Interview #10 — William Inboden

Dr. William Inboden is Executive Director of the Clements Center for National Security and Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Previously, Professor Inboden worked as a policy-maker in D.C. and as director of an overseas foreign policy think tank. He served on the National Security Council and on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. Professor Inboden’s commentary has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Affairs, the Weekly Standard, NPR, CNN and the BBC.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.

Morgan Lewis (Virginia Review of Politics): Welcome and thank you so much for your willingness to interview. I really look forward to our discussion.

Will Inboden: I’m looking forward to it too. Thank you.

VRoP: Let’s get started. In an NPR interview from November, you discussed the ways in which President Trump may be changing the nature of the presidency. In what key ways do you see this occurring and what do you believe will be the implications for US presidents after President Trump?

WI: That’s a great question Morgan, and the first thing I should say as a disclaimer is that, as a historian, I generally believe it’s way too soon to draw conclusions about current events. President Trump has not even been in office for a full year yet, so we’re still at the beginning of his first term. Historians think that generally, as a rule of thumb, we need at least about twenty years to pass after an event or after an administration before we can even begin to make more objective and balanced judgements about it. I just wanted to put that disclaimer out there. That being said, I and other scholars and policy-makers haven’t completely refrained from putting out some tentative suggestions, conclusions, or thoughts for what President Trump might mean for the nature of the presidency. So, I’ll go ahead and indulge in a few speculations.

The first thing to say is that, so far, President Trump has been a surprisingly weak president. I mean that in a more descriptive sense, in that he has not been effective in wielding the authority of the presidency. For example, one of the main features of the presidency is what is called the bully pulpit, or the ability to persuade the American people or to persuade Congress of a particular point of view and to try to lead Congress and the American people in the direction you want to go. Partly because of his low approval ratings, partly because of some fairly undisciplined and erratic messaging, he has not wielded that authority very well at all. He still doesn’t have a single major legislative accomplishment. We’re doing this interview in the midst of the big tax reform, and perhaps that may actually go through. But, if you talk to Republicans in Congress, a lot of them feel that, if it does go through, it will be because of efforts of Republicans in Congress despite President Trump, not because of President Trump’s leadership.

Another source of presidential leadership, in which I think he has been very weak, is the president’s ability to impose his will on the departments and agencies of the executive branch. A big way you do that is by installing your people there. So, the numbers vary, but there are about 5,000 or 6,000 positions throughout the different cabinet departments and agencies that are political positions where the president can appoint his staff there to carry out his vision and his policies. By any historical precedent, Trump has been extremely slow in filling those positions. Take the state department as an example: there are some twenty vacant assistant secretary positions, and those are the real engines that drive the state department and oversee the implementation of policy. Other departments and agencies could tell you similar stories. That really hinders President Trump’s ability to drive the policies and control the bureaucracies in the ways he wants, so that’s another way he’s been quite weak as a chief executive.

Another source of presidential strength is what we might call moral authority. Often times, in different opinion polls, presidents are usually listed in the top ranks when average citizens are asked, “Who do you admire? Who is a person you want your children to grow up to be like?” A president can set an inspiring vision for leadership. President Reagan certainly did that with his moral commitments and his strong anti-communism and the dignity and decorum with which he carried out the office. In certain ways, President Obama exemplified that, certainly as a pioneer in race relations and civil rights and a model of a pretty strong, healthy family. Again, we haven’t seen that with President Trump either. I could give other examples, but I think what we’re seeing is that, thus far, President Trump has been weak in wielding the authority of the presidency. The question is, is this an aberration or a blip? Will he learn how to conduct himself more effectively? Or, will he, almost permanently, weaken the office so that his successors will also inherit a weakened presidency.

One other thought, which I should have said earlier, is that there also are some fairly ambiguous areas of the Constitution, or of contest, between the legislative branch and the executive branch over who has primacy on these things. Given how clumsily President Trump has pursued some of these policies, such as his earlier immigration restrictions on people from selected Muslim majority countries, those all got slapped back by the courts. When he is mishandling certain policies and they provoke negative judicial decisions, those negative judicial decisions then become precedent. So, those are going to be binding on future presidents. That will also be another way future presidents will inherit a weakened office since they will be further constrained by some of these judicial rulings until some of them might be revisited.

VRoP: Would you mind elaborating a bit more on the difference between a weak president and a weakened office?

WI: Very good distinction. There is some overlap there. If the office itself is weakened, that can often make the person occupying it seem weaker too. But, we need to realize that any individual person who serves as president does so for only four, or maybe eight years, while the office of the presidency transcends each person who holds it. The better presidents have had an appreciation that, as important as they may be as an individual leader, the office of the presidency itself is more important than them. It’s a stewardship they’re exercising. They are temporary custodians of that office. I had the honor of working for President George W. Bush for a few years, and I remember when I was working on some national security policy for him and he was asking myself and a colleague to do a longer-range study on a country that was a looming rival or potential adversary to the United States. The guidance President Bush gave us (I’ll try to phrase this carefully because the wording really matters) was: “I want you to look into what policies we need to adopt now, as a country, so that my successor’s successor will look back years from now and will be thankful we did that.” What he was saying is that he wanted us to adopt policies so that two presidents after he left office would inherit and appreciate [them]. The way he phrased that really stuck with us. He was not only concerned with getting the policies right while he was president, but was concerned about the legacy he would leave, not only for the person who would immediately succeed him, but whoever would come later after that. We also saw this in the way President Bush very carefully handled his transition, when his term was up and he was handing authority over to President Obama. He took great care to make sure that the power and dignity of the office were in good shape for whoever came next.

So, back around to the current situation with President Trump, some of the ways he is unique really have to do with his own personality and his somewhat unconventional background. He’s the only person in American history to hold the office of the presidency who has had no previous political or military experience. Obviously, he also has a very colorful personality, and that’s another one of the unique things. Things like his communication habits, his tweeting especially…we’ve never had a president who engaged in such direct and sometimes impetuous communication like this. The question now is, is he setting a new norm, in which all future presidents will tweet and communicate in this way and try to bypass the media, or is this just something that is unique to him as a person and will not characterize the office going forward? There are some other, rather unseemly aspects to this, certainly the potential business conflicts of interest with him still promoting his real estate brand while in office and some of the family members he has working for him. [There] are some of his criticisms of the media which go beyond just frustration about coverage and seem to be some core attacks on the first amendment and a free press and a free speech. Those seem to be unique to him, and I certainly hope those do not set a precedent for future presidents to also be so contemptuous of the Bill of Rights.

VRoP: Thank you for clarifying. Let’s shift gears to another one of your interests: religious freedom. In an article for the “Religious Freedom Project,” you wrote that throughout the 20th century, American presidents promoted religious freedom in a variety of geopolitical contexts. So, in what ways can American presidents in the 21st century preserve this legacy by continuing to promote religious freedom?

WI: Well, again this is a very important issue for both American foreign policy and domestic policy, and I do worry that in both domestic and foreign policy, it is being eroded somewhat. There is certainly, as you mentioned in quoting my article, a very strong tradition of US presidents promoting religious freedom as a foreign policy goal and also being protective of it. In our previous question, I was talking about the importance of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment. Well, religious freedom is the first freedom in the First Amendment, and the founders of our nation put it there for a reason. Religious freedom is especially important because it encompasses so many other freedoms. Within religious freedom, you have freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. So many of these other freedoms are bundled up within religious freedom. So, I would think and hope that even people who are not personally religious would have a strong interest in protecting religious freedom because other freedoms that they enjoy are bundled up in that.

In the international context, religious freedom is potentially one of the basic human rights that is most honored in the breach. Some of it depends on particular definitions and severity, but arguably a majority of the world’s population, certainly over 50%, and maybe up to 60 or 70%, live in countries that restrict religious freedom or sometimes even persecute their ability to believe or to practice their faith. China would be the largest example, with its 1.2 million people living under various degrees of restriction and outright oppression for their faith. That applies to Protestants, to Catholics, to Buddhists, and to Muslims. The future of China, the respect for more civil liberties in China, will depend very much on improvements in religious freedom there. Yet, the Chinese government’s party, with its monopoly on power, is very threatened by any independent religious belief as they see that as potentially undermining the party’s total control over political activity.

I digressed a little there as I know your question is more about how American presidents can do this. I’ll mention a few specific things. One, I think it starts with realizing that American presidents promoting religious freedom is not just an idealistic luxury for American foreign policy, but it is very central to our country’s security and economic interests. There are pretty strong correlations: countries that have strong economies typically have more respect for religious freedom, rule of law, and some of the other principles of good government which are conducive to economic growth. As I’ve written elsewhere, religious freedom is very much connected with international security. There’s not a single country in the world that respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States. When you look at the countries that are real or potential security threats to us – Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, Syria – those are also some of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world. So, for American presidents who are thinking strategically about their role as commander in chief, diplomat in chief, and their responsibility to promote American foreign policy that protects our country’s security and our interests, I think religious freedom is a part of it.

But then there also is the fact that the US is an exceptional nation, just as a descriptive matter in history. We were the first constitutional democracy to come into existence. Religious freedom was one of the fundamental principles of our founding, and to be a historically and constitutionally-minded president means to appreciate the importance of religious freedom to the American character and American identity. And given that a large number of Americans themselves are religious and cherish religious freedom, for a president to want more popular support for his foreign policy, the American people generally like to think of their government as promoting religious freedom for others too. So, it’s a way to maintain popular support for foreign policy principles.

Finally, I’ve seen this from my extensive international travel over the years and my past work as a policy-maker on this: religious believers in other countries, especially persecuted religious believers, often look to the United States for inspiration and for help. I can’t tell you how many times I’d be meeting with underground house church pastors in Vietnam, or underground Christians worshipping in Saudi Arabia, or Christian religious believers in Eretria or in countless other countries, and they’d so often say to me, “The United States is the only government that cares about us. The United States is the only government that has its diplomats paying attention to our plight, trying to advocate on our behalf for greater freedoms.” It’s a distinctive mark of American foreign policy in the world, and it’s something I wouldn’t want to see us jettison.

VRoP: Clearly other countries look up to the US as a standard of religious freedom, but what type of active role do you see the US taking or think the US should take to promote religious freedom?

WI: Well, there are a number of different tools in a presidential toolkit for promoting a number of policy solutions. Let’s take religious freedom. Sometimes it’s just quiet diplomacy: stuff that will never show up in the newspapers. It’s a president or a US ambassador acting in the president’s name, quietly talking to foreign leaders, saying, “Will you please release these five or ten religious dissidents from prison? Will you allow this house of worship to re-open? Will you allow this particular religious group to conduct its religious activities in your country?” Sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, the quieter diplomacy is more effective because it enables the foreign governments to make those changes without being publicly embarrassed.

Other times, it’s using some of the more coercive tools to apply economic sanctions or travel bans on a country that continues to persist in its religious oppression. So sometimes we might need to reduce some of our investment or aid to a foreign country if they’re engaged in religious oppression, or maybe do some targeted trade sanctions.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of speaking out publicly: a president giving a speech or a president meeting with some religious dissidents from that country in the Oval Office, or if the president travels to that country to meet with them at the US embassy. Sometimes, you do want to do things publicly: as a show of support to the dissidents and as a way of embarrassing and shaming that foreign government. But, I’ve seen that so much of the craft and power of diplomacy does come from what shouldn’t be dismissed as symbolic gestures.

Foreign governments watch closely what an American president does and even just the words that a president uses and the actions he takes. I thought it was a missed opportunity, when President Trump was in China recently, that he didn’t say anything publicly about religious freedom. We’re told that, privately, he didn’t either. He didn’t take the opportunity to visit with house church pastors there or even attend a church service, as previous American presidents have done. Those things wouldn’t have cost a penny. They weren’t about the US trade relationship with China or anything there, but they are symbols. Those symbols, or the lack of them, send a powerful message, and the Chinese government watches closely, so if they see a president not doing those things, they think. “Well, that president doesn’t care about this and therefore there’s not going to be much cost for us to continue to engage in these oppressive practices.”

VRoP: Speaking of China, recently there has been a lot of debate surrounding China’s growing economic power and the implications of this growth. Do you believe China’s changing status in the international system will escalate tension between the US and China? If so, what measures can be taken to mitigate this tension?

WI: Well, I know I’ve been very long-winded, so I’ll give you a short answer to this. Yes. I do think China’s changing status is going to continue to escalate tensions between the US and China. The second part of your question is obviously the more complex one: what can be done to mitigate this? This is where the US-China relationship is just incredibly complex and is being buffeted by countervailing forces right now. On the one hand, we have the continued forces of economic integration and convergence. The United States and China have a closely intertwined economic relationship. We’re some of each others’ largest trading partners; so much of the Chinese economy depends on the US and so much of the US economy depends on China. In that sense, it’s a deeply-embedded marriage and we can’t just pull away from each other there. So many of the low cost, consumer goods we have access to in the US are made in China, particularly for American families of more limited income who need to make every penny count. When you go to Walmart, for example, and are able to buy less expensive goods there, that’s a great boon for American families, and so much of that is a product of China. Likewise, when we use our credit cards or take out mortgages and are financing our different economic activities using debt, China has also been providing fairly cheap credit to American consumers, and again, that’s been a benefit to us. Similarly, a number of US businesses have been growing in the Chinese economy, and that also helps American employees. I’m not an economist and I’m not going to go into great detail on this, but the point being just common sense that the US-China relationship is very important.

At the same time, we also have a growing security competition with China. The Chinese military has been growing exponentially in the past several years. They’re not honest or transparent about how much they’re spending on their military, and the real numbers seem to be significantly higher than what the published numbers are. Anyway, they are substantially growing their military and they seem to be doing it with an eye towards the US as their main adversary or rival. The specific weapons platforms, the military capabilities China is developing, they are doing this to directly counter American force projection and American weapons platforms.

Their goal seems to be to drive the United States out of the Western Pacific. Right now, the US is the main guarantor of freedom of navigation, freedom of the seas in the Pacific. That’s where the majority of the world’s trade and commercial flows are, and that’s been very good for the world economy. The United States has been such a good citizen there. And, it’s been very good for our allies and has been the reason that there has not been major interstate war in Asia since World War II. Yes, there have been some wars, but they have been more civil wars, like the Korean War or the Vietnam War. We haven’t had a major interstate war since WWII. That’s because the US has helped protect and preserve the peace there. China sees that and China has benefitted from that, but China now wants to essentially eject the United States from that role, [because they want] to be the main hegemon in the region. This is making America’s allies, particularly Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia very anxious. Then, there are some of our other partners. We’ve got a good relationship with Vietnam and India, and this is also making them very skittish.

Then there’s also Chinese espionage. They have very active espionage in the United States, whether it’s China trying to steal our industrial secrets or our military secrets, or trying to recruit our citizens to spy for them. China, in the intelligence capacity, is not acting as a friend to the United States either. I’m going on at lengths about how complicated this relationship is, but to boil it down, the challenge for American policy-makers is how to preserve some good aspects of our relationship with China (certainly our economic relationship), while pushing back, resisting, or preventing China’s growing aggression in the military and intelligence realm.

VRoP: Focusing a bit more on the trading routes, China is currently taking greater control in the South China Sea by building islands for airstrips and naval bases, and by restricting certain waterways. In order to protect US allies and to hinder China’s increasing power, do you see clear actions the US should take in the South China Sea?

WI: Great Question. There are not easy answers here. That said, I’ll put out a few thoughts. One, China is pursuing a very clear strategy in the South China Sea. They want to create new facts on the ground. Or, in some cases, they want to create new ground itself by building these new islands in places where they previously weren’t. So, they’re hoping that by continuing to push forward with this, while ignoring rhetorical complaints and negative rulings from the international community, eventually they will just create a new reality there that everyone else has to accept.

The first principle I think the United States should be following is actively resisting those efforts to create new facts on the ground. So, practically, that means doing more in terms of freedom of navigation operations: sailing our naval ships through those contested areas regularly, sending China the signal that we do not accept your new claims on this territory and that we will not let these international waters be turned into a private pond of the Chinese government. And, let’s do this multilaterally. Let’s have our allies and partners – the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam – send their naval ships through with us so that it’s a multilateral show of force on the part of the United States. That’s the first, most important principle. I worry that we lost a bit of ground there by being too timid during the Obama administration, and have frankly been a little too timid about it under President Trump.

Then, there’s another dimension of this. While we want to be directly responding to China’s actions in the South China Sea, I also think we want to be shoring up our alliances elsewhere in the region so that when China looks throughout East Asia and in the Pacific, they will see a strong American partnership with other countries. So, let’s deepen our partnership with India, our alliance with Japan, with South Korea, and let’s build a deeper partnership with Indonesia. In some ways, China is its own worst enemy. The dirty little secret of East Asia is that, even though China is the largest and most powerful country there, China has no real allies there other than North Korea and maybe sometimes Burma, and even that’s a little rocky. China has managed to make itself quite repellant to its neighbors, when, by better behavior, it would have had a chance to build deeper and more friendly relations there. So, China may have the power most immediately in the region, but the United States has the better relationships. That’s an advantage we have, and we should double down on that and should exploit it more.

Again, this is where I worry that President Trump made a serious self-inflicted wound on American foreign policy when he withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership, the multilateral trade agreement there. Part of that was about economics, but the more important part was that it was all the major economies of East Asia and the United States, but not China. So many of our other Asian friends in the region have desperately wanted us to be in that partnership because it’s a way of showing America’s commitment to the region and America’s deep web of relationships there. Instead, when we withdrew from that, it was really seen by our friends and allies there as an abandonment of them. Therefore, some of them have instead been pursuing closer ties with China because they thought, “Well, the United States walked away from us, whereas China is wooing us and welcoming us.” That was a missed opportunity and it’s going to be hard to remedy that damage.

VRoP: Let’s move on to talk about Russia. In spring of 2015, you wrote an article with UVA professor John Owen, discussing Putin’s Russia. Would you please explain what you see to be the primary intentions and threats of Putin’s Russia to the US today.

WI: Vladimir Putin’s main goal seems to be restoring Russia to what he thinks of as its golden era of imperial power. This is a combination of czarist Russia in the 19th century and then the Soviet Union. It’s very notorious. Putin said a few years ago that he thought the Soviet Union’s demise was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, which is very revealing of his mindset. In his efforts to restore Russia to what he sees as its historical role as a dominant world power, he’s trying to increase its territorial control, as we’ve seen with his invasion of Crimea and his ongoing aggression against other parts of Ukraine. He’s also trying to make sure that countries on Russia’s borders that Russia might not fully control are at least more subservient to Russia. We saw this partly with his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and his continued occupation of South Ossetia. We see it with his cyber warfare and other propaganda measures against some of the Baltic States. We see this with some of his efforts at surreptitiously undermining some of the Central Asian countries as well. He’s really wanting to make Russia the dominant power on the Eurasian landmass. He’s also doing that as a way of maintaining his own hold on power. Russian elections are really more of a farce. Putin has become a de facto dictator, again, on the model of the czars or some of the old Soviet dictators. So, his goal is to maintain his own hold on power and to expand Russia’s power as a nation. Unfortunately, the ways he has been doing this have been counter to American interests and damaging to many of the countries he’s invaded or otherwise undermined.

VRoP: I have one final question for you today. On Wednesday [December 6th], President Trump announced the US’ decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. US presidents have deferred this decision since the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. Given the history of deferral, why do you believe President Trump chose now as the time to recognize Jerusalem as the capital? What do you see as the short-term and the long-term implications of this decision?

WI: I don’t know the mind of President Trump, so I certainly can’t say definitively why he decided now to make this recognition. I will say that even though I’m quite critical of him in a number of ways, in general, I’m supportive of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. So, I want to put that out there. However, I am concerned that the manner in which President Trump did this was rather reckless and haphazard. It’s a very delicate issue. I don’t know why he did it now in this particular way. It seems that he did it more impulsively as a political matter rather than as part of a larger strategy. The reason I say that is he also seems to be having his administration pursue some sort of new agenda for the Middle East peace process with the Israelis and Palestinians, and seems to be wanting to pursue some sort of overall strategy in the Middle East of deepening our ties with the Sunni-Arab powers and pushing back against Iranian aggression. I’m supportive of those overall goals, but I think the way he went about the Jerusalem recognition undermines those rather than advancing them. For example, perhaps a better way of doing the Jerusalem recognition would have been as part of a larger package of some opportunities and concessions by both Palestinians and the Israelis. He could have cut a deal with the Israelis: “All right, we’ll do the Jerusalem recognition in exchange for your commitment to freeze certain controversial settlements activity in certain parts of the West Bank. He could have also given the Palestinians some sort of recognition of East Jerusalem. The details could have been worked out as some sort of give and take here, but instead he just sort of gave this Jerusalem recognition to some parts of the Israeli government without doing it as part of a larger package on Middle East peace. Similarly, I don’t think he consulted with America’s Sunni-Arab friends in the region, particularly the Egyptians and the Saudis. I think if he had done more careful consultations with them, he could have done this as part of a larger strategy of working with them against Iranian malevolence in the Middle East. So, even though I’m generally supportive of the decision itself, I think it was done in a somewhat reckless way. What the consequences will be, I just don’t know. In the near term, in the last couple of days, there have certainly been some protests and unrest, but whether that will peter out or whether that will escalate, I’m in no position to speculate.

VRoP: Thank you so much for all your thoughts and for taking the time to speak with me.

WI: Sure thing. I very much enjoyed it and hope it’s a benefit to your listeners as well.