Skip to main content

Book Talk: Why U.S. Foreign Policy Is More Consistent Than Is Generally Assumed

October 13, 2023
Michaela Mattes

Talking Policy Podcast

The United States has experienced striking changes in leadership in recent years. From Obama to Trump to Biden, Americans have elected presidents with vastly different political commitments and bases of support. Do such leadership changes lead to drastic changes in policy? A new book by Michaela Mattes and Ashley Leeds, Domestic Interests, Democracy, and Foreign Policy Change, suggests that democracies’ foreign policies are actually more stable than is generally assumed. This interview was recorded on Sept. 29, 2023. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Subscribe to Talking Policy on SpotifyApple PodcastsSoundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.

What is your book about in a nutshell?

Ashley and I are interested in understanding when foreign policy change is more or less likely, especially in the context of a new leader coming to office. Just in the last week, we saw an article in the New York Times about the new Filipino President Bongbong Marcos taking a more confrontational stance towards China. He had his coast guard cut this rope that was delimiting what the Chinese claim as their ocean. That was heralded as a shift. The new Fijian president also took a more confrontational stance recently by canceling a police training and exchange agreement with China.

On the other hand, when the Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni came to office a year ago, there were all these expectations that she would drastically change Italian foreign policy—would move away from the EU and alignment with the U.S., be more pro-Russia and potentially less supportive of Ukraine. But none of that has happened. She is making very similar policies to her predecessor.

When we see these transitions, there’s a lot of speculation about whether a leader will lead similar or different foreign policies. This is what we are trying to understand: do they lead similar or different foreign policies? And so, we look at both the drivers of change and the constraints of change.

The drivers of change are leadership changes that bring to power new leaders who depend on different societal groups for support than their predecessors. Those different society groups have different interests and preferences, and therefore, we may expect more change under those kinds of leader transitions.

At the same time, though, whether these leaders can pursue change also depends on the domestic institutional context. And we argue that democracies are more stable, for a variety of reasons, than non-democracies.

It’s interesting that you’re looking at domestic political dynamics because it’s normal to think about foreign policy as being driven by international factors. But you’re saying that domestic political dynamics also play a role in shaping those foreign policies.

That’s right. I mean, by no means are we suggesting that the international context doesn’t matter. It absolutely does. In fact, the international context can shape the preferences and interests of individuals domestically too. We’re interested, though, in—even if the domestic context is stable and there are no major shocks, like the Ukraine war, you could still see foreign policy change as a result of parochial interests that affect both domestic but also international policy.

There’s an assumption baked into this book that stability in foreign policy approaches is a good thing, and that volatility is probably less good. Why is stability a good thing?

Stability is really important, both for international cooperation but also for dealing with your adversaries.

So, take the context of cooperation. If you want to cooperate with another country or other countries, then that requires policy adjustments on your behalf and on everyone’s behalf. Those are costly. Right? You’re now doing what you wouldn’t otherwise have done. You’re shifting your production to a different kind of good and trade. You are training your troops with other forces in a way that you wouldn’t have done yourself. You may even buy different kinds of weapon systems. All of these things are costly, so the only reason you will want to bear these costs is if you expect that the gains from cooperation are lasting—that there is a long-term stream of benefits that can pay off the costs that you have invested in cooperation.

When you deal with your adversaries, if you impose a sanction on a country for, say, human rights violations, like say Myanmar, you want that country to believe that that sanction isn’t just going away with the next leader. You need them to believe that they will feel the pain for a long time because only that will convince them to change their policy.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that foreign policy should not adjust. I mean, there are shocks in the international system, like the Ukraine war, and other events that require changes to foreign policy. But our point is more that, those can be warranted, but capricious changes that are not clearly warranted can undermine successful foreign policy.

To answer the question of whether foreign policy is consistent or volatile from leader to leader, you and Ashley chose to look at four things: what are they and why did you choose them?

We look at the aggregation of military alliances; changes in the country’s voting patterns at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), from one year to the next; the termination of economic sanctions, once they’ve been threatened or imposed; and trade between pairs of states and particular changes in imports between these pairs of states.

We chose these four areas because we were trying to vary three important variables. One of them is the extent to which the issues underlying cooperation really divide society. Do different segments of the population have different preferences over these issues and how salient are these issues? It’s very clear that trade is highly salient. There are clearly those who benefit and those who lose from trade deals. United Nations General Assembly voting is much less salient.

The second dimension we wanted to vary is the extent to which a leader can actually exert control over that area of foreign policy. So UNGA voting is an executive decision, while making an alliance very often can require some kind of legislative approval. And in some cases, sanctions also do as well.

The third dimension is the extent to which there are international institutional constraints. So, for example, alliances can be treaties. They are legally binding under international law, while how you vote in the UNGA is not. Some trade is legally binding, in the context of trade agreements, while others are not. Sanctions can sometimes also be potentially binding if they’re under the United Nations.

The problem with looking only at something like alliances and sanctions is that those are done by powerful states. We wanted to analyze the foreign policies of all kinds of states and their decision-making. All states trade, right? All states vote in the UNGA. The idea was also to vary these things so that we would get a pretty broad set of foreign policies and see whether our conclusions hold in this broader set.

You looked at data from all countries with a population of more than 500,000, between 1919 and 2018, which is a lot. This must have been a lot of work. How many graduate students’ lives did you take over for this project?

I should have looked it up, but we’re talking, like, easily 20 students who worked with us, both undergraduates and graduates. It was years in the making.

So, what did you find? What were the big, eye-opening lessons from this big body of work?

We tested two core hypotheses. One is the idea that when a new leader comes to power who has a different societal support coalition than the predecessor, we should see more foreign policy change. And we find support for that across all four areas that we look at.

A little footnote—sanctions actually don’t show much change when you include the U.S. because the U.S. is a very stable sanctioner. But if you drop the U.S., we do find that, when there are changes in the source of leader support, foreign policy is more likely to change.

The second core hypothesis is that this pattern should be stronger for non-democracies than for democracies. And here again, we find support for this. In particular, we find that democracies are at least as stable in their foreign policy as non-democracies and often more stable.

There’s one big exception to that, which is trade. On trade, we actually find that democracies also are more likely to shift their foreign policies in response to changes in leadership, where the new leader has different domestic supporters than the predecessor.

So, you find that leaders’ voter bases can lead them to desire to make foreign policy changes. However, in democracies, their need to cooperate with other actors and institutions can act as a constraint even when their bases might be pushing for change. Is that right?

Yes, but that’s only part of the argument, actually. There are two mechanisms that we emphasize. One is this policymaking constraint that we were just discussing, but the other one is what we call a selection mechanism, which is basically this idea that in any country, leaders depend on the support of some set of the population in order to attain power and stay in power. How large that coalition has to be varies by country. It’s typically very large in democracies. In a majoritarian system like the U.S., it’s 50 percent of the vote. In oligarchies, they only need 5 percent of the population, and military regimes and ones that are personalist type regimes, they are a much smaller group.

Our idea is that wherever leaders have a large supporting coalition, then the likelihood of overlap is much higher between two successive leaders, because they both need large groups. More overlap means greater likelihood of wanting to continue the same policies and being drawn to the centrist policies of the median voter.

So, there are a variety of things that make it less likely that a leader even wants to change foreign policy. But then on top of that, if a leader wants to change, they have trouble actually executing this because in democracies, there are typically constraining actors who can inhibit change or make change more difficult. That would be quite obviously the legislature, the bureaucracy, the deep state.

I just recently read a piece about how in the Philippines, when President Duterte came to power, he announced that he wanted to distance himself from the U.S. and [move] closer to China. And it turns out that it didn’t actually manifest. And part of the explanation for that is that, in the bureaucracy in the Philippines, the alliance [with the U.S.] is so ingrained, that’s just how things operate. And you see this in other contexts too—that the bureaucracy may not be able to refuse something the leader does, but it can certainly slow it down or put in other kinds of obstacles.

Courts are also potentially important constraining actors. We saw that in the U.S.—the court struck down the Muslim ban, for instance. In South Africa, the Supreme Court decided that South Africa can’t just leave the International Criminal Court (ICC), they need a parliamentary mandate for that. And that actually derailed those plans, and they’re still members of the ICC.

Let’s talk about how this has been playing out in the U.S. with Trump, many of us are accustomed to thinking about him and his presidency as a time of really drastic breaks from his predecessor, Obama. And there are lots of examples that we could talk about of that, including, on his first day in office, he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of Obama’s signature initiatives.

Are there ways that Trump was actually more consistent than is generally assumed?

President Trump is clearly seen as the breaker of things. There is the Paris Climate Accord. There’s obviously the Iran nuclear deal. There’s the open skies agreement. There’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization. Getting closer to Russia, the trade war with China.

Yet when we step back, we actually see that Trump’s presidency plays out in similar ways to what we would have thought based on our arguments. Look at alliances. President Trump always railed against NATO. But the U.S. never left NATO. And that’s in part the result of constraining actors in Congress who symbolically and overwhelmingly voted in support of NATO.

We see some change on sanctions—he reimposed some of the sanctions President Obama had lifted on Cuba—but then when he wanted to remove sanctions on Russia, Congress didn’t allow him to do that.

The one area where there is the most change arguably was on trade, where he, of course, negotiated the USMCA to replace NAFTA and initiated a trade war with China.

Biden’s agenda has been anchored in a strong rejection of all things Trump. And yet there are many consistencies between the two, like our very muscular approach to China. An article in Politico said to think of Biden’s foreign policy as a more globally minded, multilateralist take on Trump’s America first. What do you think?

Everybody expected there would be major change because Trump was so different from Obama, but Trump wasn’t actually that different either. And so, it’s not surprising that Biden isn’t super different from Trump.

China as a threat is a very clear continuation of President Trump’s ideas and part of President Biden’s policy, including the trade war. He has also withdrawn the troops from Afghanistan that President Trump started. President Biden’s border immigration policies are also much closer to Trump than people expected.

There have been two big areas of change. One is rhetorical. U.S. emphasis on democracy, multilateralism, and cooperating—Biden’s rhetoric is very different [from Trump’s]. The other big area of change is, of course, Russia. And that is very much a function of an international shock—attacking Ukraine—which has changed the international environment and required a response. I think that President Biden was going to be harder on Russia certainly than President Trump, but to the level that we’ve seen is a function of an international shock.

The other interesting point here that does not correspond to some of the things we’ve seen is that with trade, President Biden enacted much less change on trade policy. He is more consistent with President Trump, which I attribute in part to the fact that they’re competing for the same source societal support: blue collar workers coalition.

I want to ask you about the Ukraine-Russia shock, but especially in the context of Germany, which is where you’re from. What role has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine played in Germany’s foreign policy?

So, the current chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is a Social Democrat who came to power in December 2021. His government is a coalition of Social Democrats, Green, and German Liberals. They replaced the government of Angela Merkel who was Christian Democrat in a coalition with the Social Democrats.

From our argument, Ashley and I would say that we don’t expect so much change there because social democrats were part of Merkel’s coalition—there’s an overlap between sources of societal support. Yes, when the government came to office, they had negotiated in their coalition agreement some new things like what they were going to call value-based foreign policy. But I don’t think we saw a lot of it actually manifest because things like, not providing or selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, immediately fell to the wayside.

We didn’t really see a ton of change, and then suddenly there is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which completely changes the international environment for Europe, and Germany in particular. Americans sometimes don’t understand how close to home this stuff is for Germany.

In response was this big speech by the chancellor who talked about a turning point or epochal change. What he meant is that Germany would supply weapons to Ukraine, which it hadn’t done before, and would finally increase its defense budget to 2 percent, which is something the Americans have demanded of Germany. That was a major shift.

Everybody said it’s been a watershed moment for Germany, and it has had an effect, but I would say it’s slower and maybe less total than it would initially have appeared, which aligns with our arguments. Germany is now the second biggest supplier of weapons to Ukraine, but it took a long time to get there. On the defense budget, the German government has now actually retreated from this plan of committing 2 percent every year.

So, yes, that international event absolutely changes policy, but we are still seeing some of the elements of the domestic story and constraints that come from parts of the system that make it hard to really change policy.

Over the last several years, we have seen in the U.S. and in lots of other countries, growing political polarization and an erosion of norms around democracy. I’m curious how you think these phenomena will play out in the next election here in the U.S. If a Republican wins in 2024, will things continue along this stable track, or could things change?

Ashley and I were concerned about this too because we find that democracies tend to be more stable over the period we look, but the question is, will this trend hold in the future?

There’s reason to believe that both polarization and democratic backsliding, which often coincide, could undermine the ability of democracy to be stable in their foreign policy. With regard to polarization, the worry is that if the electorate becomes so polarized, then there are no more median voters to pull [leaders] towards a moderate policy. And that can lead to greater change from one administration to the next. Particularly concerning is polarization where it becomes not even about your interests—it’s about undoing what the other side has done. That could lead to even more foreign policy change that doesn’t even correspond to the interests of groups.

And then on the other side, with democratic backsliding, democracies become more like autocracies, right? So, you exclude voters and weaken the potential constraining actors, and all of this also can undermine stability.

Both have a potential to undermine things quite a bit. And then I think you asked also about the 2024 election.

Yes, the 2024 election. This is what everyone wants to know. What’s going to happen, Michaela? Tell us!

International relations scholars are not great at predictions. The thing that I would say is that probably we should see quite a bit of continuity on China. I think that’s a given by the international environment. China is the main challenger the U.S. has to be worried about, and that will constrain anybody who’s in power in 2024.

On trade, there’s a lot of agreement among the people that presidential candidates will be competing for, so we should expect continuity there.

The big one, of course, is Russia and Ukraine. What will we see on that? The Democratic Party is supportive of Ukraine generally, and Republicans are pretty divided, but some of the really powerful Republican elites in Congress, especially in the Senate, are very staunch supporters. So, any president who wants to disrupt support for Ukraine and potentially lift sanctions against Russia also has potential constraining actors that they will have to deal with.

If I was Ukraine, I would be a bit worried, but there are also potentially some things that could mitigate against extreme change here.

Michaela, it’s been such a pleasure having you on Talking Policy. Thanks for joining us today.

My pleasure.