American presidents don't wield huge amounts of power domestically. They have several branches of government to content with, designed explicitly to keep in check their policy ambitions, and a strong judicial system that can strike down policies that are deemed unconstitutional. This is the beauty and the frustration of the US system -- it stops good presidents from enacting good policies, but it also stops bad ones from completely destroying the country.
However, presidents do wield significant power when it comes to the nation's foreign policy, and that power has been growing over the past five decades. As presidential historian Robert Dalek notes:
The President’s control over foreign affairs had been growing since the Theodore Roosevelt administration (and still grows today). TR’s acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone preceded Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter World War I, which was a prelude to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s management of the run-up to the victorious American effort in World War II. In the 1950s, Harry S. Truman’s response to the Soviet threat included the decision to fight in Korea without a Congressional declaration of war, and Dwight Eisenhower used the Central Intelligence Agency and brinksmanship to contain Communism. Nineteenth-century presidents had had to contend with Congressional influences in foreign affairs, and particularly with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But by the early 1960s, the president had become the undisputed architect of U.S. foreign policy.
When Obama became president, the US adopted a more cautious foreign policy based on pragmatism and the use of soft power. Obama was an internationalist and believed strongly in communicating and cooperating with the outside world. His administration was stacked with experienced foreign policy operators and skilled diplomats, and his government attracted the best and the brightest to work for him. Obama's foreign policy was certainly flawed, but it was always comforting to know that grownups were in charge and were generally working for a more harmonious world.
As the world's most powerful nation, the United States is crucial to maintaining global stability. This isn't to say that America has always done good in the world -- from Vietnam to Iraq, US foreign policy has been complex and on occasion, extremely destructive. It's cooperation with the outside world and strong leadership however, has meant relative historic peace over the past 70 years. When compared with centuries of the past, humanity is currently living in one of the most peaceful eras in recorded history. We are more interconnected, more cooperated, and more tolerant of each other than ever before. But as history also shows us, one bad actor can upend the international order and plunge the world into awesomely catastrophic wars. And should that bad actor be in charge of the most powerful country on earth, the threat of catastrophe is all the more serious.
During his tenure as president, Donald Trump has displayed little interest in engaging cooperatively with the international community. He has:
- Pulled the US out of the historic Paris Climate Agreement
- Urged the break up of the EU by backing Brexit.
- Backed Vladimir Putin and done little to curb Russia's aggressiveness in Eastern Europe.
- Started a trade war with China.
- Ripped up the Iran nuclear agreement.
- Moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
- Canceled a historic summit with North Korea
There appears to be only one consistent theme when it comes to analyzing Trump's foreign policy agenda, and it is that of absolute chaos. Or in other words, there is no agenda. Trump makes decisions based on what he feels like that day, destroying fragile agreements that have taken years to negotiate, smashing diplomatic norms, and throwing regions into chaos, and mostly to appease his far right base. It is the one arena where Trump has a decent amount of power, and he is wielding it with reckless abandon.
If there was a method behind his madness, the rest of the world could at least adapt to his erratic behavior and get to grips with the larger picture. But as it stands, there appears to be no method and just madness. There is no replacement for the Iran nuclear deal. There is no strategy in place to further what is left of the peace agreement in the Middle East. There is no coherent economic policy towards China that will protect American interests in the long term. There is no plan to deal with North Korea after the summit was canceled. There is no strong relationship left with the EU, or even Great Britain. The international order that broadly kept the peace after World War II is falling apart, and there is no plan to replace it.
There is nothing. America has no foreign policy, and no president.
Sadly, the rest of the world must come to terms with this and created a more robust international community without America. Trump cannot be negotiated with in good faith, because he does not understand what he is talking about and will never keep his word. He cannot be included in complex negotiations to curb the threat of nuclear war, or reduce humanity's environmental impact, because he does not think they are worth bothering with. The US is leaderless, and only American voters can bring an end to this awful void.