin’ for a war in Libya (which she got and which has not turned out well) and Syria.
    I am going to wait and see how the dynamics works out here. Presidents get to decide policy and I think his pick for SECDEF will tell us much about how much “war” he intends to either start or limit, or, let us hope, discontinue. I for one predict he will finally get us out of Afghanistan for purely business reasons and the budget.

    But predictions are just that, barely worth the electrons it took to make them, whether one is well published pundit, academic, or both.
    John T. Kuehn, Ph.D., CDR USN (retired)

  2. To maintain an army at a distance causes the people to be impoverished.
    -SUN TZU

    Donald Trump is a businessman, not a cultural zealot intent upon pushing American values on the entire world. A fifteen year war is idiotic – especially in a place as inhospitable to Western values as Afghanistan. I believe Trump knows this. It is far cheaper to level the place quickly, move out, and let the occupants spend the next couple generations rebuilding than it is to occupy the country and waste your own blood and treasure winning their hearts and minds.

    And I’m certain he realizes that allies who refuse to pay their fair share of an alliance are no allies at all, merely a liability. Of course, that’s not unique to Trump. To my certain knowledge US Presidents have been complaining about our NATO allies underfunding their promised defense budgets since Carter, and very likely before that. But Trump strikes me as someone who will not listen to the blubbering entreaties from the US State Department who wish to buy friends worldwide. Friends who want things from you and don’t want to do their fair share.

  3. Reading this article I didn’t get if Trump being “pushed” to be hawkish by the sole nature of the presidency and washington is a good thing for the author or not. The only way Trump was elected was because he throw Bush and his legacy under the bus + adopted left leaning policies on trade. If the idea is to take Bush jr as a “good” example of a president changing his opinion on nation building, I’m pretty scared. I think some ppl, mostly GOP establishment, didn’t really get why Trump was elected. They should read the last Banon interview. He’ll govern as a national populist and yes, an isolationist CLOSE TO RUSSIA. It may be difficult to swallow, but with all the dirt Putin & Assange must have collected on him & his campaign as leverage, thats what he’ll do.

  4. Everyone seems to be frantically grasping at straws attempting to find some possible reason for optimism about Trump’s Presidency. That is not our future people. It will as bad as most of us imagine. Things never get so bad that they cannot get worse. We might as well have a 15 year old testosterone crazed teenager as our President. Yep, it is that bad.

    1. Exactly ! As an European, I could laugh at that and tell you that in a way, america deserve him. But sadly, with Putin and the middle east in crisis, its no laughing matters. It will impact millions of refugees, immigrants, “dreamers”… And it will impact us in western Europe. We tend to be tough and critical on the US, but we held them and their democratic process at high standards. The question is : who will be the leader of the free world ? I think its gonna be between France and Germany, hopefully an alliance between Juppé/Macron and Merkel or her successor. We already did without the US in Mali & Sahel. I hope europe funds a more powerfull army and lead the western world. Its our turn to be brave.

      1. France and Germany? Leaders of the free world? Are you trying to be funny in some sort of twisted way? Europe is still living off the back of the U.S. and will continue to do so. Merkel is on thin ice politically and France is ….well France. Those two will not be the powerhouses beyond a disunited Europe and Europe will not be able to stand up to Russia because it will never have the backbone.

      2. If you think the U.S. democratic process didn’t work this time, then you don’t really understand it. One of the great things about the U.S. is that any natural-born U.S. citizen 37 years or older is qualified to be elected president…and one of the really awful things is that any natural-born U.S. citizen 37 years or older is qualified to be elected president…. The Constitution gives citizens the right to collectively make bad decisions, while structuring the government to survive them. The next two years (until the next Congressional elections) will be turbulent, and the two years beyond that not much better, but we’ll survive them. Hopefully the U.S. political establishment will come up with some real candidates next time, instead of trying to perpetuate machine politics.

        If you believe Europe is immune to the dynamics, you’ve not been paying attention. Much of Europe, including France and Germany, is struggling to contain the same sort of backlash. The EU and its members will have its hands full merely preventing further disintegration through the rest of this decade, let alone trying to strengthen its political and military influence outside of existing post-colonial spheres.

        More than ever, though, I wish Steven Colbert had kept his own show instead of moving to late night TV.

    2. Finally a voice of reality. Gotta love all the Trump supporters and Republicans whistling past the graveyard on a Trump Administration. It will be Amateur Hour — The 4 Year Horror Movie. Run by the hacks from the B- Team and below. China and Russia have already done much better oppo research on every aspect of Trump’s life than the Dems did and they will be willing to use it to embarass and provoke Cinammon Hitler. The white draft dodger cannot wait to play Global Stratego with other people’s money and children

  5. I thoroughly disagree with this. This is nothing more than someone’s unsupported conjecture. When he lays out the possibilities as to the direction Trump and says something like “Still, I bet that the power of the status quo will make Trump into more of an establishment hawk.”

    You bet? I bet he will follow the advise of his National Security Advisor who has rightly called the Iraq War a big mistake and said the lessons we learned from removing Hussein should be brought to Syria which he says should not be invaded for the same reasons.

    This is just an attempt to insult Trump by saying in essence “Trump is too dumb to think for himself and he ddnt mean what he said, after all look at what happened to Bush”

    Nice try.