Naval War College Prof. On Trump, Immigration And Foreign Policy

Jul 30, 2018

Professor Marc Genest teaches diplomacy and foreign policy at the U.S. Naval War College.
Credit USNC

President Donald Trump said Sunday that he would consider shutting down the government if Democrats refuse to vote for his immigration proposals, including his plan for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. 

Earlier, the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy drew condemnation so strong the administration reversed itself. So what’s next for immigration? Is there any chance for compromise between Democrats and Republicans? And will there ever be a path to citizenship for thousands of people who came to this country as children without documentation?

For answers, we turn to Marc Genest, the Forrest Sherman Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Strategy & Policy Department at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport:

Following the Helsinki Summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, questions were raised about Trump’s foreign policy. Professor Marc Genest, an expert on international relations at the Naval War College in Newport, offers some insight:

Interview transcript - Part One:

Genest - Well let’s begin at the beginning. We can go back to the Treaty of Westphalia in the 17th century. That created the notion of sovereignty, that each country has the legal right to create borders, and is the master of its own domestic politics. So the idea that a country has the right to accept or reject people coming into their country, is one of the key principles of international politics.

Now the question is, has the Trump administration radically altered previous administrations’ policy toward immigration? And in one respect it has. The Trump administration decided that it was going to not accept families together, and then separate husband and wife from their children. That is something that the Obama administration and previous administrations rejected.

RIPR - Now didn’t they, in the beginning at least, say that no that’s not our policy, that was by a law passed by the Democrats?

GENEST - And this where the, quote unquote, 'fake news' gets going. There are subtleties to this, because I know the Obama administration officials were frustrated with the catch-and-release program, because a lot of people weren’t coming back, they were just melting into the population. The numbers are still being argued over, because some people say it’s a lot, some people say it’s actually relatively few. With regard to the Trump administration’s policy; It was done to try to limit illegal immigration into the country, to send a message to people trying to cross our border illegally, 'Don’t come, you won’t get away with it, even if you bring your children.'

So the intent was to be tough on immigration. But what happened is, they have a political tin ear, in regard to, look, the last thing anyone wants is to separate children from their parents. This was a political storm that they should have seen coming, and that is leaving aside the ethics of it.

Now the hyperbole in media coverage of this has gone beyond all measure.  Now you have the media searching for any child that’s separated, ignoring the fact that the Trump administration’s backed away from that, and is trying to reunite families. Both the left and the right get an inordinate amount of coverage on this issue: the Trump administration’s hard line on immigration, and the hard left’s policy to do away with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. And instead of looking at the middle and saying, what do sensible people say about immigration, they cover the left and the right too much, when the solutions are right there before us.

RIPR - Well let’s talk about the solutions then. Let’s give some publicity to the sensible middle position here. What is it?

Genest – One of the problems is when the left and the right both harden their views, it’s hard to get compromise. Instead of doing away with ICE, perhaps give them more money. Make sure they’re trained in humanitarian actions, so they can take care of people when they do capture them crossing the line.                                                                                    But then there’s the other thing, the path toward citizenship. And that’s a very volatile issue, because some people say, well why would you punish people coming over the borders legally, by allowing illegal immigrants to come in, and jump ahead in line. But then you have to look at children who came to the country earlier. So if people have been living here for decades, and being productive citizens, what do you do with them?

RIPR – So in this case both sides are going to have to give up some of their purist ideas about what should be done?

Genest – We have lost sight of the fact that politics is the art of compromise. And if you want a government to be effective, then you have to allow compromise.                                                                           Now there’s also an alternative approach to government which says, go back to Thomas Jefferson, the government which governs least, governs best. So if you have a government that’s tied, and cannot make the compromises needed to pass legislation, a Burkean conservative would say, well that’s not a bad thing. Because unless there’s a consensus in the American public about what to do, then government doing nothing is better that government alienating or angering large segments of the American population.

RIPR – What about polls that show many Americans, if not most, are in favor of some kind of compromise, and that in Congress, what you have is, certainly in the House, some very reactionary, right-wing people who are listening only to their base and are not going to allow a compromise to get through?

Genest – It’s not just right-wing, it’s left-wing as well. That’s one point.                               

RIPR – Do you think it’s equal on either side?

Genest – Absolutely. Because politics is now about exciting your base to come out. I think the greater issue is, to stay away from words like extreme. American politics is the vanilla ice cream of global ideology. The right is never going to do away with social security, welfare and all that stuff, and the left is never going to, unless they go even more extreme, do away with private property.                                                                       So it isn’t the extremists in the United States that have a foundation in the American political process. It is the moderates, and there are moderate leftists and moderate rightists. When they use hard left and hard right, that gets me a little bit nervous.

RIPR – Okay. Let’s examine then the chances that the moderate left and the moderate right can get together and fix some of this.

Genest – (laughter) The founders created a government that was not supposed to work efficiently. It was supposed to work very slowly. Because they thought that change should come in an evolutionary fashion, not in a radical fashion. Remember, the founders are incredibly conservative. And I mean that in terms of the Burkean sense; change should come slowly because it disrupts society if it’s radical change. If the mainstream, let’s use that, mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats can get together, that’s the best thing.                                                             The last time you really saw that was in the Clinton administration, ironically enough, because Clinton tacked to the right, and then Newt Gingrich was pragmatic enough to meet him there.  

RIPR – So what is your feeling for the period we’re in now, in terms of some kind of movement, as slow as it might be, do you think we’re actually getting there?

Genest – Anything I say represents only myself, not the United States government, not the United States Navy, or any other carbon-based life forms.

RIPR – (laughter)

Genest – I think President Trump is antithetical to the American political system. Because he does not seek a government that works, he seeks a government that satisfies his ego. I mean this is the most dangerously narcissistic person I’ve ever studied or seen as President of the United States. It’s odd, because when he was first elected I thought, okay, well this man is a businessman, he understands transaction. So I thought he would be tacking left and right to get things done, because that’s what a business person does, they’re very pragmatic. And instead he’s turned harshly ideological and only, I think, responds to people who respond positively to him. And as a result, government now is at a standstill because both sides have hardened.

Interview Transcript - Part Two:

RIPR – Let’s look at foreign policy, certainly the recent summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. The assessment of that, by the mainstream media, and by others, was that it was a disaster, and that President Trump was seen to be “Putin’s poodle”, and that we had given up an incredible amount of power, tacking that on to his performance with the NATO people, it was just more of the same. How accurate is that? Because Trump himself has now said, But I’m tougher than anyone has ever been on Russia. And in some cases, when you look at the sanctions that are in effect, he’s got a point.

Genest – In some cases, yes. This is a fascinating situation because in many ways, like you said, Trump has given arms to the Ukrainians, Trump has done a whole series of things that should anger the Russian government. He’s increased sanctions significantly. Now he was not in favor of that, Congress overruled him. But in some cases you can make a very strong case that Obama was much weaker. He did nothing when Georgia was invaded, he did nothing when Crimea – there’s a whole series of weak responses. Remember the reset button that Hillary Clinton brought? So if you look at it on paper and just do away with the rhetoric, Trump is much tougher on Russia.                                                                                           However, in politics, perception is often more important that reality. And the perception is, if you just listen to what Trump says, and listen to how he refuses to take on Putin in any way, shape or form, then the perception is that this man is weak, and what is wrong with the relationship? Because he fails to hold Putin accountable for some of the actions in the election, and the other aggressive acts that Putin has taken.         Let’s look at it from the most positive point of view: China is the great threat, for the rest of this century and the next. It is the rising hegemonic power. And it does not view the United States as an ally, it views the United States as an adversary. So, you want to triangulate, just like Richard Nixon did in the 1970s, where he had a better relationship, Nixon did, with China and Russia, than Russia and China had with one another. So that’s a good strategic plan on the part of the administration, if that’s exactly what they want to do. So in the positive view, if we have good relations with Russia, it actually helps us fend off the Chinese better. And a worse-case scenario is that we have a China-Russia alliance, which works against and is antithetical to US and NATO strategy in the long run.                                                                                               The worst-case scenario is that Trump literally got out of bankruptcy because of Russian money. And who knows if they have anything on Trump. But I don’t want to get into conspiracies, I just want to say that that is the worst-case scenario. One would hope and pray that that’s not the case.                                                                                                                                                                                                But the other aspect to it, which I think is the most likely explanation, Putin says nice things about him, and has said nice things about him in the past. He responds positively to people who compliment him.  So it might be as superficial as, this guy says nice things about me, but Nancy Pelosi doesn’t.                         

RIPR – And Trump would look at Putin and think of him as a really tough guy, the kind of person he might really admire.

Genest – Right. There does seem to be a worrisome view of Trump as coddling authoritarian regimes. But I think it’s even more superficial than that. When Kim Jong-un meets with the President, he gives him one compliment after the other compliment. I suspect that if we look at the planning books of North Korea, China and Russia, they will say, the first thing you do is say lots of good things about Trump, and then all of a sudden, everything opens up.

RIPR – Now where do we stand in our relationship to Europe, and especially NATO?        

Genest – He (Trump) is absolutely correct that NATO countries aren’t paying their fair share, and they haven’t been paying their fair share for 50 years. So it’s important for us to remind the Europeans that two percent of gross domestic product is not too much to ask for your national defense. Number one. Number two – there are unfair trade practices practiced by the European Union, that do hurt American trade with the Europeans. So we have legitimate grievances. The problem is, past administrations have dealt with this behind closed doors. And you can talk tough behind closed doors because you’re not embarrassing and humiliating your friends. But when you make these public utterances, where you’re insulting key leaders, key friends of the United States, then all that does is it hurts the relationship and it hurts your ability to come to a meaningful compromise with your allies.

RIPR – And at the same time you’re saying nice things about someone who is not your ally, and that kind of reflects on how you treated your friends.     

Genest – And I think this goes back to Trump’s business experience. He had two essential strategies for business. Bully, and charm. And he did it almost simultaneously. He would say rough things, then he would say, oh we’re all friends, let’s compromise. He would break contracts then come to another compromise. So he’s used to this double-dealing kind of situation because it’s woked for him in business, at least to some degree.

RIPR – Let’s look at trade. Are we headed for, in the middle of, a trade war?

Genest – Well the old free trader in me is really worried about this. Because, look, the United States has been founded on opening markets, so you don’t want to go away from a 200-year-old policy that worked rather well.                                                                                                                                                                          On the other hand, the rise of China, and the predatory practices that China has assumed over the last 15-20 years, has done damage to the international community. We actually allowed the Chinese into the world trade organization hoping that that would get them to accept free market trade rules. Instead, they have kept their markets closed, they have literally stolen all kinds of copyright and all kinds of high-tech stuff. China is acting in a pernicious manner and needs to be threatened or at least punished for these kinds of operations.                                                                                                                                                             The problem is, you don’t simultaneously go after China, the EU and South America, because then you’re going to create a global trade war and it’s going to be 1936 again.       

RIPR – Well there’s no doubt that we are in a unique position at this point in our history. Are you optimistic looking forward?

Genest – As someone who teaches the strategy of warfare and international diplomacy you wouldn’t think I’m optimistic, however, I am always optimistic, for a number of good reasons. One, we are part of a nation that is the greatest in the world, that has brought democracy to the western world, has won two world wars, and for all our atrocious mistakes, we still do more good than harm. And I think our institutions are strong enough to survive even Donald Trump. So I remain cautiously optimistic.

RIPR – Professor Marc Genest of the US Naval War College, thanks for talking to Rhode Island Public Radio.

Genest – Always a pleasure. Big fan.