Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, recently tweeted a provocative take on Trump foreign policy. He wrote: "NATO. Paris Accords. Saudi Arabia. Cuba. Trump foreign policy has only one guiding principle: do the opposite of Obama, no matter the cost." Of course, his is a partisan take. That said, it makes for an interesting debate topic, as it does at least have the veneer of truth, right? He's only been in office a few months, yet Trump has already targeted several of Obama's key foreign policies. So, with that in mind, I asked my CWCP colleague Yohanes Sulaiman for his thoughts on Murphy's tweet. His response is below, and mine follows afterward.
Yohanes Sulaiman: Trump as anti-Obama?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that he is against a lot of stuff that Obama was for, like the Paris Accords. But at the same time, Trump is basically responding to what his main constituents, those in the rust belt who voted for him, think and want politically, economically, and so on. His supporters are against trade deals and the Paris Accords, for example, because they fear both are job killers. Like it or not, that's what many people in the so-called flyover states believe.
To simply call whatever Trump does as anti-Obama risks ignoring the real and valid concerns of Trump's base and that, in turn, could hand Trump another term in 2020 on a silver platter.
Brad Nelson: At first glance, there does seem to be an anti-Obama bent to Trump's foreign policy. After all, there have been a number of shifts or reversals, on a wide range of issues, from the Obama era: climate change, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Europe (NATO/EU), and so on. I suspect there are a number of motives in play; it's not as simple as an anti-Obama reflexive impulse. Here are a few guesses.
First, Trump could genuinely believe that Obama foreign policy was misguided, that he sincerely thinks Obama was dragging the US in a wrong direction globally and regionally on security, diplomatic and economic affairs.
Second, he might seek to limit the successes and preferably damage Obama's legacy because of a personal beef with Obama. It's possible. Some say jealously is a factor: that he can’t get past the fact his predecessor was so beloved by the media and a considerable swath of the American public. Others point to personal animosity. For instance, if Trump really sees the ongoing Russiagate negative headlines and investigations as a conspiracy driven by Obama and his staff (like Susan Rice) and Obama holdovers in the US government, it would make sense that he has a big axe to grind against Obama himself. Rolling back or watering down his purported "successes,” like the Paris Accords, the opening to Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, among other things, are viable ways to spite Obama.
Third, as you suggest, domestic politics likely play a big role here. Many of Trump’s foreign policies and policy statements—including, yes, his tweets—are supported by his core supporters. He’s simply doing what his base wants. For instance, his base wants the wall built, think they’re being ripped off on trade deals by foreign nations, want a more aggressive approach to Islamic terrorism, demand US allies and friend to do more “burden sharing,” see climate change as either a hoax or something that’s been overly dramatized by liberals, and don’t see Russia, and Putin in particular, as enemies of the US. As a result, then, Trump has a domestic political incentive to move away, more or less, from certain Obama foreign policies.
Fourth, Trump seems to have an affinity for strongmen, for autocrats, and that’s moved US foreign policy away from prizing human rights and reform, which stands in contrast to the Obama years. At one time or another, he’s complimented or praised a wide array of foreign autocrats, including al-Sisi, Putin, Kim Jong Un, Erdogan, King Salman, Duterte, Xi Jinping, just to name but a few. Now, why is this the case? Perhaps it’s because his strategic thinking is in line with realpolitik, which coldly prioritizes national security interests above mushy-headed ideals. Maybe it’s because he sees the world’s autocrats as political brothers, with whom he shares similar political beliefs and instincts. Perhaps it’s because he has business interests in some authoritarian countries, and so he feels the need to cozy up to and flatter leaders there.