Donald Trump’s stunning win has made many wonder: Just how dangerous could a Trump foreign policy be? There are plenty of reasons to be afraid, very afraid.
Trump knows almost nothing about national security but says his own top adviser would be himself. He has said he might use nuclear weapons against the Islamic State and would abandon the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and our Asia-Pacific allies unless they paid more — as though alliances are a two-bit mafia protection racket rather than an enduring source of American power projection across the globe. He doesn’t know what the U.S. nuclear triad is (it’s the cornerstone of our deterrence against total nuclear war), and he doesn’t care that he doesn’t know.
He dismisses U.S. intelligence reports attributing election hacking to the Russian government as “public relations.” And his Twitter trigger fingers have alarmed many about putting a man with so little obvious self-control anywhere near the U.S. nuclear codes. Three reasons, however, suggest that a Trump foreign policy might not be the doomsday scenario that many fear.
The first is the heavy burden of office. All presidents feel it. Campaigning is one thing, governing is another. Candidate Jimmy Carter railed against the Central Intelligence Agency during the 1976 presidential campaign and vowed to declaw it. President Carter did the opposite, embracing covert operations and declaring in his 1981 State of the Union message that, “Our national interests are critically dependent on a strong and effective intelligence capability.” Nothing is more sobering than seeing, up close, every day, what dangers confront the United States and threaten our vital interests. The campaign trail is exhilarating. The Oval Office is exhausting. Leading the most powerful country on Earth is an awesome responsibility that every president feels. That’s why they seem to age in dog years.
The second check on recklessness is Congress. To be sure, presidents have far more unilateral powers when it comes to foreign policy than domestic policy. But Congress still matters. Congress controls the purse and oversees the executive branch — often times, not so well. But in moments of crisis, Congress does weigh in because voters back home demand it. Congressional pressure — and the prospect that Congress would cut off funding — finally pushed President Richard Nixon to end the Vietnam War. National Security Agency surveillance was dramatically reformed when Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in 2015. CIA assassination plots against foreign leaders ended when Congress’ Church committee investigation uncovered them and said, “enough.” To be sure, Republicans will again control the House and Senate come January. But the one thing that instantly unites all Republicans and Democrats is protecting their own power against an overreaching executive.
The third check is bureaucracy. American intelligence and military officials are professionals. They are trained to do their jobs regardless of who’s in power. While there are always exceptions (I’m thinking of you, FBI Director James Comey), the men and women who work at the tip of the spear of our national security establishment put country first. At the CIA, speaking truth to power is a cherished value. In the Pentagon, refusing to follow an unlawful order is deeply inculcated. These are not slogans on hats. These are the creeds by which our national security professionals live, and die. Spend any time at Strategic Command headquarters in Omaha, Neb., where there’s a red clock on the wall counting the time in seconds to nuclear impact on the operations center, and you’ll know just how real these values are.
Implementing policy is harder than most people think. It takes time, it takes approvals, it takes organizational gears to grind, it takes coordination across agencies, it takes bureaucratic infighting and political maneuvering, and it often takes a bevy of lawyers. Every president complains that the process is far too cumbersome. Presidents issue plenty of orders that are not carried out quickly, or ever. Agendas are always long. Time is always short. Events often intervene. And concerned bureaucracies can wait it out while the president’s four-year term ticks away.
In the summer of 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower was running for president, Harry Truman famously captured just how hard it is to make change. Imagining how Eisenhower would handle the presidency, Truman remarked, “He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”
Let’s hope so.