“Don’t Panic” has become the motto of the Democratic Party in the days following the 2016 Presidential Election. The surprise victory of the self-described outsider Donald Trump has divided the nation and experts are scrambling to come up with clear predictions of the President-Elect’s future policies. Among his many campaign promises were a bevy of foreign policy goals promising an “America First” foreign policy. But what does this mean?
In dozens of interviews, speeches and debates over the past year, President-Elect Trump has pledged to renegotiate trade deals, take a hard line on China, eliminate ISIS using a Cold-War style strategy and a wide array of other lofty goals. With a Republican House of Representatives and Senate and the potential to influence the make-up of the Supreme Court, President-Elect Trump has the possibility to enact real change at home and abroad. Still, since many of his proposals, especially in the foreign policy realm, have been met with skepticism by veteran members of his own party, the question becomes whether President Trump will be able to unilaterally carry out his vision.
In order to assess what the Trump administration is capable of, we must first look at what foreign policy power the president actually has. The answer to that, as is the answer with many constitutional questions in the US, is very vague. The actual powers delineated in the constitution are as follows: he is the commander in chief; he appoints ambassadors; he can negotiate treaties, and he appoints the Secretary of State. Every President has interpreted these powers differently. President-Elect Trump is fortunate to follow in the footsteps of two presidents who expanded the executive authority over foreign policy decisions immensely.
In light of this, I want to look at three of the most oft-repeated promises Donald Trump has made over the last year and assess whether or not he is capable of fulfilling these promises, and what affects they might have.
Repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement
President Elect Trump has said repeatedly that his first order of business will be to renegotiate – and ultimately repeal – NAFTA. This will perhaps be the most abrupt about-face in policy change with the Obama Administration, which made free trade a priority, especially during the second term. However, while TTIP and TPP have also been lampooned during this election cycle, it is NAFTA that has borne the brunt of the criticism. This is interesting in part because of just how innocuous NAFTA is – in the 2012 IGM Economic Experts Panel from the University of Chicago, not a single one of the 41 most renowned economists in the world said that US citizens were worse off because of this trade deal. The vast majority claimed the opposite. Still, in criticizing NAFTA Trump tapped into a vein of outrage in the white middle-class workers of the US, and his crusade against free trade – especially with Mexico – may have handed him the White House.
Now, does he have the power to repeal it? According to the Constitution, yes. President-Elect Trump has power granted to him by the Treaty Clause to negotiate treaties. Two previous Presidents, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, have interpreted this power to withdraw from standing treaties. Still, according to the US Trade Representative, trade with Mexico and Canada accounted for nearly $1.25 trillion in 2015 – $583.6 billion and $662.7 billion respectively. Given such numbers, a unilateral repeal is unlikely. Renegotiation, on the other hand, seems unavoidable. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already signalled his willingness to discuss the treaty. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, on the other hand, spoke out against renegotiation over the summer. Nevertheless, this appears to be one campaign promise that Trump has the power to fulfil.
Renegotiating Nuclear Deal with Iran
As in the case of NAFTA, President-Elect Trump does have the theoretical power to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was signed in 2015 by Iran, the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, and the European Union. In recent months, Trump has walked back his previous hard-line stance and has claimed he would renegotiate the deal, not back out of it. If this were a bilateral agreement, it is possible the negotiations could be reopened. However, in order for President-Elect Trump to make headway on this campaign promise he would need to win other signatories to his side. Given that the heads of state of all other signatories reacted positively to reaching this agreement in 2015, and that the UN stands behind it, renegotiation seems unlikely.
Trump’s only remaining action, therefore, would be to unilaterally back out of the agreement. Since the JCPOA is not a treaty, nor was it approved by the Congress, overturning it would be relatively simple: President-Elect Trump would issue an Executive Order to reestablish sanctions against Iran. In doing so, the US would violate the terms of the agreement, which stipulates a lift on economic bans in exchange for the elimination of Iran’s medium-enriched uranium stockpiles and the effective dismantling of the country’s enrichment capabilities.
Unilaterally reinstating sanctions has the potential to damage relations with other signatories, including close allies in Europe, but could improve relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of which have been vehemently opposed to the JCPOA from day one. Trumps decision on this matter will therefore signal the priorities of this administration. Much of this also depends on whom the President-Elect selects as his Secretary of State. Any negotiations on the JCPOA, and the ramifications, would be dealt with by the State Department.
Ideological screening for immigrants
Perhaps one of the most controversial points in President-Elect Trump’s foreign policy has been ideological screening for immigrants. In his Detailed Plan to Defeat ISIS, Trump proposes a temporary suspension of immigration from “dangerous countries.” He defines these countries as places that “have a history of exporting terrorism” and where the State Department determines that the flow of immigration is too large to do comprehensive screening.
Though it has been met with outcry from equal rights organizations, Trump’s plan to develop an ideological screening test is not without historical basis. Exclusionary immigration policies have, at different points in US history, been used to keep out Jews, Quakers, Catholics, disease-carriers, Germans, Japanese, felons and many more. Twice in American history – during the colonial era and the Cold War – immigrants have been refused or deported based on not fitting the ideological profile necessary for a US citizen. The McCarran-Walter Act was overturned in 1990, but for nearly 30 years it was used to deny visas to thousands of people.
The amount of power the President has over immigration depends on congress. McCarran-Walter was a congressional act – the congress actually overturned a veto from President Truman to pass the law. As long as moderate republicans don’t consider his proposal alienating, Trump has the potential to pass a similar act to weed out potential terrorists.
In outlining this plan, Trump cited James R. Edwards Jr., author of The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform, who suggested that sweeping changes in the consular branch at State, including giving more power to individual consular officers, will be the first step to real ideological screening. Luckily for him, President-Elect Trump will soon have a Secretary of State, and the entire Department, at his disposal.
The election of Donald Trump is not the end of the world, but it might be the end the style of American diplomacy to which we have grown accustomed. Trump has little to no foreign policy experience and he has alienated much of the Republican base that could have filled this experience gap. For many foreign leaders, Trump is an unknown element taking over the largest economy and military in the world and reactions have ranged from politely skeptical to downright nervous.
The legacies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama will leave Donald Trump with a wider array of foreign policy tools than any other president in the history of the United States. How he chooses to use them will have ramifications around the world. One thing is certain: the Democratic Party isn’t the only one who should be panicking.
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