As everyone already knows, Donald Trump won the US presidential elections, apparently taking almost everyone by surprise. The victory speech was followed by two things: jokes and an even larger number of apocalyptic scenarios that were spread by various news channels or some so-called foreign policy analysts. Some even predicted a “180 degrees change in US foreign policy”. Others even detailed how this will happen, for example by withdrawing the United States from a series of treaties which its diplomats recently signed, such as the Paris Agreements or by completely renegotiating the Joint Plan and Comprehensive Action (JCPOA ) signed with Iran in 2015.
What both the analysts and the news channels failed to do – deliberately or not –, was to refer to a specific document which is very relevant in this situation: the US Constitution. They also failed to take into account the history of the United States – deliberately or not – as well as to take into consideration certain realities of international relations. From each point they would have found answers to some of the more pressing dilemmas that have arisen due to the populist rhetoric generally used by Donald Trump troughout his campaign.
Thus, do all those apocalyptic scenarios that circulated in the press have any grounds?
Is Donald Trump able to change something substantial externally and / or internally?
Is Donald Trump really the “pro-Russian dictator who threatens the very idea of democracy”?
Can Donald Trump build a wall between Mexico and the United States and force Mexico to pay for it?
First, the United States is neither Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Secondly, in the United States one man cannot possibly gain so much power that he alone could decide everything, whether we talk about foreign policy or the domestic one. And third, there is no such thing as “the most powerful man on the planet”.
Any politician, be he president of the United States, is subject to a set of external and internal constraints. These constraints come from several directions simultaneously, limiting his options and, consequently, his decision-making power. In the case of the US President we have the following constraints:
The domestic constraints – the limitations imposed by the US Constitution
Constitutional provisions on presidential powers were drafted from the very beggining by the Founding Fathers. After all, they had just passed over a disastrous experience in which the government of a weak English king – namely George III – tried to forecefully limit the rights of the American Colonies. The consequence of this decision was the outbreak of the American War of Independence, which George III eventually lost. For the Founding Fathers, however, the whole experience motivated them enough to impose certain legal barriers in order to prevent an individual – any individual, including the President – to amass too much power in the state. Everything was done in the idea that, what happened during the reign of George III, will never happen again.
In fact, the Founding Fathers were so frightened by the very idea of “authority” that the entire division of duties was made so that even the power of the Federal Government would be limited, giving local governments a higher level of autonomy. The provisions have been included in the well-known Bill of Rights. And the “fear of central authority” was transmitted to subsequent generations and persists to this day.
According to the Constitution, for almost all the internal decisions, the President needs the cooperation of the Congress and, in some cases, of that of the Federal Reserve as well. None of these institutions are under the authority of the President. In light of his duties as Head of Government, the President has executive power, but not as high as the prime ministers of other countries. In fact, on domestic policy, almost the entire executive power of the President is subject to congressional approval. While other executive powers were transferred completely to the Congress, such as the regulation of commerce with other countries or among the American states.
Because of these legal limitations, it is questionable if Donald Trump will be able to lower the taxes – as he promised –, given that the authority needed to meet this objective belongs to the Congress and the local governments, not to the President. Also, due to these limitations it is questionable even if it is indeed possiblefor him to build that much-debated wall between Mexico and the United States. That’s because the decision-making power to fulfill this task belongs to the local governments, or at most to the Congress. And even if, by absurd, the wall will be built, it will be interesting to see exactly how Mexico – a sovereign state with which the United States has very close economic relations – will be forced to cover the costs of a project in another state. Lastly, it would be interesting to see how Donald Trump would try to rebuild the infrastructure – power that doesn’t belong to him -, to stop money for space the exploration process – a power that does not belongs to him -, or to bring back to the States jobs moved to China – a power that also does not belong to him. The mere fact that he could promise all these things in a presidential campaign and that he was believed, shows that both his own voters and his opponents do not know enough – or at all – their own Constitution.
In other words, the US president has a secondary role when it comes to domestic policy. And these limitations have been met by all the presidents. For example, one of the few internal decision – admitedly a major one – for which President Barrack Obama is known during his eight years in office, is Obamacare. And imposing Obamacare needed years of “campaigning” and lobbying, being far from popular. And for the adoption of Obamacare, the Democratic Party lost its majority in Congress. That Donald Trump will be able to remove Obamacare, as he promised, remains to be seen because, again, it’s really not just up to him. He can, o course, recommend it and come up with an alternative project, but the decision-making power lies within the Congress. And the Congress, even though it’s dominated by the Republicans, may or may not choose support it, depending on what alternative Donald Trump would provide.
The external constraints -the dynamics of international relations
Under the Constitution, the President has more powers when it comes to foreign policy. For example, he can draw the general lines of the foreign policy of the Uited States, or he can initiate negotiations with other countries. But he cannot make declarations of war – a power reserved for the Congress – but has enough power to “initiate” conflicts with other states. So, without many legal limitations, most of the constraints placed on the US President lay not in the United States proper, but on how things develop internationally. And how the decisions of an American President are judged and analyzed depends very much on the life and historical experience of each and everyone of us.
The global environment is relatively unpredictable and uncontrollable. Sure, some things can be predicted and controlled, but most of them cannot. For example, when Barrack Obama began his first term, he was simultaneously faced with two wars – one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan -, but also with a financial crisis. If the first were foreseeable by virtue of the fact that they were already in progress for years, the second was not. Both, however, defined the terms of President Barack Obama. And depending on where you live in the world, you can characterize the management of these situation as poor or good. From a Romanian perspective, in regard to the Russian Federation for example, the word “bad” would better characterize the overall foreign policy drew by the Democrats. Even though in Romania a NATO base was built at Deveselu – project which emerged during the presidency of Republican George W. Bush anyway.
Other examples of unpredictble situations could be the crisis in Ukraine, the annexation of the Crimean Pen. and the Russian invasion in Eastern Ukraine. All these were unlikely to be predicted in the first term of Barack Obama.
In all these cases the response capacity of the United States was limited, on the one hand by the response of its partners, on the other hand, by that of its opponents. For example, in the Ukrainian crisis, the Russian Federation responded by actually invading Ukraine, while the European Union imposed a set of sanctions that were tougher than those of the US, but at the same maintaining an appeasing attitude vis-a-vis the Federation Russian. It would be insufficient to say that the United States’ European allies simply aligned their behaviour in accordance with what Washington dictated. As well as it would be simplistic to assert that the regional adversary of the United States – in this case the Russian Federation – had no saying in the matter. Making such statements would completely miss the complexities of the international relations.
So we see how Barrack Obama’s mandate was simultaneously influenced by decisions taken during his predecessor, George W. Bush, how it was influenced by the unpredictable, but also by his own decisions, good or bad.
Donald Trump will be confronted with the same things, all able to limit / redirect his options. It remains to be seen to what extent will he be able to avoid conflict with the Russian Federation – as he said he will – considering that the latter continues to fly over the airspace of the Baltic States or to send troops and supplies in Ukraine.
Lastly, Donald Trump will have to give some continuity to the foreign policy plans that were already drawn during Barack Obama’s term. And, likely, in the first 2-3 years – possibly even the whole mandate – he will do just that. That’s because, when you’re the president of a global power, foreign policy changes can be neither sudden nor contrary to those made by your predecessor. Such an approach would make even more unpredictable – and thus more prone to conflicts – an international environment already quite unpredictable.
Accumulating all these constraints, we can conclude that Donald Trump’s space for maneuver will be very small and, very likely, he will need a second term in order to really leave his mark on the US foreign policy.
What could Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States mean for Eastern Europe?
Traditionally the Republicans have been more active, more determined and coherent externally than the Democrats. It is enough to put in balance the decisions made during the mandate of Republican George W. Bush on the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and those taken during the term of Democrat Barrack Obama on the withdrawal from the two countries. Obviously, this “tradition” is not infallible, but it is an clear difference in vision between the two parties. So Donald Trump, like all other presidents before him, will have to take into account the views coming from his own party and his own advisers – of the Establishment in general. And we should not forget that the important US strategic decisions are always taken with the consent of both parties.
There is no other choice because, without any doubt, Donald Trump is part of the establishment – the same establishment to which Hillary Clinton belongs. Even though he has publicly stated that he doesn’t. The most visible evidence that he is part of the establishment is that he was supported by numerous congressmen, governors, members of the Armed Forces of the United States and advisers with years of experience in various governmental structures. The difference between him and Hillary Clinton is that, until now, he was not part of any government structures – as it was the case of Bill Clinton, Barrack Obama or George W. Bush.
So, if we were to make predictions about the status of Eastern Europe in front of the Russian influence, then we might have have something to gain from yet another Republican mandate, be it Donald Trump’s.
For Eastern Europe, the Eastern border of NATO, it matters less what decisions are taken internally in the United States – such as, for example, any decision on the fate of Obamacare. But foreign policy decisions certainly count. Obviously, we must not lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, what happens internally in the United States may have repercussions abroad as well. But this is not guaranteed. In the end, Eastern Europe did not suffer the consequences of the adoption of Obamacare, as it suffered the consequences following of the relative detachment of the United States from European issues between 2009-2014.
A concrete example is the initiative commonly known as the “Russian reset”, which in February 2009, from within the State Department headed by Hillary Clinton. Following this so-called “reset in diplomatic relations”, the United States and the Russian Federation agreed to freeze the escalation of tensions between them. Admitedly, it was quite clear even than that it was merely a temporary situation – which it was -, but it was one that allowed Russia – with the complicity of the EU, especially Germany – to create problems in Europe. When referring to problems, I can relate to different episodes of internal instability in the Baltics, in Rep. Moldova, the seizure of some segments of the European energy infrastructure, or the construction of the Nord Stream I pipeline between Germany and Russia which created certain vulnerabilities for Poland and Ucraine. The “Russian reset” was a period of respite so beneficial to the Russian Federation that in 2014, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on the United States for a new “reset”.
In conclusion, just because the name of the future US President is Donald Trump, that doesn’t mean he will not be subjected to the same set of constraints to which his predecessors were subjected. He too will have to exercise his authority in the limits conferred on him under the Constitution and depending on how the various external forces react.