The 45th President's Inbox

The 45th President’s Inbox

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Elizabeth Saunders, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, discusses the foreign policy issues facing the Trump administration.

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Elizabeth N. Saunders

Associate Professor, Political Science and International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach. Thank you all for being with us. Today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website at

We’re delighted to have Elizabeth Saunders with us today to discuss the foreign policy issues facing the Trump administration. Professor Saunders is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. She recently concluded a year fellowship here at the Council. She was a Stanton nuclear security fellow. So she has returned to George Washington, and we are sorry that she’s left the fold. She’s also had fellowships at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Harvard University, and the Brookings Institution. Professor Saunders is the author of “Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions.” And her work has appeared in International Studies Quarterly, International Security, the American Journal of Political Science, and International Studies Review. Her current research focuses on how elites rather than voters are the main audience for foreign policy decisions in democracies. And you can follow her on Twitter at @ProfSaunders.

So, Elizabeth, thanks very much for being with us today. We’re just shy of the first two weeks of President Trump being in office. He’s taken on a lot of issues. Given your research on presidential leadership and decision making, can you talk about the start of this administration, the foreign policy challenges that we knew were going to be coming, and how they will be addressed given—by the new administration? And what his style, how that will affect his policy decisions?

SAUNDERS: Great. Well, first, let me say thank you so much for having me. And it’s a real pleasure to be here. And I do miss being in the CFR fold, but it is very good to be back at GW and back in the university setting.

It has really been quite a first—what has it been, 12 days—first week and a half. It’s been so dizzying that every time I step away from the news for a few hours I feel as though I might be missing what in any other administration would be a year’s worth of news. So we’re all kind of struggling to keep up and make sense of things. And so, as you say, I come at this as someone who studies leaders and presidential decision making. And so I thought it might just start out by, you know, thinking about how we get a handle on this from the perspective of identifying what is actually different about Trump as a leader versus if we’d elected Hillary Clinton, or really any other person to be president, including other Republicans who vied for the nomination.

So one of the things that’s really challenging when you study leaders is to try to figure out what is the effect of the leader and what is the effect of other things coming from the international system, from domestic politics. How much discretion do leaders really have to influence foreign policy and national security, and how much are they just constrained by other things going on around them? And that’s really one of the tough things. It seems so intuitive that leaders should make a big difference in foreign policy, but really isolating what effects come from the leader turns out to be kind of tricky.

So I think it’s sort of a useful thought experience to go back and put your mindset—as hard as it is—go back and put your mindset in—cast your mind back to the day before the election. Not knowing who was going to win, or even under the expectation that Clinton was going to win, what are the foreign policy challenges that you would have expected to be coming down the pike no matter who won? And I think the CFR Center for Preventive Action Survey is pretty useful on this.

And they identify, among other things, a crisis with North Korea. A lot of experts believe that’s tops on the list of potential crises. Potential problems with Russia and NATO, and I think the renewed fighting in Ukraine that’s been happening this week and gotten overshadowed by all this other news is quite indicative that that is in fact a real risk. Potentially increased levels of violence in Syria, Afghanistan, the threat of ISIS attacks and so forth. And then you have cyberattacks, potential tensions in the South China Sea.

And I think one that people sometimes forget about is the challenge of managing Brexit and the potential implications of that for U.S. foreign policy. I mean, this is a major sea change in the international and economic relationship in Europe that has been pretty stable for many decades now. And I think it was inevitable, no matter who won the U.S. presidential election, that that would be a challenge—maybe not a national security crisis right away, but a major foreign policy challenge for the incoming president.

So that’s sort of setting the table, right? Whoever wins the election on November 8th is going to have to deal with those crises. And that’s where you start to add on top of that the incoming Trump administration. And you can start to figure out and tease out, OK, what is the effect of Trump and what are these—what’s kind of, you know, being thrown at you by the international system. So what do we know about Trump? Well, what did we know about Trump? Well, some people say, well, he has no—we don’t know any—he doesn’t know anything about foreign policy. He has no clear worldview.

But there was a wonderful piece written by Tom Wright of the Brookings Institution months and months before the election. And he went back and looked at Trump’s history and identified a set of very clear, very long-standing, and not—and pretty sticky beliefs about foreign policy, things that don’t really change in Trump’s worldview over time. And Tom Wright identified three things: That Trump dislikes trade—international trade treaties, doesn’t really support alliances, and is generally supportive of authoritarian regimes, especially Russia. And that is a pretty consistent thread throughout all the other things Trump has said going back decades.

And it’s also consistent with some of my research on leaders, which showed, you know, leaders form these views before they get to office, and they tend not to change much once they get into office. So you have a president who wins this election and you have this potential array of threats. And what has he done in the last 12 days? He’s done a lot of things that are pretty consistent with these views.

One of the first things he does is he officially kills the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which is a trade—international trade agreement concluded by President Obama but not yet ratified, and Trump immediately killed it. And it was designed to strengthen American economic arrangements with respect to China in the Pacific. So it was intended to be something to improve the U.S. position in Asia in the face of the rise of China. He’s made statements about NATO being obsolete, and that’s consistent with his view that alliances don’t really get us much. And he’s done things that have just generally undermined or kind of distained the existing international order.

He’s not really one for sort of, what I’d call, invisible foreign policy benefits. So a lot of these things that we’re talking about here—trade, alliances, the kind of patient, eat your spinach diplomacy that’s not very—that’s kind of boring, but that is sort of the bread and butter of what happens in U.S. foreign policy. He doesn’t really see much value in these things. And a lot of those benefits you can’t see—lower consumer prices from trade, you don’t think about that when you go to Best Buy and the price of the TV is lower. But that—trade is partly where the lower price comes from. Allies are there for you in times of crisis, but if you don’t—if you’re not nice to them in peacetime, who knows if they’ll really be there for you? But Trump doesn’t think about those—the sort of future benefits that he can’t see. He just thinks he’s paying too much for those alliances right now.

So the challenge is, knowing that all these things are coming, knowing that a crisis in North Korea is likely or that a confrontation with China might be likely, that Brexit is a big challenge, that Russia may be newly emboldened—Trump’s distain for alliances is a really good example. We might be facing those crises without our traditional allies, or at least they might be—not be quite so willing to come to our aid. And that puts us in a weaker position when those crises inevitably come along. And I think that’s the real net Trump effect, right? That’s how we can start to separate out. It’s not necessarily going to be due to Trump that we have a crisis—I mean, he might exacerbate it or make it happen sooner rather than later. But we’re going to go into that crisis in a different position than we would have been if there had not been President Trump. So I think as analysts, as we try to take a step back, as students, as educators, it’s really kind of important to try to separate out the Trump effect from what would have been there if there had been a different president elected.

I want to stop and get to your questions, but I just want to say one other thing about kind of the national security decision-making process, and the people who are involved in it in this administration. Trump’s National Security Council directive that he issued over the weekend about the organization of the National Security Council got a lot of attention. A lot of people were very focused on the fact that he apparently has not made the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff an automatic invitee to the so-called Principals Committee of the NSC, which is where a lot of the really hard work gets done on the National Security Council.

Most of the NSC meetings, the really important work is gathering information, formulating the plan. The last step before you take a proposal to the president, that all happens in the Principals Committee. And so who is on the Principals Committee really does matter. Now, some people have said, well, previous administrations used similar language. And of course, the DNI and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be invited. And I sort of think this debate over procedure is a little bit overblown. What really matters is all presidents have kind of decided whether or not they see the NSC as valuable. If they do, great. If they don’t, they come up with some alternative arrangement and they work around the NSC.

Lyndon Johnson very famously had the so-called Tuesday Lunch Club during the Vietnam War. He thought the NSC was bloated. He invited the secretary of state, defense, and the—and his national security advisor. And the three of them for lunch every Tuesday, and that’s where a lot of the really big decisions were made. So if Trump doesn’t want to include these people, he just won’t include them. If he did include them, it doesn’t mean he’ll listen to them. So I think the formal written procedures are kind of less important than the actual politics.

And that’s why I think the real news there is that Steve Bannon, his chief strategist—and really, a political advisor—was given an automatic invitation to all NSC meetings and to all Principles Committee meetings. And I think what that really does is send a signal that politics is going to be given a formal seat at the table. It’s not that politics doesn’t matter in national security. We like to pretend that it doesn’t matter, but it does matter. And it’s mattered forever, all the way back to the founding fathers, who had bitter fights about—bitter, partisan fights about foreign policy.

So don’t—students, never let people tell you that there used to be a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy and it’s been recently broken. There’s always been partisan divisions. Politics has always played a role. But I think it is—it’s sort of a polite fiction that’s useful to maintain that it doesn’t actually get all the way into the National Security Council meetings. And formalizing this I think does actually change something. It dispenses with the fiction that politics doesn’t have a seat at the table. And it tells the people in the room a lot about who has real power. And I think that’s something that bears a lot of scrutiny, to the extent we can all pay attention to the news and potentially leaks coming out of the NSC.

And the final thing I’ll say is, all that being said, it really matters that these new procedures and these different arrangements are happening in this particular administration. And this gets back to what’s different about Trump. I’ve done some research recently on the question of whether it really matters whether presidents themselves, as opposed to their advisors, but presidents themselves have foreign policy experience. And it turns out that it really does, because what you want in a president is someone who can ask the right questions, who can spot holes in plans, who—presidents are never going to be on the front lines of information gathering. They can only sit on so many meetings. Their attention is a scarce and valuable resource.

And so you want a president who can take in information rapidly and spot problems and ask the right questions. And that is very difficult to do if you don’t have foreign policy or governance experience, and Trump has neither. In the past—that’s actually not so unusual. Presidents of both parties, especially since the end of the Cold War, have tended to be not particularly experienced on foreign policy. But usually their advisors really are. And this administration has advisors who are really inexperienced on foreign policy, and especially in governance. That, I think, is another thing that’s quite new about this particular administration. And if anyone wants more on that question, I’ve done some academic research on that, and I have a piece on The Washington Post Monkey Cage blog from back in July on this question of whether foreign policy experience really matters.

So I want to stop there and get to everyone’s questions. But I hope that provides sort of a table-setter for how we can think about, you know, what’s different about Trump, and what is the sort of Trump foreign policy effect, rather than just we’re living in 2017.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thanks, Elizabeth. That was fantastic. And I do commend to all of you the op-ed that Elizabeth just reference and published today in The Washington Post’s—in Monkey Cage. So let’s open it up to the group for questions.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We are currently holding for questions.

Our first question comes from Pepperdine University.

Q: This is Brianna (sp) calling from Pepperdine University.

I was wondering, how will Trump’s disregard or alliances affect the military’s global presence and their role around the world?

SAUNDERS: Well, thanks, Brianna (sp). It’s a great question.

And I think—I mean, the short answer is we don’t know yet. I mean, James Mattis, the incoming secretary of defense who, of course, comes from the military is off to Asia very shortly, I believe. And one of his missions, I think, is going to be to try to reassure our allies in Asia. But if they begin to get really concerned, it brings into question things that we haven’t had serious concerns about for a long time, and that is, you know, forward basing in Asia and other places. And I think there’s been some concern that our allies might think about doing things like getting their own nuclear capability, their own independent nuclear deterrent because they might no longer feel protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. And if that happens, then they might not want—they might want or feel the need for U.S. troops to be on their soil, which can create other domestic problems. Of course, we’ve had problems in Japan with sort of local friction between troops and the local population.

So I think you point out sort of a potential long-term effect of weakening these alliances. And it’s—the problem is, these are the allies that you turn to when things get really tough. And so being tough on them now might seem like a good idea in the short run, but it can really come back—it can really cause you to pay a bigger price in the long run. And getting those troops where they need to be without the forward bases is going to be more costly, more challenging, take longer than having them there to begin with. And of course, having them absent takes away the deterrent effect of having the troops in the forward-deployed position. So there are lots of people who want to have a serious debate—and in the academic world probably many of your professors are having a serious debate about the value of having troops forward-deployed in Asia and other—and in the Middle East and whether we can afford to pull back.

That’s a worthy debate to have. Again, that falls under the category of it’s not only Trump who’s thinking about this. On the other hand, I think nobody who’s having a debate about the question of whether we have too many troops forward deployed would advocate pulling back in this fashion, precipitously and without a carefully thought-out plan that can provide reassurance to allies. And this is all happening a little chaotically, I would say. And that is a very different proposition from saying, OK, well, maybe we don’t need any troops out there anymore, we don’t need quite as many, and so forth. So I hope that answers your question.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from St. Edward’s University.

Q: (Off mic)—University in Austin, Texas.

I have a question about—I guess the previous administration spent quite a bit of time on state-building efforts and counterterrorism efforts in Africa, including South Sudan and Central African Republic. Is there any indication that the current administration plans to continue with those efforts, or will that be something that sort of falls by the wayside?

SAUNDERS: Oh, I think this is sadly—I mean, I’d love to be proven wrong, but I think this is unfortunately a question I can give a pretty clear answer on. I don’t think this is going to be a priority at all for the Trump administration. I’ve heard them talk almost—I can’t think of—I can’t recall an instance of hearing Trump talk about Africa and peacekeeping in Africa. I’d love to hear a correction on that if I’m incorrect about that. But Trump, I think—people have said he’s an isolationist.

And I don’t know if that’s really quite right, because he also talks about doing things like take the oil or really hitting ISIS hard. And it’s sometimes hard to know how to pin him down on that. But one thing he’s been fairly consistent on is he doesn’t really believe in nation-building and state-building. I think he just doesn’t see these kind of internal conflicts as the United States’ problem. And the only one I think he really would be interested in, or would attract his interest, is ISIS. And so, unless you get into a sort of harboring terrorist kind of situation, I just don’t see his attention focused on Africa hardly at all.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Washington and Lee University.

Q: Hi. This is Stephanie Williams (sp) from Washington and Lee.

And so recently President Trump passed an executive order blocking immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. And I was wondering if there is a concern that American taking such a defensive stance could enable, or even cause, enemies in the Middle East to form a more consolidated or cohesive anti-American front.

SAUNDERS: Thanks. And this is a question, I think, that’s been on a lot of people’s minds.

The executive order on immigration and refugees has provoked widespread concern. And some of those concerns are humanitarian. And, you know, people are upset about it for a host of reasons. But I think that, you know, without at all minimizing the importance of those concerns, I think you raise one that is another that people need to pay a lot of attention to, which are the national security implications. So John McCain and Lindsey Graham have even highlighted this in their statement about the executive order on immigration and refugees, that they think that it could become a wound—a national security wound that could really come back to hurt the United States.

So one concern is that this plays into the narrative of ISIS, and it really does kind of make more stark the clash between the United States and Islam, so that you could look at it through that lens of sort of recruiting and messaging. There’s also sort of more concrete logistical concerns. There’s the concern about we’re fighting—we’re helping our Iraqi allies in the offensive against Mosul at the moment. And what sort of message does this send? Can we get people on the ground to work with us if we can’t protect them if they want to come to the United States? There’s this history taking in Iraqi translators, for example. How are we going to recruit people to help us on the ground with human intelligence, that’s essential for fighting this kind of war? So I think there are a wide array of national security reasons why you could be very concerned about the effect of this executive order, above and beyond the sort of humanitarian dimensions, of course, which we don’t want to minimize.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Monmouth University.

Q: OK, now we’re off, so we can talk. Yeah, Monmouth University.

Along with the uncertainty of the European Union of, like, Brexit, and, like, parties in Germany and France competing on their own referendums leaving the European Union. And yesterday the queen of England was in a—is in an awkward situation, having gotten millions of petitions not to meet Donald Trump. Is the United States’ relationship with Europe tarnished?

SAUNDERS: That’s a great question.

And I think—I think this is a—this is a time of real peril in Europe, in terms of domestic politics. So we’re going to have—or, the Europeans are going to have elections. The French are going to have elections in the spring. And then the Germans—I think the French are first, and then the German election’s, I believe, in May. And Angela Merkel will be—will be facing a real test. And she’s been in power for a long time. And it’s just naturally difficult to get elected so many times. So the Germans might otherwise be thinking, well, maybe it’s time for a change. But the shock of Brexit—and I think it really was a shock. We forget—I think, you know, June feels like a lifetime ago. But that really was a shock, all the way up until the night of the election return.

The British leaving and the potential for the rise of right-wing parties—I think the threat is a little bit greater in France than it is in Germany—it just increases the uncertainty about the future of the European project, the stability of the European Union, the commonality of interest between the British and the Germans. And you could have some splintering going on there. And that—it was already the case that U.S. interests were more sort of gravitating towards Germany as the dominant sort of force behind the European project, and the dominant power in Europe. The Germans played a critical role in the Greece crisis a couple of years ago. So that part—again, that sort of predates Trump, the sort of drift away from Britain and towards Germany.

But this is going to rapidly accelerate the differences between European states. And I think the other problem is—what you saw this week, with Theresa May coming to the United States—she came here, she was received warmly by Trump, and then she went home and there was domestic political backlash against her embrace of Trump. And she’s not really a populist. She’s more of a Tory—traditional Tory, traditional conservative. And that puts—that means that she’s sort of in a no-win situation. Does she embrace Trump, and get the benefits of the close relationship with the United States? Or is embracing him domestically politically damaging to her? What does that mean in terms of her leverage for getting a good deal with Europe?

And the reason why all that matters is the wrong deal for Britain could tank the British economy, and that, of course, will drag down the European economy and the United States economy. This is all—we live in a very interconnected world. And the rapid and chaotic unraveling of those ties isn’t really good for anyone. So I think the rise in uncertainty—we haven’t even really seen the full effect of Brexit yet, because it hasn’t happened. We’re at bit—people have described it as a bit of a phony war. It’s stable only because nothing has actually happened yet. But once it happens, I think you’re going to see a lot more political, economic, and diplomatic effects.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Mai’a Cross with Northeastern University.

Q: Hi, Professor Saunders. My name is Summer Marion from Northeastern University. Thank you so much for your talk.

My question is more broadly considering the idea of precedent in U.S. foreign policy. Especially when Trump was first elected, we heard a lot of concern about actions under the Obama administration—for example, the targeted killing of Awlaki in 2011, an American citizen, and what precedent that would set for an administration that espoused a different set of values. So my question is kind of twofold. And you can speak to either part. First, given what we’re seeing from Trump right now—and you’ve cogently illustrated a lot of our theories still hold in leadership—what areas in terms of precedent would you be most concerned or curious about this administration potentially capitalizing on, based on recent previous change? And then the second part is, as you look forward—it’s kind of putting the horse before the cart at this point—but do you have thoughts on what new precedents this administration might be setting?

SAUNDERS: Oh, wow. Great to turn our attention to executive power, which was a huge issue in the post-9/11 world as the Bush administration sought to centralize more executive authority on foreign policy and national security in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. And the debates after 9/11 on national security, really all the way up until the end of the Bush administration, were in part about, you know, what was the line? How much executive power was too much? How much should the president be able to do without going to Congress first, without getting a warrant from a court to listen in on conversations, to use lethal force abroad, and so forth? Should they just be allowed to take in information and act on it, or should we keep some of those checks in line?

And the Obama—the incoming Obama administration initially seemed like it was—you know, President Obama—or, then-Senator Obama really ran on against a lot of the Bush-era policies. But when he got into office he continued not only to keep a lot of the executive authority that Bush had amassed, but he in some respects extended it. And one area where he did that was in drone strikes, where Obama embraced drones as a way of fighting terrorism without putting boots on the ground. And a lot of people, as you say, have pointed out that President Obama’s embrace and extension of executive power set a lot of precedent that would then in the hands of any future president. And you never know who the next guy who comes along is going to be. And it turned out to be Trump.

So I think you’ve really put your finger on the question of, you know, why we care about these things. Just because you might trust the current president doesn’t mean the next one is going to be one that you trust. And of course, trust is in the eye of the beholder. And some people do trust Trump. But I think that’s the real—the real question, how much are you going to bind your successor’s hands? The difficulty is, once you get executive power, presidents rarely give it back, right? It’s easy to rail against from the outside, but once they get into office, they tend to like it. And it’s not an easy thing to give back. So Congress is really in a difficult position here. And I think it would potentially take a pretty dramatic episode, and the one that happened this week was very dramatic but has been overshadowed by all these other bits of news—that it’s all happening so fast and a lot of things are getting missed.

So I think it’s not likely that there’s going to be action on that anytime soon from Congress. After all, the fight against the Bush administration’s sort of aggrandizement of executive power took years to play out—court case after court case on detainees and so forth. So I would just caution against the view that, you know, something dramatic will happen. I do believe that Congress can claw back some of this authority. And I believe that there can be accountability from that quarter. But it’s going to take a while. And we shouldn’t really expect any of this to happen that fast.

And in the meantime, Trump can try to set some new precedents, as you say. He’s already sort of doing new things, getting his presidential daily brief only occasionally and having different sources of intelligence. We may not even know—I mean, reporters are doggedly following this—but we may not even be party publicly to a lot of new precedents. And so, again, there are ways to check it, but it’s going to take time. And we shouldn’t expect a lot of action very fast.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Daniel Morgan Graduate School.

Q: Thank you. How do you see Trump’s admiration for Putin impact what’s happening in Syria?

SAUNDERS: Another good question.

So I think that Trump’s admiration for Putin, and general feeling that Russia—we can have a good relationship with Russia without kind of—a lot of people point out that we can reset relations with Russia without necessarily giving away the store and that, again, we can have a debate about whether we can—we can have a rapprochement with Russia, but we wouldn’t necessarily want to go about it this way, and do it without forcing Russia to give something up. And I think—I think it—Trump’s desire to be kind of on the same side as Russia, at least in Syria, would strengthen the hand of Assad, obviously.

It would—it would—I mean, it has the potential to at least in some respects be helpful, only in the sense that civil wars tend to—it’s hard to get civil wars to end. And one of the ways they end is that one side finally wins. And so if you believe that the remaining civilians who are suffering would be better off if just one side finally won, then maybe you could say that getting on the same side with Russia and letting Assad end the war in his favor would, at least, bring some semblance of—you know, would terminate the conflict and provide some stability. On the other hand, that is not been U.S. policy. He’s not necessarily in U.S. interests. It’s a bit unsavory to even consider.

So I think—I think it really raises a host of questions about what exactly are U.S. goals in Syria? Do they—do they trump the longer-term consideration of whether we should have a reset with Russia that doesn’t involve taking a strong line with Russia first? Again, we—it falls under the category of things we could have a serious debate about, but we wouldn’t go about it this way. We wouldn’t just say, OK, we’re going to just have a good relationship with Russia and therefore be on the same side in Syria. We’d want to do that in a very careful way that shows Russia that, you know, they can’t push us around and we’re not just going to follow their lead.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from City College of New York.

FASKIANOS: Are you there?

Q: Hello, I’m—I am.


Q: Particularly within Latin America and the Caribbean, there has been a substantial reliance on America as a main trading partner. How are we going to deal with the impacts both with the Trump administration as well as post the Trump administration, especially given China’s expansion into these states?

SAUNDERS: This is a great question. You guys really have all brought your A-game today.

So I think that Latin America and in particular Mexico—with respect to all this discussion of the wall—is a very good example of Trump picking a fight where—some place that wasn’t on that list of—the survey of potential problems, right? This is an area where there’s been a lot of stability and goodwill. For better, for worse, NAFTA has provided a lot of stability and goodwill and security, in addition to trade flows—the North American Free Trade Agreement. And I think that’s not—I mean, there have been some concerned and some challenges, and so I don’t mean to minimize those, but this has not been an area, maybe with the exception of Venezuela and some of the political problems in Brazil, where this has not been high on the list of countries that were worried about a major, major crisis.

And we had pretty good—this is a success story, I would say—again, without minimizing problems. There are a lot of benefits that we now take for granted about our relationship with Latin America. And even if you think there are problems, you wouldn’t necessarily say that what Trump has done in his first 12 days in office would solve them, right? What he’s done is essentially provoked friends for very little reason that anyone can identify. The issue of the wall and who will pay for it is—I mean, what would country would just say, sure, we’ll pay for the wall? So if he tries to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, that would have serious consequences for American consumers, American farmers, American manufacturers, not—most of them not good, in addition to what it would do domestically within Mexico and with the knock-on effects across Latin American and the Caribbean.

So I think the immediate short-run effects if he follows—if he goes any further with this are potentially not good. But I think you—embedded in your question is something really important that we haven’t talked about. And that—you mentioned the post-Trump administration. And that’s worth discussing, because I think—you know, one of the things that we haven’t—we’re so caught up in following the day-to-day events, we haven’t really even begun to wrestle with is what are the long-term effects of this, even after the Trump administration, whenever it ends? Are we going to be taken at our word in future administrations? If we make these agreements, are they going to be seen as, well, you know, maybe a president will come in and break them.

And you’ve probably studied in your courses that there’s some theories that democracies are more credible in the—when they make a promise, it’s more likely that countries will believe them internationally. Is the Trump administration going to have long-term effects on that, at least in the United States? We don’t know, but it’s certainly something worth thinking about, worth keeping an eye on. This is just the beginning. We don’t know what other—you know, there’s CAFTA, there’s plenty of other trade agreements that he could decide to upend, renegotiate. And if everything’s always up for renegotiation, this sort of stability of the expectations of firms and people about what arrangements are, which is part of what makes democracies and groups of democracies function well and have some advantages, those will start to erode.

And so it isn’t just the Trump effect. It’s the everything that comes after Trump effect. And maybe I’ll—maybe we’ll look back in history and say, well, you know, that was—that was a period where we broke a lot of promises, but then we went back to keeping our promises, and maybe we won’t. But I think you’re right to bring it up.

FASKIANOS: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Miami Dade College.

Q: Hello. My name is David Delatantes (sp) from Miami Dade College.

My question is, would Trump make an example with this executive ban of immigration? Do you think other European countries will follow suit? And what could be the ripple effects for the U.S. in the coming years after? Thank you.

SAUNDERS: Good question.

I’m not an expert in domestic European law, but I would say part of the rationale for Brexit, for some people who voted for it, was the idea of, quote, “taking back our borders,” because the European Union—part of the deal if you join the European Union is that you give up some control, in the sense that there’s an exterior perimeter around Europe and once you penetrate it you can move freely—free movement of people within Europe, the so-called Schengen agreement. And some people in Britain don’t like that, and want to be able to have more of a quota system, something—or just have more direct control over who comes in and who doesn’t.

So the United States adopting a policy—obviously, we don’t have that kind of—you know, we’re just one country. But the United States adopting a policy like this might give fuel to the fire to those who say, well, they’re doing it, why can’t we. It might make it more attractive to other European countries who want to break away from the Schengen arrangement. So it remains to be seen. I mean, it’s—I think the greater likelihood is more that the populist sentiment that is allowing these opinions to be expressed will be more freely expressed.

It’s no longer—as more and more countries begin to act on these kinds of sentiments and they have expression in national policy or, at least, major politicians at the national level are debating them, it becomes less taboo, it becomes more something that can be debated. And these are things that used to be kind of off the table, like you just couldn’t—immigration was dealt with in Europe at the European level if you were part of the European Union. And that is just no longer necessarily going to be the case. So, again, it falls into the category of things that are eroding.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Gabrielle Bardall with the University of Montreal.

Q: Hi. I’m an APSA Congressional Fellow.

My question is about the—what’s happening at the State Department right now. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen a lot of changes and a lot of high-level departures, what going on right now with the Dissent Channel, and, most worryingly, this gag order between communications of State and Congress. So I was wondering if you could speak to that a little bit. Thank you.

SAUNDERS: Yes. This is a really good question and a very interesting problem.

So just to kind of—in case others are not aware—the State Department has what’s known as the Dissent Channel. And it was borne out of the Vietnam War and the feeling that people who didn’t believe department policy or U.S. foreign policy was on the right course could not speak out for fear of retaliation against promotion and appointments, which is highly competitive within the State Department. And the feeling was that that was sort of having a chilling effect on airing of different views and making sure that different voices were heard, that different perspectives could get a fair hearing, that information from different quarters was being properly shared.

And so they created the Dissent Channel—I believe, in 1971, but don’t quote me, but thereabouts—expressly for this purpose. And it’s not meant to—you know, as The New York Times put it yesterday, like, this wasn’t meant to say, well, the food in the cafeteria in the Iraqi embassy is no good this week. This is meant to be really serious concern about the direction of U.S. policy. And occasionally it has really bubbled up. So there were—there was a very strong use of it during the Bosnia crisis in the early ’90s. Last year, I believe, or two years ago there was a major—there was a memo signed by a number of people through that channel on U.S.-Syria policy, urging a stronger line under the Obama administration, to take tougher action in Syria.

But the—and the whole idea is that not only can you not retaliate against the people who use the channel, it’s there so that—so that dissent can be expressed without fear of retaliation, but also you’re obligated to respond to it in some way. The department—the heads of the department of obligated to respond. So the Dissent Channel has now been used. And at least count, the Times had a piece about the amazing response. About a thousand people have now signed it to express dissent about the executive order on immigration and refugees. Some of that is process. People are not pleased that they haven’t been consulted about implementation or whether it’s a good idea. But I think a lot of it is substantive. You know, this is just not—this policy is not in U.S. interests and it’s morally wrong, or—you know, there’s an array of concerns. And people may be signing for more than one reason.

So this is a huge up-swell of dissent from within the State Department. And the fact that it’s so many is very important because there’s no—there’s nothing really that—yes, it’s supposed to be the case that you don’t retaliate against the people who use this channel, but really what’s going to enforce that, right? If the Trump administration wants to retaliate against them, they probably could, and maybe in visible ways, it may be in invisible ways. Somebody doesn’t get a promotion. I mean, it’s just very hard to know. And we as outsiders don’t necessarily know all the internal machinations. How would we know if these subtle effects or subtle kinds of retaliations would be taken? So the fact that it’s so many I think is very important, because there is strength in numbers.

The other thing that I think is very important to remember, and that sometimes gets lost even in the reporting on this, we do not currently have a confirmed secretary of state. Rex Tillerson hasn’t—at least not as of this moment—I’ve kind of lost track of what the vote is—but he’s not in place right now. And as many people point out, the department has plenty competent people who are career professionals who can run it, although several of them were essentially forced out last week, so that pool has been diluted too. But it’s not say that nobody’s minding the store. But there’s a difference between that, you know, minding the story, and having an actual conduit to the White House who is a member of the Cabinet, who could go to President Trump, or any president, and convey these concerns or provide—you know, stand out in front and protect the Cabinet—protect the members of the department from incoming fire from the White House. The absence of that sort of political appointee I think really does matter.

And so I think the really critical moment’s probably going to come when Tillerson—assuming he is confirmed—comes in and what his response is to the Dissent Channel. If he provides a strong voice to sort of protect the right of these people to dissent, even if he doesn’t take a position on it, I think that’ll be a very strong signal. But it also may set up a conflict with President Trump. So don’t forget that we don’t have a secretary of state, a confirmed secretary—we have an acting, but we don’t have a confirmed secretary of state. And I think the political dynamic—because we are talking here about internal politics within the administration, which is always true in every administration. There’s always internal politics, bureaucratic politics. This is the pulling and hauling, the essence of decision. Graham Allison, I’m sure many of you have read this for some class or other. Who has the president’s ear, who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out, that’s really important. And at the moment, the secretary of state is essentially missing in action from that dynamic. So when he comes in, assuming he gets through, that will be a very important kind of internal political moment to watch.

FASKIANOS: Yeah. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Texas A&M University.

Q: All right. Thank you very much.

With the recent outbreak out violence in the eastern Ukraine again, what do you think about the future for Eastern European security and the Baltics with Donald Trump in office, especially regarding Russian aggression? Thank you.

SAUNDERS: Oh, boy. We could be here all day talking about that one. (Laughs.)

Yeah, it’s scary that the—that violence in Ukraine has broken out again. It’s only day 12. It feels like—many things feel like they are—they were already last year. The concern about Russian hacking and the sort of post-election revelations about Russia feel many crises ago already, even though some of them were front page news only, what, two weeks ago. This administration is causing my sense of time to become very warped. (Laughs.) I wouldn’t say that there’s anything good to be said about that, from the U.S. perspective. The NATO alliance is under stress from Brexit.

Nobody’s talking about—the Europeans are not, including the British, are not talking about getting out of NATO, but NATO is undergirded by economic strength. And that is threatened by Brexit. So there’s the stress from that. There’s the stress from Trump saying that he thinks NATO is obsolete, which undermines the credibility of the American commitment to NATO. There’s Trump’s view—favorable view of Russia and Putin, which I think makes the Baltic allies very nervous. And now you have renewed Russian—you have renewed conflict in Ukraine.

So all of that is an ingredient potentially for confrontation. And it’s no accident that the—you know, that’s one reason why a Russia-NATO confrontation was very—was basically second on the list of—in the CFR Preventive Action Survey. So watch this space, is all I can say. I mean, I think the first 100 days of any presidency is always unpredictable. The Times—the New York Times had a wonderful piece the other day, sort of an oral history of people who had been involved in the first hundred days of several different administrations.

And it’s just remarkable that these administrations come in with grand plans and then something happens—the EP spy plane in the W. Bush administration, even before 9/11 itself, the Waco crisis, which I had forgotten was so early in the Clinton administration, and before that the gays in the military, which was kind of a self-inflicted wound in some respects, but took up a lot of time and energy. Things go off the rails quickly. Presidents don’t—are not in control of where these crises happen. And even if Putin feels more emboldened because of Trump’s statements, you know, Trump is not in control of what’s happening there. And so this is coming down the pike. If it isn’t there, it’ll be North Korea.

So, you know, that’s—we got to—that’s one reason why figuring out where the center of power is in terms of NSC or who—where Trump is getting his information from, who’s going to wake him up at 3:00 a.m., all those questions are really important, because one of these things is going to flare up to the point where someone’s got to make a big decision. Sorry, I realize, I must not be—it’s a good thing we’re having this conversation at noon and not, like, right before bedtime. (Laughs.)

FASKIANOS: (Laughs.) Right. I’m sorry, and as you said, he has very few people in place too. So in addition—

SAUNDERS: Yeah, it’s still—

FASKIANOS: —to the Cabinet, there’s all these positions below that have yet to be filled. And that’s—

SAUNDERS: And there’s rumors of disputes, Mattis, you know, not getting the people he wants. I don’t believe the deputy secretary of state’s been even named yet. I mean, there’s a tremendous number of unfilled seats. And the ones that have been named, they’re not all confirmed. And some of that is a little overblown in the sense that you do—that happens in ever administration. But most previous administrations signal in some way that they value the expertise of the department. They will work—you know, there’s a good—there’s a smooth transition, handoff. They value what the outgoing administration tells them at the professional level that they were—you know, but this is administration that’s come in with a very confrontational view of the entire intelligence community, for example. And so the—you know, that is—that’s a part of what makes this different. It isn’t just the rate at which these people are being named and confirmed. It’s that the whole relationship inside—sort of the usual channels of information and power are being completely upended.

 FASKIANOS: Yeah. And there seems to be this suspicion, or this thought, that all of those—they’re politically motivated, and a lack of understanding that they’re not political appointees, and these are—you know, they’re not expressing their own political opinions in terms of the intelligence community.

SAUNDERS: Yes, yes.

FASKIANOS: Has there been any other president that you’ve seen that has had such a sort of skepticism of the intelligence community, as you’ve looked at past presidents?

SAUNDERS: Certainly not right off the bat. So the one that comes to mind is John F. Kennedy, who came into office fairly knowledgeable about foreign affairs—although, from long—you know, he had military experience, he’d served on the Foreign Relations Committee, he was genuinely interested in it and made a lot of study of it. But he, of course, had never been in executive office before. And he inherited from Dwight Eisenhower the plan for the Bay of Pigs Invasion, took it pretty much on spec, and it was, of course, a big disaster. And after that, he developed a very strong skepticism of the military and the intelligence community, and sort of made sure he got some independent information, reached down into other layers of the bureaucracy.

But I think that’s quite different from this. He didn’t come in totally mistrusting them. He didn’t stop asking them for his opinion, he just make sure he got a second opinion. He didn’t—you know, he—this isn’t to say that the intelligence community—intelligence officials don’t ever make mistakes. They do. But to come in immediately with this level of skepticism to the point of not even taking the PDB, the presidential daily brief every day, is—that really has no precedent. So, again, I think the other thing we have to be cautious about as we kind of try to read things and follow along, is people love to get a historical analogy and say, well, this happened before so this can’t be that different.

OK, but we have to think about, you know, just because it happened before doesn’t mean it’s good that it’s happening now. And if it happened before, was it really the same thing? And, you know, I think that’s why I—you know, sure other presidents have had skepticism of the intelligence community, but never to this degree. Never this early. And never this completely. Sure, it’s been the case that politics has, you know, made their way into the NSC. David Axelrod did go to some NSC meetings. That’s very, very different from naming your chief strategist as an automatic attendees or invitee to NSC and Principles Committee meetings. So, again, you don’t want to fall into the trap of what some people call what-aboutism. What about so-and-so? What about this other historical precedent? Ask yourself when you read these things, is that—does that mean it’s all fine for Trump to do it? The answer’s often no.

FASKIANOS: Right. Well, I mean, he’s certainly using his Twitter account in a very different way—well, President Obama was really probably the—social media has been over this past decade, probably, really increased its—been on the uptick. But Trump is using it in a very different way than we’ve seen before.

SAUNDERS: Absolutely. And so again, you know, President Obama used Twitter, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good that Trump is doing it on an unsecured Android phone, right? (Laughs.) So without—you know, without consultation with his advisors, you know, first thing on Saturday morning—just because someone—another president did it before doesn’t make it OK now, and also doesn’t mean it’s the same thing. You know, we have to—we have to—you always want to make sure you unpack these historical analogies and see them for what they really are.

FASKIANOS: Right. I think we have—we have many more questions. So my apologies for not being able to take all the questions. But let’s try to squeeze in one more.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Friends Seminary.

Q: Officially over at—oh. Yeah, sorry.

Q: Given Trump’s position on Israel, specifically planning to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, how will the role of the U.S. change with respect to the Israel-Palestine question, noting the people advising Trump, and how might it shape the future of the Middle East?

SAUNDERS: Oh, not at all a thorny question. I’m kidding, of course. It is among the thorniest.

So I think—forgive me if I have lost the thread of this with all the other news—but my sense is that the move of the embassy to Jerusalem is now—is not off the table, it has been tabled for the time being. Irina, I think that’s right.

FASKIANOS: I think that’s—it’s hard to keep track but—


FASKIANOS: Last—it has been tabled for now, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see another tweet about it.

SAUNDERS: Right. I think it’s been tabled for now, which is—which I think we should all get used to saying, “for now.” And I think that that at least takes—allows sort of a pause, because I do think that this—you know, Israel is a very important—apart from our relationship with Israel, Israel is a major, major military player in the region, and I think sometimes underappreciated with respect to some of the—the conflicts. And the Israeli military is a major force, obviously, in the Middle East.

And I think doing anything to destabilize the U.S.-Israel relationship, even if it appears to be something that would be—that the current Israeli government would be in favor of—again, you know, you don’t know what’s going to happen in Israeli politics next. I think that that would be—have so many potential knock-on effects that it’s just good that that hasn’t—you know, again, maybe someday we’ll have a discussion about that, but things are in such flux right now that keeping the embassy where it is for now is probably a good thing. Which isn’t to say that we’re not going to revisit that question.

You know, again, all these decisions that Trump is taking, when he decides not to do something doesn’t mean he isn’t going to do it down the road. So, I mean, it would—it would unleash a whole series of things that haven’t been on the table for a while. And I think we want to get to a more sort of stable place with all these other issues floating around before that ever come down the pike.

FASKIANOS: Right. And some of this may change when more people are in place in the Cabinet and below in terms of the process and what we’re seeing.

SAUNDERS: Yeah, they may feel—I mean, that may—I’m purely speculating here. But they may have felt, you know, they weren’t ready to take on the blowback that—or the follow-on effects of that without people in place. That’s another one of these things that it’s sort of a—there’s no—there’s no precipitating reason to do it now, rather than some other time. And so they may have just decided that they had control over the timing of that, and now is not the time. They may have decided they’re never going to do it, who knows. But you know, it would certainly have a lot of knock-on effects.

FASKIANOS: Well, Elizabeth, thank you very much for this conversation. We really appreciate it. And to all of you for your great questions.

SAUNDERS: They really were terrific questions. Very good questions.

FASKIANOS: Really great questions. So we’re off to a great start for the semester. I hope that you all will follow Elizabeth Saunders on her twitter at @ProfSaunders. And she’s a regular contributor to the Monkey Cage. So you should look for her analysis there.

Our next call will be on Thursday February 16 at 3:00 p.m. eastern time with Harvard University’s Mary Elise Sarotte, who will lead the conversation on Germany and the future of Europe. So, in the meantime, I hope you all will follow us, CFR’s Academic Outreach Initiative, on Twitter at @CFR_Academic for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events. So thank you all again, and thank you to Elizabeth.

SAUNDERS: Thank you so much. And I hope everyone has a great rest of the semester. Keep up the great questions.


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