Can the disrupter-in-chief be managed?

Even if president-elect Donald Trump were able to offer cogent and coherent policies, there are likely to be several constraints on implementing them


The likelihood of Trump’s plans being implemented will depend on the ability of the White House to build a wider consensus than the one he now has. Photo: AFP
The likelihood of Trump’s plans being implemented will depend on the ability of the White House to build a wider consensus than the one he now has. Photo: AFP

Nearly two weeks after Donald Trump’s unexpected electoral triumph unleashed a tsunami across the political landscape in the US, and despite the faux bonhomie in initiating the formal transition, there remains serious domestic and international consternation on the purported policies and anticipated actions of the president-elect.

This is evident in the ongoing street protests in major US cities against the election results and the early White House appointments; the emergency meeting called by spooked European Union foreign ministers to consider the implications of a Trump presidency; and the unseemly desperation with which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on Trump even before key cabinet positions were announced. Clearly, every campaign utterance by the president-elect is being seen as a top policy priority.

Yet, the reality is that the only certainty is the uncertainty and unpredictability of Trump’s policy pronouncements. For instance, speaking on the Iran nuclear deal before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, candidate Trump asserted that his “No.1 priority” would be to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran”. But later in the same speech, he insisted on holding Iran accountable to the deal “like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before”. As The New York Times recently quipped, Trump has the ability “to entertain two completely contradictory thoughts at once”.

Even if Trump were able to make up his mind and offer cogent and coherent policies, there are likely to be several constraints on implementing them. First is the deeply fractured mandate. Although the election handed Trump and the Republican Party control of the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time since 1928, the candidate and the party actually lost the popular vote. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin is over a million votes and still counting. Her vote margin is now bigger than the winning margins of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. This, and the prospects of making decisions that are likely to be highly unpopular with a significant section of the electorate, is likely to give even Trump some pause.

Second, even if he did have a clear and robust mandate (as President Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012), it is unlikely that every campaign promise or desire will be manifested. For instance, despite declaring his singular intention to close the abhorrent detention centre at Guantanamo Bay soon after his first election, Obama has been unable to fulfil this promise. Similarly, while Obama vowed to take irreversible steps towards a world free of nuclear weapons, his administrations actually saw the biggest ever increase in the budget to maintain and modernize the nuclear arsenal.

Trump too is likely to see some of his key election promises stymied by political and bureaucratic considerations. For instance, if Trump decided to tear up the Iran nuclear deal (which is actually a deal between seven parties), then he would also have to impose sanctions against the other parties, including France, Germany and the UK, all of which have now invested in Iran. In the long term, it would also allow Iran to renege on the deal and pursue its nuclear weapons programme. This would be akin to the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous approach to North Korea when it backed away from the 1994 Agreed Framework. and branded Pyongyang as part of the “axis of evil”. Soon after that, North Korea accelerated its nuclear weapons programme and conducted its first test in 2006.

Third, opposition to some of Trump’s more grandiose disruptive schemes and colourful nominees for top cabinet positions might come from within his own party. Although the Republicans control the Congress, several seasoned policymakers from the party who head the congressional panels on defence, foreign policy and intelligence are opposed to many of Trump’s policy ruminations. For instance, Senator John McCain (who was re-elected from Arizona) has cautioned that Trump’s proposed rapprochement with Russia was “unacceptable”.

Similarly, senator Bob Corker of Tennessee rejected Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the US while senator Richard Burr of North Carolina underlined why the Congress Republicans might not go along with all of Trump’s policies or appointments: “He’s barely a Republican.”

Apart from the Congress, opposition to Trump’s immigration policy and planned deportations are also likely from Democrat-controlled cities like Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle, all of which have designated themselves as “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants. They might find unlikely Republican allies in the Congress in their opposition to Trump’s immigration crackdown.

This is not to suggest that none of the president-elect’s ideas and initiatives will come to pass; merely that the likelihood of them being implemented will depend on the ability of the Trump White House to build a wider consensus than the one he now has. In fact, there is every possibility that the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and the Iran deal, which is disliked by many in the Congress, might be scuttled. But, hopefully, the more extreme initiatives of Trump are likely to either be blocked or watered down.

In the end, Trump’s election pledges might reflect the legacy of his real-estate profession: to overpromise but under-deliver. That might not be such an unwelcome outcome for Trump’s foreign policy objectives.

W.P.S. Sidhu is visiting professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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