This is a quick post, and my first in quite a while. I’m not going to look at the how and why of Donald Trump’s shocking election victory, nor am I really going to discuss the huge ramifications for both domestic American politics and international politics. Instead, at the outset of four or eight years of “The Donald” as the most powerful person on the planet, I’ll be foolhardy and make a limited prediction: Donald Trump is not going to exert executive power in the field of national security to the same extent as either Obama or Bush. That is partly gut-instinct, but also partly informed by research on political culture and national security decision-making.
This is not a general prediction. Trump will enter the White House with a Republican Senate, and a Republican House. Since the Republican party was happy to set fire to democratic norms in pursuit of power, we are likely to see a Republican-leaning Supreme Court in short order. Predicting the specific outcomes of this kind of political alignment coupled with the general unpredictability of a candidate who has demonstrated himself the least-fit presidential candidate in living memory is, I think, pointless. I can wholly understand why many Americans now live in fear of four years of leadership by a man who ran a wholly divisive, but ultimately successful, presidential campaign.
What I do predict is that the excess of authority, both perceived and real, that characterised Bush and Obama’s successive approaches to matters of national security will not reappear. I can understand why some will see this as crazy: Donald Trump embodies the kind of authoritarian personality that tramples over legal limits at a whim. Hear me out.
There are a lot of theories to explain the actions of Presidents, and the limits to Presidential power. One of the key ones is the “liberty/security balance”. A core disagreement is whether powers arrogated to the President in times of emergency function as a ratchet or a pendulum. For those who see it as a ratchet, each successive arrogation is, as part of a cumulative whole, less likely to be reversed. For those who see it as a pendulum, authority swings towards the executive in times of emergency and then swings back when the emergency subsides.
Of course, the post-9⁄11 era has given us plenty of challenges to this: what happens when the “emergency” never goes away? What happens when the Democrat president appears as happy as the Republican to exert executive authority, if not more so? If you believe in ratchets, then Trump is a nightmare, if you believe that the checks and balances of the American system can work, then there is good reason to believe that his power can, and will, be checked.
Trump’s problem is that he will enter the Oval Office backed by a party that despises him, national security bureaucracies that appear allergic to his anti-establishment credo, and a “team” (if one can call it that), which is unlikely to be stuffed with political talent. I think the latter two factors are important in explaining the ability of the President to influence matters of national security. Bureaucracy matters, and the ability of political leaders to cajole their organisations is limited if they are not respected by their staff. My prediction also functions as a bet that lawyers, leaks, and oversight committees will combine to destroy any Trump policy that is at odds with the Republican-controlled Congress.
If Trump manages to attract well-respected persons to positions of leadership in his administration, then my prediction is in trouble, but I don’t think he will. The national security establishment seems united in agreeing that Trump is bad for America. I think we’ll get at least one major foreign policy cock up in Trump’s (first?) four years that will have significant consequences, but that will be one that arises from general Republican foreign policy positions, not the President going out on a limb. If the Obama administration demonstrated that Presidents can wield considerable power in the face of an apathetic or openly hostile Congress so long as their retain the confidence of national security professionals and the military, then the Trump presidency is likely to be a natural experiment with the reverse. This, I think, is important. My hunch is that Congress will feed Trump his policy, and national security professionals are likely to slow-roll any of his outlandish suggestions to death.
This is not to say that Trump won’t do damage. I think that the US military is likely, from Trump’s campaign bluster, to bear the brunt of outlandish demands from the Executive branch. The next four years is likely to be the greatest challenge for civil-military relations in recent history. If the principles espoused in the Department of Defense’s recent Law of War manual are to be believed, then at some point the military might have to point out to a President Trump that they can’t, and won’t, carpet bomb ISIS in urban areas just because he says so, even if he is their Commander-in-Chief. This will have political consequences, both domestic and international, and will likely harm American prestige.
My basic prediction is that Trump won’t be more powerful than Bush, nor Obama, at least in the domain of national security. My explanation for this is that I think that the people charged with keeping America safe are likely to be hostile to Trump’s wilder ideas, and quite happy for lawyers and oversight committees to put those ideas to the sword. That is not to say that America, as a corporate entity, won’t do bad things in the next four years. Instead, I think that the blame for any excesses is likely to lie with Congress, not the President. Where Trump’s foreign policy ideas align with Congress, he’s going to take the credit, where his ideas don’t, I doubt he will get very far. In short, we’ll see a swing back towards Bush, but with Congress in the driving seat. Whether or not this will stop America from shooting itself in the foot is anybody’s guess.