Trump’s Foreign Policy and Presidential Powers: What Do the Experts Think?

By Lucas Arnett

October 1st, 2019

Last week, an anonymous whistle-blower filed a complaint calling into question handling of sensitive information. President Trump went to “great lengths” to classify the details around a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky in which the President asked his counterpart to “look into” a now discredited accusation of Former Vice President Joe Biden only a few days after announcing plans to withhold $400 million in military aid to the Ukranian government. Although Mr. Zelensky denies being pressured and Mr. Trump claims it’s just another ‘witch hunt’, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has set in motion plans for an impeachment inquiry. 

It’s no secret that Mr. Trump’s foreign policy doctrine of unpredictability has been controversial for some time, but scholars could at least agree the President had not overstepped his authority as a President. Now, following the political storm surrounding Wednesday’s events, scholars are being forced to reconsider the impact of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy in a more serious light. The Teaching Research and International Policy (TRIP) team at the College of William and Mary’s Global Research Institute (GRI), at which I am a research assistant, conducted a survey in October investigating what scholars think of Trump’s foreign policy. 

Trump’s foreign policy has never been popular. Of the 1075 scholars who responded to our survey, 81.1% believe President Trump’s doctrine of unpredictability is not an effective tactic for negotiation. Being unpredictable makes it harder for analysts to understand the President’s agenda and priorities, and it makes our allies less certain that we will come to their aid if need be. Add to that the series of semantic slip-ups the President’s made including revealing classified information to the Russian foreign minister and referring to a variety of developing countries as ‘shitholes’ and it’s not surprising that his policy is unpopular. In October of 2018, 93.2% of experts agreed that the United States is less respected internationally since the Trump administration came into power, and 99.2% of those scholars agree that’s a problem. 

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Scholars also disagree with almost every foreign policy decision Trump has made. One of the Trump administration’s first actions was to pass a budget proposal which included a drastic cut in development aid. When asked whether the United States should increase development aid to counteract Chinese influence, only 1.86% of scholars advocated for a decrease in aid compared to 72.9% advocating for an increase, and 22.07% advocating for no change. Additionally, only 6.7% of scholars think President Trump’s DPRK policy will lead to denuclearization, 93% of scholars oppose the President’s proposal to withdraw from NATO, and only 8% of scholars support the President’s decision to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. 

Despite a controversial foreign policy, scholars have largely been divided on the issue of executive authority. In late 2018, 48.6% of scholars believed the President had not overstepped his foreign policy powers compared to 41.6% who believed he did and 9.8% who selected “don’t know.” President Trump’s unorthodox travel ban and a flexible interpretation of “national emergency” also were not enough to convince scholars that executive power has increased; in fact 67.9% of scholars agree Presidential power has not increased under Mr. Trump’s administration. On the grounds of abuse of power, scholars don’t seem to recognize a precedent of unpunished impeachable offenses. 

The whistleblower’s complaint incited the political straw that finally broke Congress’s back and it has certainly drawn the public’s attention, but will this be enough to convince academics that President Trump’s ineffectual, unorthodox foreign policy may be putting our country at risk? Is the President’s “lockdown” of the phone call’s transcript symptomatic of an unconventional foreign policy or an attempted cover-up of a large-scale corruption, extortion, and bribery scandal? We’ll have to keep watching. 

 

Lucas Arnett is a proud member of William & Mary’s class of 2022. He’s  interested in going into the field of International Relations, ideally starting with the Peace Corps and then settling into a calmer desk job as an analyst after a few years. On campus, Lucas is involved with the WM Debate Society, the Eco Schools Leadership Initiative (ESLI), and the Catholic church. A fun fact about Lucas is that his ancestors founded a town in the Midwest called Arnettsville, which still bears his family’s name to this day.