Tom Wright has a very smart Politico essay on the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of Trump’s foreign policy to date. Wright’s explanation for why Trump hasn’t implemented much of his “America First” foreign policy is an intriguing one, he lacks the necessary intellectual firepower:
Trump’s worldview is in a tiny minority within his own administration. His national security team is primarily composed of people who want to maintain U.S. alliances, an open global economy and support for universal values. The reason Trump ended up with such a team is, in part, because there are no think tanks or academic cabals that are working out how to translate his visceral beliefs into policy. Those who one might expect to be sympathetic — the CATO institute and academic isolationists — are not. The Heritage Foundation foreign policy team spends most of its time denying he really believes what he clearly believes. With no lieutenants of his own, he had to turn to outsiders. With a penchant for the finest military officers the country has produced and one billionaire, he chose a Cabinet of mainstreamers. Whether it was by intent or design, the effect of his choice was to voluntarily surrender the bureaucracy to ideological opponents of his America First worldview …
Even if one counts Bannon in Trump’s camp, they are still massively outnumbered. They lost a fellow traveler with Flynn’s firing, but even when ousted national security adviser was in place he was uniquely deficient at using the interagency process to further the president’s agenda. Bannon has managed to place a handful of people in various departments and agencies, but only at low levels. Collectively, they are no match for their opponents when it comes to turning around the ship of state. Neither Trump or Bannon is Dick Cheney, who combined radical views with great bureaucratic skill and a small army of proteges.
As someone with a soon-to-be-released book about foreign policy intellectuals, I find Wright’s argument very intriguing. The problem is that bureaucratic process is not the only weapon that Trump’s White House coterie can wield to advance their interests. And the tools at the White House’s disposal are pretty powerful.
The most obvious weapon is vetoing additional staff. It’s not hard to find stories focusing on how slow the Trump White House has been at selecting the folks who will be Deputy Secretaries and Undersecretaries in the relevant departments. Every White House wants appointees who are politically loyal, but in Trump’s case that seems particularly salient. Just as important, Trump’s staff might be comfortable leaving many of those positions unfilled, because it empowers the White House at the expense of the more mainstream cabinet officers.
The emerging weapon is budget, however. Trump’s proposed budget threatens to gut an already starved State Department. As former diplomat Nicholas Burns pointed out when the cuts were first floated, there’s really only major resource at Foggy Bottom:
State is much smaller than the Pentagon or Homeland Security. It has few large installations and no costly weapons systems that can be delayed or canceled in service to austerity. Its main resource is its personnel. Reductions of the magnitude under consideration would confront Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with an impossible task — cutting deep into the muscle and bone of a foreign and civil service already stretched to the limits. This is simply not a wise path.
What’s interesting is that many of Trump’s other cuts — to the Centers for Disease Control, United Nations peacekeeping, the Coast Guard, TSA, and FEMA — are like those aimed at the State Department. They save small sums of money, but only by eliminating insurance programs that might come in handy during an emergency — particularly a foreign policy emergency.
If you think there will be no need to commit nonmilitary American resources to address a serious pandemic or foreign policy crisis or peacekeeping issues, then you’re an America Firster who is happy with these cuts. If you think that the national security establishment can’t do its job properly when starved of staff and budget, then all of this should concern you immensely. It certainly concerns the military, which will have to pick up the slack.
I want Wright to be correct about the Trump White House’s lack of intellectual firepower. The political scientist in me, however, worries about their ability to starve their political opponents of staff and resources.