Trump, the Military and US Foreign Policy

This post is by Katharine Hall, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary Online.

Last month, Time ran a headline, “President Trump Is Spending $20 Billion on an Aircraft Carrier. The Navy Wanted That Money for Cybersecurity.” Ignoring for a moment the specific content here, the structure of this headline could stand in well as a key descriptor of Trump’s foreign policy and how he operates within the US government more generally: “Trump decides to do X, against the advice of experts.”

Trump's approach to foreign policy

This is obviously not the only way to characterize his presidency, but it is a common trope that appears again and again in trying to make sense of his foreign and military actions. Not only does this make it difficult to predict contemporary US foreign policy positions and actions, but Trump’s approach raises questions about where and how foreign policy is now made in the US government and whether this is radically changing.

As we will discuss in the Themes and Cases in US Foreign Policy module, the particular structure and history of the US government (its checks and balances, the assignment of different foreign policy roles under the Constitution to the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary, the number of institutions potentially involved in foreign policy making, and so on) has shaped foreign policy outcomes.

While the Executive and the President usually come out on top -- for example with the War Powers Resolution (intended to support Congress’ role in limiting the President’s ability to go to war, but rarely used effectively) – these institutions and structures are meant as a check on unilateral decision making. We could say that the experts and staff that the President surrounds him/herself with also can serve as this check.

A last-minute change to the Navy's budget

Which takes us back to the case of the Navy. Earlier in the year, the Navy produced a report arguing that that future of the Navy was more in cyberwarfare and cybersecurity than in force projection through ships like the aircraft carriers. The was supported by the Navy, however Trump made a last-minute decision to change the Navy’s budget. Without consulting the Secretary of the Navy, $20 billion were diverted in part to repair the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier.

This case is especially interesting for a number of reasons. First, it shows the Navy’s desire to shift from the physical force protection of the seas to more of an engagement with information and cyber. This raises questions about the changing nature of warfare, the function of military institutions, threat perceptions, and the role that technology plays in shaping all of this. Second, and related to this last point, it demonstrates the power of weapons systems and concrete infrastructures, like aircraft carriers, to sway policymakers over investing in less concrete or visible measure.

Lastly, it demonstrates the unpredictability and unilateralism of Trump’s policy-making and how we can understand it within longer traditions of US foreign policy – as mentioned the Navy only found out about this budget decision after it was made, fitting in with a growing trend to make policy through Twitter and social media.

We explore a range of issues relating to US Foreign Policy, including how and by whom it is made, in Queen Mary Online's MA in International Relations module, ‘Themes And Cases in US Foreign Policy’.

Learn more about the International Relations MA  🡪

Topics: MA international relations, online masters in international relations, US foreign policy

Recent Posts