The Center Cannot Hold: Continuity and Change in Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy


As we look towards the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s election, something momentous is happening to America’s relationship with the world. Or is it? Are we in a moment of continuity or change in American foreign policy? The administration’s politics and policies inflame an impassioned debate on this question – scholars, pundits, and wonks remain divided. One broad camp argues that Trump has set U.S. foreign policy on a radically different, even revisionist, course that is likely to rock the foundations of the postwar liberal international system. The other calls foul, contending that despite its boisterous disorganization, the administration’s playbook and agenda are largely traditionalist. Notably, the continuity-change debate is not political partisanship as usual. Conservatives seem to disagree with themselves about Trump at least as much as with liberals.

We reviewed 90 widely discussed essays and articles on the 45th president’s approach to the world written over the last year, and found that many members of the commentariat have not so much fired upon as drifted past one another, often latching onto narrow aspects of the new administration’s approach while making sweeping judgments about its strategic vices and virtues. This is because commentators commonly disagree over five elements of foreign policy analysis that often determine a priori their positions in the continuity-change debate. Our goal is to identify these elements, consider how they interact with one another, and lay the groundwork for more complete, rigorous analysis of both how the Trump administration is changing America’s relationship with the world and what it means for international security. This helps organize the earlier analyses and make sense of why so many commentators can live in the same world yet draw such different conclusions about the trajectory of American foreign policy. Most importantly, it offers a framework for adjudicating arguments in the policy debates of the future.

Element 1: Timescale

Commentators are divided over what historical scope to use in assessing the current administration. Some juxtapose Trump and his team with their immediate predecessors, others contextualize them within the post-World War II era, and an ambitious few consider them alongside the entire history of the United States. Where analysts lie on this temporal spectrum informs whether they view Trump as an agent of continuity or change. Longer timescales increase the salience of institutions and grand strategy, and those who adopt them, like Walter Russell Mead, tend to see Trump as sharply divergent with at least the post-World War II foreign policy consensus in the United States. No such consensus exists among those embracing shorter timescales. Some emphasize continuity, highlighting things like generally similar approaches to terrorism across the Trump and Obama administrations, some radical divergence, especially in areas like climate change, and others, including Ian Bremmer, a kind of muddy middle ground. These disagreements are largely attributable to how other elements of foreign policy, including personnel, process, and rhetoric, are understood over shorter timeframes.

Analysts also disagree over how much influence a president exerts over American foreign policy in a given time period. There are three schools of thought on this debate. Students of the first focus on the president’s nearly unchecked ability to make rapid changes to certain aspects of foreign policy. Most of these writers, including historian Alfred W. McCoy, focus on hot-button issues like withdrawal from international trade and climate deals and see the new administration as breaking radically from the past. The second school is more sensitive to executive fiats with the potential to constrain American foreign policy in the present and into the future. Its members include those focused on the administration’s decision to curtail Foreign Service Officer hiring at the State Department and leave some senior positions vacant in Foggy Bottom. The third school laments institutional meddling that may have long-term effects on American foreign policy, including issues like defense budget increases and alliance management, even if their short-term effects are debatable. Small changes today to path dependent processes may induce huge deviations in the future. For example, Hal Brands and Colin Kahl make the characteristic argument that Trump’s approach to the world — resting on economic nationalism, extreme homeland security, amoral transactionalism, and aloof militarism — may undermine American leadership in the international system over time. Elizabeth Saunders similarly describes a Potemkin-like approach to foreign policy that slowly erodes the pillars of American power.

A related debate concerns whether presidents actually can change American foreign policy during their limited time in office. Social scientists and historians will recognize this as a form of the agent-structure debate. For example, Stephen Sestanovich claims that Trump rode the latest manifestation of a cyclical debate over America’s global role into the White House and therefore has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform America’s conceptual and practical approach to foreign policy. Frank Gavin and Joseph Nye independently argue that although institutional and structural constraints may generally prevent presidents from striking out in new foreign policy directions, some White House occupants can find themselves in power during special moments in history when great change is possible. Trump may or may not be in such a moment. David Bell sees in Trump a person who transcends, rather than exploits, institutional and structural forces. In contrast, Peter Dombrowski and Simon Reich argue that the Trump administration probably cannot have a grand strategy even if it wants one, not because of incompetence or inexperience, but as a result of operational constraints, the national security bureaucracy, and a rapidly changing international environment.

Element 2: Uncertainty

Many writers are concerned with a second element: the role of uncertainty in foreign policymaking. Their analyses focus especially on the president’s mercurial decision-making process. One essentially universal point of agreement is that the president’s rhetoric makes it more difficult for friends and rivals to predict the United States’ future actions. Most argue a fortiori that the administration is therefore fundamentally changing America’s foreign policy. The question becomes, what is the nature of this change?

Most analysts posit that Trump’s penchant for generating uncertainty brings danger. These concerned writers maintain that increased ambiguity over the United States’ intentions, credibility, prestige, soft power, compellent power, and basic competence, will increase the likelihood of miscommunication and preventable conflict. Jeffrey Smith and Kenneth Yalowitz worry about how allies and competitors perceive the president’s “tendency to shoot from the hip.” Vipin Narang and Ankit Panda argue that Trump’s diatribes may undermine extended deterrence guarantees or trigger a spiral of nuclear escalation with North Korea. Meanwhile, Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky predict that Trump’s fixation on disrupting Obama-era policies like the Iran nuclear accord will leave a power vacuum that undermines U.S. credibility and influence abroad. If the maintenance of interstate alliances requires a degree of common certainty about members’ credibility, intentions, and capabilities, then regardless of the administration’s actual intent, Trump’s instinctive suspicion of NATO and longstanding esteem for Vladimir Putin inject uncertainty into transatlantic relations. Finally, some observers like Krishnadev Calamur and Fred Kaplan argue that pervasive uncertainty surrounding the president’s intentions also makes it more difficult for Trump administration officials to successfully execute foreign policy.

Not everyone is worried about the new uncertainty in American foreign policy. David Gordon and Michael E. O’Hanlon, for example, have claimed that these fears are overwrought or premature. Meanwhile, Trump’s cultivation of ambiguity in foreign affairs is held up by a minority of the commentariat as a source of opportunity. A number of analysts, like Leon Hadar, contend that Trump’s improvisational bluffing represents a new version of Richard Nixon’s “madman” theory — a sagacious means of leveraging irrationality to achieve policy objectives. After all, the argument goes, adversaries from Caracas to Pyongyang must determine the difference between presidential bluster and American policy lest their actions provoke a barrage of cruise missiles rather than tweets. If adversaries are unsure of how the United States will respond in a crisis, they may refrain from rolling the iron dice. Likewise, if NATO allies perceive waning American commitment, they may take more responsibility for their own defense and thereby strengthen the alliance. Trump’s call for the United States to “be more unpredictable” could therefore be viewed as a boon rather than as a liability.

Element 3: Personnel and Process

American foreign policy is rooted in the White House, but is also developed and implemented by a complex web of personnel and processes spread across government. In constituent agencies and departments, leaders establish ways of doing business and prioritize resources to realize a specific vision while employees often have surprising latitude to detail and execute policy. In this area, the commentariat has been quick to describe core individuals on Trump’s senior foreign policy team as capable “adults in the room,” especially Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. This feature of continuity in American foreign policy may be especially comforting since research suggests inexperienced presidents like Trump are especially reliant on their professional subordinates making decisions.

Still, many analysts are concerned the Trump administration is fundamentally changing American foreign policy through other aspects of personnel management. These range from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s disengagement and apparent marginalization from the policy process to the appointment of many former military officers to senior civilian positions, a development Eliot Cohen contends continues the “decay of American civil-military relations.” Likewise, the new administration has neglected to hire many important second and third string leadership, including in the departments of State and Defense, while simultaneously gutting programs designed to recruit talented junior staffers in order to slash the workforce. If talented and motivated personnel at all levels are essential to developing and implementing strategy, many — like David Ignatius — argue the Trump administration is stuck in a self-inflicted foreign policy paralysis.

Others see the processes that generate and implement foreign policies as themselves significant. Those optimistic about the current administration’s foreign policy process point to the Afghanistan strategy review and the disciplined approach to policymaking that McMaster and Chief of Staff John Kelly are struggling to force upon the White House. Pessimists, like Micah Zenko and Rebecca Friedman Lissner, argue that the president’s ignorance about international politics and preference for “tactical transactionalism” render the administration devoid of any policy process yielding a coherent strategy. The central role of the White House in conducting U.S. foreign policy, especially given the president’s distaste for State Department careerists, may bode poorly for developing holistic approaches to particular challenges. Additionally, it is one thing to have subject expertise in the National Security Council staff, but those individuals — regardless of their talents — have limited bandwidth for developing forward-looking policies. If the Trump administration does not staff departments and agencies with personnel who understand the interagency, there is reason to question the effectiveness and responsiveness of U.S. policymaking. Julia Azari goes so far as to argue that Trump’s approach to policymaking and executive branch staffing characterizes him as a “normal 19th century president; the issue is that he’s serving in the 21st century.”

Element 4: Rhetoric and Praxis                                             

A set of related disagreements centers on the degree to which American foreign policy rests on formal versus informal institutions, ranging from presidential rhetoric and unwritten rules to statutory authorities and official policy documents. Virtually everyone acknowledges that Trump’s inarticulate rhetoric diverges from that of previous presidents in both style and substance. However, commentators disagree over whether the president’s words speak louder than his administration’s actions. Many of those who argue that rhetoric matters in foreign policy, a stance associated with concerns over America’s credibility and reputation abroad, fear that the bellicose and zero-sum language Trump uses to discuss America’s role in the world undermines longstanding objectives of U.S. foreign policy. Some, like Derek Chollet and Julie Smith, are especially concerned that the president’s bluster, coy stance regarding international institutions, and telegraphed budgetary preferences might undermine U.S.-led alliance networks. Others, notably Matthew Kroenig, argue that the president has actually espoused largely mainstream views, and any rhetoric striking out in new directions is often targeted at issues, like transatlantic burden sharing and Chinese mercantilism, where American foreign policy should change.

Those who argue that praxis is more important than rhetoric are also divided. Some, like James Jay Carafano, see a great deal of continuity, arguing that Trump has embraced a conventional and consistent foreign policy rooted in a clear understanding of American interests and a persistent but not overextended international presence. Ted Bromund, Michael Auslin, and Colin Dueck contend that the Trump administration represents an opportunity to recover traditional American realism; Leon Hadar and Gerald F. Seib see Trump as a practitioner of classic realpolitik. Others, like David French, argue that Trump has changed the tone, but not the substance, of American foreign policy. Such analysis often observe that the United States continues to defend Europe with American troops, has not substantially modified Obama’s Syria and Afghanistan policies, and is learning to accommodate a rising China. In contrast, a majority of commentators worry that those aspects of American foreign policy that have changed are bellwethers portending more extreme transformations to come. Felicity Vabulas points to a troubling pattern: Alongside his fiery rhetoric Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, withdrew from UNESCO, and undermined the Iranian nuclear deal. Collectively, these concrete actions portend a full-scale rejection of what little remains of the post-Cold War bipartisan policy consensus and diminish American leadership and credibility abroad.

Element 5: Strategy and Crisis Management

More than 50 years ago, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reflected on the Cuban Missile Crisis and quipped that “there is no longer any such thing as strategy, there is only crisis management.” As the Trump administration confronts wicked strategic puzzles ranging from Venezuela to North Korea, analysts question how the administration will respond to its own unexpected disasters or opportunities. This level of concern interacts with, and complicates, the other four elements of foreign policy analysis. Crises can place intense time pressure on decision-making, force leaders to operate in extreme information vacuums, strain policy processes and staff, and demand skilled rhetorical responses. Because of the structure of the American government, emergencies normally amplify presidential authority, and as a result, the country’s foreign policy might prove especially malleable at such times. Some analysts are sanguine on this count and argue that even in the most heated moments the president’s staff and the institutions making up the American foreign policy establishment will curtail dramatically disastrous outcomes. However, many now question the president’s temperament and capacity to manage crises. Stephen Walt goes so far as to compare Trump with Kaiser Wilhelm II — a man considered such a loose cannon that his own government kept him away from Berlin during the July Crisis that led to World War I. For those who share Walt’s concern, like Sen. Bob Corker, Trump’s recklessness is paving “the path to World War III.”

Change is at Hand

The United States maintains an advantage over all other states in the reserves of intellectual capital and subject expertise it can mobilize to solve international problems. However, ideas must compete with one another in the marketplace of public discourse. The five elements we outline provide a framework for examining conflicting claims about American foreign policy under the Trump administration. We hope they serve as guideposts for those who don’t know whether to buy or sell in the continuity-change debate. Where analysts ultimately stand in this debate depends on which elements they preference and how these elements interact.

When we consider these elements collectively, we fall decisively on the side of change. The uncertainty injected into the U.S. foreign policy system by President Trump’s incessant tweets and off-the-cuff remarks really is altering America’s relationship with the world. Pervasive uncertainty is dangerous for all the reasons outlined above. We also see frightening disjunctions with past American foreign policy aggravated by the atrophying State Department and its hamstrung secretary. The combination of increased uncertainty and incomplete staffing will only exacerbate the escalatory risks of future crises. Finally, we worry that as Trump’s popularity erodes, political pandering will become a more salient driver of his foreign policy. Presidents under extreme domestic pressure, like Richard Nixon, have historically viewed achievements abroad as a means of shoring up popularity at home. If political backlash imperils the remainder of the administration’s agenda, Trump could look abroad to appease his constituents and reassert his authority. If so, we fear things may fall apart.


James Benkowski is a PhD student in international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Bradley Potter is a PhD candidate in international relations at Johns Hopkins, SAIS and a predoctoral research fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Image: White House/D. Myles Cullen