Historian Melvyn Leffler's assessment of Trump's foreign policy in his first year

Historians in the News
tags: Trump

The University of Virginia’s Miller Center has spent more than two years analyzing how American presidents have performed during their first year in office. On Thursday, scholars focused that analysis on President Donald Trump.Trump’s first year in office has come with its own milieu of crises and challenges, some of them unique to Trump; others stemming from debates that have long echoed through the halls of American government. The Miller Center’s First Year Project, launched in October 2015, provides historical context and analysis of the challenges facing current and previous administrations, based upon research from numerous scholars and the center’s own remarkable archives, which include oral histories for every administration since Jimmy Carter and more than 4,000 hours of Oval Office recordings.

“What we wanted to do, on domestic and foreign policy issues, was to think through, systematically, how a president does the job during the first year,” Miller Center Director William J. Antholis said. “How do they appoint their Cabinet? How do they establish those processes that make an administration work? How do they identify their priorities and move forward on those priorities?”

Overseen by a bipartisan advisory board that includes top officials from the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations, the First Year Project is part historical analysis, part guidance for current and future administrations. It includes almost 60 essays by scholars from UVA and other top universities and 14 senior officials from previous Republican and Democratic administrations, on topics ranging from immigration and infrastructure to foreign policy or managing a bureaucracy. The information, in addition to being made public, was presented to presidential candidates’ teams during the 2016 campaign and to Trump’s transition team.

On Thursday, a panel of four Miller Center scholars gathered to analyze the past 365 days of the American presidency and celebrate the release of the project’s book, “Crucible: The President’s First Year,” published by UVA Press.

The panel included Michael Nelson, a professor of political science at Rhodes College and nonresident senior fellow at the Miller Center; Guian McKee, an associate professor of presidential studies at the Miller Center; Mary Kate Cary, a Miller Center senior fellow and former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush; and Melvyn Leffler, the Edward R. Stettinius Jr. Professor in UVA’s history department.

Here’s what they had to say about Trump’s first year in office....

Leffler addressed foreign policy and national security issues in Trump’s first year.

Though many presidents have faced major tragedies during their first year in office – Sept. 11, 2001 fell in George W. Bush’s first year, for example – Leffler said that Trump has not yet faced a similar test.

“There has been no Bay of Pigs, no 9/11,” he said.He noted that the Trump administration could count the fall of ISIS in Syria and Iraq as “one unequivocal success in foreign policy.”

“That is a really noteworthy accomplishment, which was already underway in Obama’s last years, but which the military under Trump has succeeded in accomplishing,” he said. 

However, he also listed several failures that he was concerned about as a scholar and historian of foreign policy.

“He has neither improved relations with Russia, which he had stated he wanted to do, nor constrained Russian actions in Ukraine or Syria, nor confronted Putin over electoral intervention here and in Europe,” Leffler said. “President Trump, for all his rhetoric, has not stopped North Korea’s strategic advances, has made no progress in containing the projection of Chinese military strength into the South China Sea, and has done very little to contain the expansion of Chinese influence elsewhere.” Among other concerns, Leffler also worried that Trump’s “America First” policy could reduce the policies of international cooperation that have kept the peace in many ways after World War II.

“These were the policies that bred peace among the great powers for the last 75 years,” Leffler said. “These were the policies that brought more people out of poverty in the last 40 years than in any comparable era in world history. Those were the things that made America great.”

Read entire article at UVA Today (University of Virginia)

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