Bacevich and Mearsheimer on Year One of the Trump Administration

by Derek Davison 

Last year, to mark the end of the Obama administration, LobeLog spoke with foreign policy analysts Andrew Bacevich, of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, and John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago. The resulting interview covered the Obama foreign policy legacy as well as the broader challenges facing U.S. foreign policy. To mark the first year of the Trump administration, LobeLog spoke again with Bacevich and Mearsheimer to get their impressions of Donald Trump’s foreign policy and the state of the world at large. In part two, we discuss the future of U.S. foreign policy.

LobeLog: Talk about year one of the Trump administration in terms of its foreign policy. Has it aligned with your expectations?

Andrew Bacevich: Trump seemed to think that, having won the presidency, he would be in a position to sort of serve as planetary dictator, that he would issue directives and the rest of the world would fall into line. That was never going to happen, and it hasn’t happened. I think we see that, for example, in his demand for NATO members to increase their defense spending by substantial amounts. There has been a slight uptick, but not nearly as much as Trump was demanding. We see it in the way he directed China to solve the North Korea problem, which simply hasn’t happened. So external circumstances have constrained Trump, and on balance I think that’s a good thing.

John Mearsheimer: A year ago I was optimistic because I thought Trump represented a force for change, and I was pessimistic because he hardly knew anything about foreign policy, he was not a good listener, and he tended to shoot from the hip. I think if you look at where we are today, there’s no question that he did not disappoint regarding his tendency to shoot from the hip and to display great ignorance about foreign policy. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Trump administration after one year is its incompetence. He’s lived up to his billing.

With regard to my hope that Trump represented a prospect for positive change, you have to remember that he got elected in good part because he ran against the existing foreign policy. He said that it was bankrupt and he was going to change it. There he’s disappointed us, because the longer he’s in office, the more apparent it becomes that there’s really little change taking place and that he’s basically following what Barack Obama called “the Washington playbook.” We could go down the list of foreign policy issues, and I think we would see there’s not a lot of difference between what he’s doing and what his predecessors did, except for the fact that he’s doing it less competently than they did. In a very important way, what we’re getting here is the worst of both worlds. We’re getting little change in American foreign policy, which was bankrupt to begin with, and it’s being executed in an amazingly incompetent way. And not surprisingly, we’re in real trouble.

Bacevich: There has been one difference, a stylistic one. It manifests itself in the way Trump speaks, in what he says and what he tweets. He is astonishingly crude and bombastic, and I think that one of the problems at the present moment is that Trump’s crudeness attracts so much attention from the media that the substance of the difficulties we are facing tends not to get the attention it deserves. The “shithole” story dominated the news for several days. That’s one example of the way that the president’s crudeness diverts attention from substance, which is a real problem. Day after day after day, Trump is the story, and therefore other matters that are actually far more important end up being underreported.

Mearsheimer: I agree completely, and that’s why I was arguing that Trump’s incompetence, which reflects his inability to concentrate on substantive issues and to talk about those issues in rational, legal language, is a cause of great trouble. You have an individual who is pursuing policies that are fundamentally flawed, and he’s doing it in an incompetent way.

Bacevich: I wonder whether in the eyes of foreign leaders, Trump’s remarks matter. How seriously do they take Trump’s rhetoric, as opposed to the words and actions of Trump’s key subordinates like Rex Tillerson and James Mattis? If I were working in Berlin or London or Tokyo at this point, I would tend to discount what the president is saying and look to the words and actions of others as a clearer indication of what the United States is up to. But that’s entirely speculative on my part.

Mearsheimer: I would come at it from a slightly different perspective, which is to say that I think what people in positions of responsibility in other countries are doing these days is not listening to what Trump says, but looking at what he does. And if you look at what he does, he’s nowhere near as threatening or as dangerous to them as his rhetoric might imply.

I think, however, when you talk about publics around the world, it’s quite clear that the people in other countries who are listening to him and mainly concentrating on his rhetoric, are really scared. Public opinion polls demonstrate that there has been a significant decline in confidence in American leadership from Obama to Trump. There’s a new poll out from Gallup that shows that Trump has a 30 percent approval rating around the world, which is down almost 20 points from Obama’s approval rating when he left office. I think this precipitous decline is in large part due to Trump’s rhetoric, not so much his policies, because the policies are not that different from the policies that Obama was pursuing.

LobeLog: Can you describe the Trump foreign policy? To what extent is there a disconnect between the administration’s articulated foreign policy (as laid out, for example, in its National Security Strategy) and what Trump himself appears to be doing?

Mearsheimer: You have to distinguish between what Candidate Trump said in 2016 and what President Trump has said in 2017, and then you have to distinguish what President Trump has said in 2017 from what President Trump has actually done in 2017. Candidate Trump was threatening to undermine existing U.S. foreign policy in fundamental ways—he was going to try to change it in all sorts of consequential ways. I think that much of the rhetoric we’ve heard from President Trump indicates that Candidate Trump and President Trump are quite similar in terms of what they want to do with foreign policy. But if you look at Trump’s actual policy, it reflects pretty much what the Obama administration, and before that the Bush administration, did.

If you look at the National Security Strategy document, for example, you see a set of policies that bear striking resemblance to policies we’ve pursued in the past—it reflects continuity. So you see a disconnect not just between Candidate Trump’s rhetoric and the actual policy we’re executing these days, but even between President Trump’s rhetoric and his policy. But because so much attention is focused on what President Trump says, the actual policies don’t get as much attention as they should.

Bacevich: As a candidate, Trump said “elect me president and I will change everything.” He won, then confronted the fact that he can’t change everything. Much of what he inherited simply cannot be changed—the world is what it is. I think some of the president’s rhetoric reflects a certain amount of frustration on his part as he finds himself obviously not delivering on glib promises that he made as a candidate.

One example of this is the wall. On the campaign trail, the great big, beautiful wall was going to extend all across the southern border of the country, it was going to get built in short order, and it was going to be paid for by Mexico. None of that is going to happen. I think he struggles now to reconcile the disparity between what he promised and what he’s going to be able to deliver. We see that in the way he contradicts himself from one day to the next.

Mearsheimer: I think, Andy, one of the problems Trump faced when he took office was that there were not many foreign policy experts who shared his worldview and were in favor of the policy positions he articulated as a candidate. It was sure to be very difficult for him to challenge the establishment without a team of lieutenants who really thought about American foreign policy the way he did. The few people he could find, like Michael Flynn, ended up getting themselves into all sorts of trouble right away. Steve Bannon is another case in point.

Those few people in Trump’s White House who shared his worldview ended up losing their jobs rather quickly and being replaced by establishment figures. Almost all of them are generals, but nevertheless they represent the status quo. He’s now surrounded almost completely by establishment figures who are going to great lengths to make sure he hews to the establishment line. He gets around that to some extent with his rhetoric, but rhetoric is not policy and the policy pretty much remains the same as it was under his two predecessors.

We should remember that President Obama was elected because he said that our foreign policy was bankrupt and he was going to change it. He was someone who had opposed the Iraq War, arguing that it was a foolish decision. Nevertheless, once he became president he ended up adhering to the “Washington playbook.” He made it clear in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in his last year in office that, basically, the establishment had beaten him down. What you see happening with Trump is very similar.

Bacevich: I think that’s exactly right, and very much applies to Generals Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster who occupy the principal centers of power—I leave out Secretary Tillerson quite intentionally, because he seems to be a marginal figure. There’s no question that the generals believe in the “Washington playbook”—that’s all they know. That said, their interpretation of the playbook differs from the interpretation of people like Obama, Ashton Carter, John Kerry, or Samantha Power. There was a softer tilt when the Democrats were in power. That now has been replaced with a harder edge. We see that in the National Security Strategy—not that I think that document really matters—but the emphasis on nationalism in the NSS is really striking.

Nonetheless, I think the point you’re making, John, is the key one: the “Washington playbook” prevails. This president said he was going to throw it out. That’s not happening, and it’s not going to happen.

LobeLog: A year ago you both seemed optimistic that the Iran nuclear deal would survive despite Candidate Trump’s harsh rhetoric about it. So far it has survived, but Trump seems to be champing at the bit to tear it up. Having watched his approach to the deal over this year, have your thoughts about its survival changed?

Mearsheimer: When you talk about the prospects of the deal surviving, there are two ways of thinking about the matter. First, do you think the United States is going to withdraw from the deal? And second, if the United States does withdraw, do you think the deal will fall apart? I think that if the United States were to withdraw from the deal, the Europeans, the Chinese, and the Russians, as well as the Iranians, would stick to it and the deal would remain in place. The United States by itself cannot wreck the deal.

LobeLog: But the U.S. can make it painful for Iran and for Europe, for example via secondary sanctions.

Mearsheimer: We’re already making it painful. I was in Iran in December, and almost everybody I talked to complained bitterly that the Americans were continuing to make it very painful economically for Iran, that the United States had not done enough to lift the sanctions and allow the Iranian economy to get back on its feet. We can do more by ourselves to hurt the Iranians by pulling out of the deal and reimposing sanctions, but that doesn’t mean the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese will walk away from the deal, and my sense is that the Iranians won’t walk away either. The question is, do you think President Trump will pull the United States out of the deal? Although he’s boxed himself into a corner on this issue, I think that ultimately he will not pull us out of the deal. But if he does I think all the other parties will stick to the deal.

Bacevich: It is interesting that pulling out of the deal on day one was one of Candidate Trump’s many vows, and here we are a year into his presidency and we haven’t pulled out. He’s made threats and he signs off on continuing the deal with great reluctance, but this is another example of how he’s been constrained by realities that he clearly did not appreciate prior to becoming president. I don’t know if ultimately Trump will pull the plug, but I agree with John that even if he does that doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire arrangement is going to collapse. It’s in the interests of Iran and the other signatories of the deal to maintain it. Our pulling out would be one more bit of evidence to suggest to others that the United States is becoming unhinged, but I think the deal will last.

Mearsheimer: You made the point earlier, Andy, that President Trump is frustrated by the fact that he can’t execute many of the policies that Candidate Trump advocated. I agree and I think he has a powerful sense that he’s in an iron cage, which frustrates him greatly. The one issue where that manifests itself most clearly is Iran, because he was promising that on day one he would rip up the agreement, but he’s been unable to do that. He’s surrounded by people who are telling him that it might not be a great deal, but it’s better than no deal, and therefore he’s been unable to kill it, at least so far. I think he’s very frustrated by that.

I think Trump has a sense that the Iranians are beating us at every turn. We overthrew the regime in Iraq, and what was the result? The new regime has developed close relations with Iran, so Tehran now has enormous influence in Iraq. What happened in Syria? The United States and Israel were deeply committed to overthrowing the Assad regime, mainly because the Assad regime was tied to Iran, and they viewed knocking off Assad as a way of hurting Iran. But Assad is still in power, and Iran’s influence in Syria is greater than ever. This really frustrates Trump, and that frustration is why there is a real possibility he might withdraw from the agreement.

LobeLog: How has the Trump administration changed the terms of the Israel-Palestine conflict? Has it made things worse, or simply made explicit what was always implicit in U.S. policy? Do you see any long-term impacts to the Jerusalem decision?

Bacevich: The so-called two-state solution has been a fiction for a couple of decades. The current government of Israel has absolutely no interest in seeing the creation of anything that looks remotely like a viable Palestinian state. The government of Israel is emphatically committed to expanding settlements, looking toward annexation of the West Bank. Ironically, declaring an intention to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem may be one of the few actions of the Trump administration that proves useful—it allows us to see the situation as it really is.

Mearsheimer: I agree with everything Andy said. The Israelis have been moving toward a “Greater Israel” for many years now. The two-state solution was actually never going to happen. The end result is that Trump just stated the obvious. He basically said that he’s not going to worry about a two-state solution. If the parties were interested in that outcome—which they’re not—we could deal with it, but let’s deal with reality now, which is one state. The key question you have to ask is: what does this mean for Israel and for the U.S.-Israeli relationship over time? After all, it’s quite clear that Greater Israel is or will become an apartheid state, which is going to cause all sorts of problems for Israel itself, and for the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Photo: Andrew Bacevich

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. Analysis suffers from being personal, rather than analytical. Negative bias is sustained by cherry picking narratives. Advances in economic, security, and political issues, are underplayed.

  2. Mearsheimer said it — Trump has lived up to his billing. Domestically the economy and stock market are humming contributing to US strength, and the US is relinquishing world leadership which has been a disaster under former presidents.

    Handing over foreign policy to the generals (with limits) contributed to change because they are utterly incompetent in that arena. Sure, Trump looks like he’s following the playbook on Afghanistan and Syria, but the generals will screw it up and there may not be new invasions and attacks (who knows).

    Russia, Turkey and Iran have their head in the Middle East, NATO’s been broken by Russia/Turkey, Russia and China have the US stymied in Korea. China rules its near abroad, regional pacts are replacing US hegemony, and it’s been recognized that the “terrorism threat” has been overblown. So let’s look on the bright side!

  3. I think the interview overstates the “anti-establishment” credentials of Flynn, Bannon et al – they have been chomping at the bit for war with Iran, and that’s not even touching the latter’s derailed plan to privatize (not end) the Afghanistan war.

  4. Mearsheimer and Bacevich make a good team of commentators, but in a crucial area I must strongly disagree with their bland statements about continuity of US national security strategy between Obama and Trump. That is nuclear weapons and preparation for their use.

    In the 2015 National Security Strategy, the Obama administration looked toward a world without nuclear weapons and keeping nuclear materials away from bad actors. In the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy (which one doubts Trump read), nuclear weapons are again glorified with a grossly oversized ‘modernization’ program to develop a new full size range of nuclear weapons for any conceivable purpose – like total destruction of a small country, say, North Korea. Gone are the days of strategic nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons are to be a part of the overall US arsenal for war of any kind, anywhere. And I don’t hear anybody in Washington daring to object. So I will.

    This dramatic shift in thinking has already led to totally unacceptable loose talk in this country about a preemptive nuclear strike as the easiest way to solve the annoying DPRK problem. Let us be very clear: PREEMPTIVE NUCLEAR STRIKE ON DPRK would be NUCLEAR BARBARISM, never before occurring in human history. Act like a barbarian and you will be treated like a barbarian.

    And this shift has taken place the year of the success of the Nuclear Ban Treaty, approved by 122 countries in July 2017, and recognized by the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. Use of nuclear weapons has now been made unlawful by the humanitarian world. Anyone who is not shocked by this US nuclear use policy shift in the face of the Ban Treaty should think deeply about their own humanity.

    If Trump pushes his big button for a preemptive nuclear strike on DPRK, humankind of our world will rise up, Americans will become instant pariahs, unsafe anywhere. The world will have changed. And Mr. Trump, expect the worst. Think War Crimes trial and which form of execution you will get. That’s the direction humanity is now taking; I believe most Americans want to go along as part of that humanity.

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