President Barack Obama is fond of saying that the federal government is less like a speedboat and more like an aircraft carrier: slow turning, unwieldy and requiring lots of plotting and planning in advance. American foreign policy is even more so, with lots of concurrence and little boat-rocking ever, if at all.
During a time of foreign policy upheaval around the era of the current president's (and this author's) birth, the economist, public official and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith satirized the machinations of the American foreign policy machine in a series of short stories penned under the pseudonym Mark Epernay. One of the main figures of these stories was a fictional character, the "psychometricist" Dr. Herschel McLandress, who specialized in the quantification of human behavior.
To Galbraith/Epernay/McLandress, foreign policy was an endless reiteration of previous policies with little variation — because to change would require admitting previous mistakes, which no one ever wants to do. He mocked this tendency in his short story "The Fully Automated Foreign Policy," where a room-sized computer programmed with all the possible reactions to any event would then spit out a response to current events. Letting the machine decide a course eliminated the time and waste involved in hammering out the required agreements among international actors for every single policy decision.
In the half-century that has passed since Galbraith's droll characterization, there have been both world-shaking advances in computers and long, slow, aircraft carrier-style turns in how America has dealt with the world. The old Soviet bloc is gone, but much of what it was is still a Russia-dominated group of nations led by Vladimir Putin. China is now a major trading partner, and President Obama recently opened up relations with Cuba, which had sat on ice since Galbraith last walked the halls of state.
But now comes President-elect Donald Trump, and we may for once see the unplugging of the Fully Automated Foreign Policy. With a president who conducts much of his communications via 140-character missives on Twitter, and who regularly even spars with his own policy staff — such as spokesperson Kellyanne Conway's public statements on a possible nomination of Mitt Romney as secretary of state — it is almost impossible to fathom exactly what will happen to international alliances come 12:01 p.m. on January 20, 2017.
One thing seems very clear: the American relationship with Russia under a Trump presidency will certainly be different than it has been since the end of the Cold War. One could argue that all the unknown business relationships Mr. Trump's businesses have with various Putin satellites and underlings would allow the Russian strongman to even further push into neighboring states. And we have been rocked back and forth between the fact that Mr. Trump spent much of his campaign demanding that manufacturing jobs be brought back to the U.S. — while at the same time everything from his name-brand apparel to his ubiquitous "Make America Great Again" baseball caps feature labels prominently displaying the words "Made in China."
Even scarier is the threat of rogue actors and states. Any property gaudily festooned with the golden Trump label overseas becomes an instant terrorist target, even more inviting (and far less protected) than any American embassy or consulate. If there were such a thing as a McLandress foreign policy machine, inputting all the possible changes in world situations because of a Trump presidency might alone take the length of his first term (perish the thought of a second).
John Kennedy was fond of saying "Domestic policy can only defeat us, foreign policy can kill us." We may have finally stepped out of the era of the aircraft carrier as metaphor in this instance, and into Donald Trump's gold-plated speedboat. Fasten your seat belts, folks, for the next four years we are almost guaranteed a bumpy ride.