Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Trump versus American institutions: The foreign-policy battleground

Over time, Trump is likely to experience fewer difficulties executing policy by fiat.

President Donald Trump arrives in Florida on Saturday to spend part of the weekend at Mar-a-Lago resort. (Photo:Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump arrives in Florida on Saturday to spend part of the weekend at Mar-a-Lago resort. (Photo:Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In just a month in office, President Donald Trump has put forward the most illiberal agenda of any president since Andrew Jackson, along the way attacking the news media, the courts, and the civil service. The story of 2017, and perhaps of the next four years, will be of a struggle between the American institutions acting in defence of fundamental liberal values, and a president hostile to them.

The field of foreign policy will be shaped by these standoffs as well. The leadership and the vast majority of the United States’ foreign policy institutions — the military, the intelligence community, the Foreign Service, and the civil service — have it in their DNA to support allies, democracy, and a rules-based international order. They reject the America First language of Trump's inaugural address not out of partisanship, but because it runs contrary to fundamental tenets of American foreign policy long supported by presidents of both parties.

In the battles to come, the institutions have two advantages. The first is the Pentagon’s new leader, James Mattis. Though the retired Marine general impressed Trump with his reputation for toughness, Mattis has made it clear that he believes America has a duty to live up to its international commitments, and he has been unafraid to offer statements of policy that are at odds with those of the president. He even appears to have convinced Trump to abandon plans to resume the torture of terror suspects. He has sought to appoint capable lieutenants, regardless of their political background, over the objections of Trump’s political advisors.

Daylight between Mattis and his president will occasionally lead to greater uncertainty about American policy. But in an administration which Senator John McCain has described as in 'disarray', Mattis presents a welcome alternative to the president’s illiberalism. Trump could fire Mattis, but as Brendan Thomas-Noone and Ashley Townshend noted, not without a major fight in the Senate.

Institutions have a second advantage, in that they are integrated into the policy making process in a way that is sometimes prescribed by law and often difficult to disentangle. The Pentagon and American regional commanders draft war plans on spec, but often in ways that constrain their commander in chief's options, as nearly every president learns to his frustration. Pacific Command exhibited a particularly strong independent streak during the Obama Administration, which it is unlikely to concede so long as it remains under the leadership of Admiral Harry Harris.

Other parts of the bureaucracy work similarly: the State Department and Congress run slow, highly regulated processes around arms sales. Treasury maintains a byzantine legal framework for US sanctions, and its leaders are famously averse to removing entities from its rolls, as Russians named by the Obama Administration may learn.

Should the President try to make an end run around these institutions without the aid of experienced bureaucratic operators, as he did with his immigration executive order last month, he will run into grave difficulties in the execution of that policy.

These institutions, particularly the intelligence community, have been charged in the past week with acting like a 'deep state', particularly with regard to the events that forced the resignation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. But there is little evidence that the intelligence community did anything other than it would normally do, by investigating the way in which LTG Flynn compromised himself. (Leaks of FBI investigations are unfortunate, but occur in every administration, as Secretary Clinton can attest). The civil service can lawfully serve the government of the day while still taking advantage of existing statues and processes to make Trump’s campaign against them and liberal values more difficult.

But we shouldn't underestimate the influence of the president on his own administration. To paraphrase former President Barack Obama, the occupant of the Oval Office has a pen and a phone, and he will use them. Over time, Trump is likely to experience fewer difficulties executing policy by fiat, as he and his aides learn from mistakes in implementation with every new executive order.

Moreover, Trump and Steve Bannon, the former editor of a far right website whom Trump has named his chief political advisor, are acutely aware that these institutions will seek to thwart them, and are already seeking to change the national security process to sideline them. Trump's decision to add Bannon to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council (NSC) is an unprecedented intrusion of politics into the president's councils of war and peace: Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all rejected requests by political advisors to take part in NSC meetings, much less put them on the Council itself.

In our own region, the conflict between institutions and the White House has been less acute. While Trump has intervened in debates in this region in damaging ways, for instance questioning the non-nuclear status of Japan and South Korea during the campaign, his interventions have been episodic, and he has occasionally renounced those views when pressed on them later. Indeed, his comments during the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earlier this month completely contradicted his earlier campaign rhetoric. Trump's attacks on free trade, immigrants, Islam, and NATO, by contrast, have been constant and sustained.

But while Trump has not yet turned his attention to our region in that way, at some point a crisis may change that.

How will this struggle between institutions and the Trump White House will play out? It is too early to say, but a key indicator will be nominations to fill critical second and third tier roles. Will they be allies of the institutions or the White House? Trump could appoint long-time Republican foreign policy hands familiar with Asia and Australia. But if he names complete unknowns who share his scepticism of America’s commitments abroad, then it will become much harder to ensure American support for the liberal international order.

We still do not yet know the names of Trump’s assistant secretaries for this region at State and the Pentagon, because this has been the slowest presidential transition in memory. Trump complains that Senate Democrats are slowing down the process, but he has nominated fewer individuals any of his predecessors at this point in an administration, and has not even named new deputy assistant secretaries at the Pentagon, who can be appointed without a Senate confirmation process. Infighting during the transition, and Trump’s refusal to consider Republicans who had been critical of him, have led to long delays.

Australia’s alliance with the United States is bigger than any one president, as Labor’s Penny Wong has pointed out. It is also an alliance with American institutions determined to protect the liberal international order -- institutions that need friends like Australia now more than ever. The Government cannot ignore the White House, and must carefully consider how to manage a mercurial president, but in the interim it can continue to work with American institutions whose values the Government still shares.

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