A smattering of foreign policy

By: Jack Feldman

Today we heard from two foreign policy experts on what to expect from the next administration.



Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

The two speakers were Barbara Slavin, Director, Future of Iran Initiative – Atlantic Council and Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress.


Slavin and Korb both made a very similar point in the session on foreign policy about what they expect from Trump. Mostly they concurred that despite the fact that no one knows anything for sure, our foreign policy may not be as alien as people seem to think.

This session comes right after the vetting of Trump appointee to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former Exxon Mobil executive. So, much of the discussion on the Trump administration’s intentions on foreign policy was centered around what Tillerson said during his hearing.

Slavin’s view of the incoming administration looks something like this: defeating ISIS as the number one priority, Putin is not viewed as a war criminal, International “strong men” are admired and largely left alone, no support for regime change, pro-Israel policy, and no major focus on international human rights.

Slavin described Trump as a cold realist who will put American interests first no matter what the issue and compared Tillerson’s outlook to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Trump’s foreign policy will look like previous Americacentric, zero-sum, administrations like George W. Bush’s.

Lawrence Korb went further into general truths and concepts about foreign policy, as well as commenting on what he thought the Trump administration’s foreign policy would look like.

First, Korb laid down the law. The United States is not in any more danger than it ever has been. Even with Trump coming into office. This statement is a relief to those afraid of what Trump will end up doing. Or is that statement just an indictment of how bad things are already?

Korb also noted that in world politics today, economic power is far more important than military power. Sanctions are the go-to retaliation and are more effective at shaping the behavior of foreign powers.

Korb’s final opening point was that the key to good decision-making in foreign affairs is knowing history and effectively applying it to crises that arise. Nationalism always beats ideology and countries are never permanent friends or allies with each other but have permanent interests.

Going into the Trump administration, Korb also believes that the Trump administration will practice cold realism and focus much less on advocating for international human rights issues. This is where both speakers converge.

Korb laying out the five major threats to the United States in order was the most intriguing and fascinating part of his discussion. Korb believes that Russia is the number one threat followed by China, Iran, North Korea, and finally ISIS. The fact that Trump believes ISIS is the number one priority is a mistake and it would be more beneficial to focus on the first four. However, on top of that, we can not expect Trump to deal with Russia at all which happens to be our biggest problem.

I think that Korb and Slavin both gave me great insight into the norms of American foreign policy and what will most likely be tweaked by Trump. What was truly eye-opening was that Trump won’t actually stray far from normal US policy. The fact that he is just changing the order of priorities for America gives me some semblance of a reason to maybe, in some way, perhaps at some point not worry as much. But I will certainly remain skeptical due to the lack of experience in foreign policy Trump has. One consolation is that Rex Tillerson has experience dealing with foreign powers, but even that has a caveat, as the question remains; will Trump listen to anyone?

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