Last year Allan Dafoe and Devin Caughey published an intriguing paper in World Politics on whether presidents concerned about their reputation for resolve were more likely to escalate military conflicts. The way they determined ex ante whether a president would be very concerned about this? If the president was raised in the American South, where an honor culture valorizes the reputation for resolve. Both historical surveys and experimental research suggest that Southerners possess, according to Dafoe and Caughey, an “intense concern with the nation’s status in the world,” as well as “a compulsion for revenge when … repute for one or another virtue is repudiated.” Their findings:
Interstate conflicts under Southern presidents are shown to be twice as likely to involve uses of force, last on average twice as long, and are three times more likely to end in victory for the United States than disputes under non-Southern presidents.
Now, as the authors note, not all Southern presidents share in the honor culture (see: Carter, Jimmy), and non-Southerners can obsess about their honor. Which gives rise to an interesting question: As president, will Donald Trump act like a Southerner when it comes to foreign policy?
There are real reasons for skepticism, which I’ll get to in a bit. But let’s consider the arguments in favor first. In their article, Dafoe and Caughey explicitly state that the Southern approach to foreign policy is kindred to the Jacksonian approach to foreign policy — a worldview that Walter Russell Mead assigns to Trump. And, certainly, Trump acts like a Southerner in seeming to take great umbrage at anyone who slights him. This has already had foreign policy ramifications. According to Politico’s Eliana Johnson, Trump vetoed the appointment of Elliott Abrams to be deputy secretary of state because of Abrams’s criticisms of him during the campaign. This echoes the bigger pattern of Trump refusing to embrace any of the #NeverTrump crowd.
An honor-based approach to foreign policy also fits Trump’s pattern of how he talks about foreign relations in the first place. During the campaign, he talked constantly about getting tough with other countries, demonstrating a concern about resolve. More importantly, Trump talked about foreign affairs in terms of personal relationships. His defense of warmer ties with Russia amounts to talking about Putin complimenting him to be a good thing. He also equated Japanese-American ties to his warm relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. According to Politico, “The trick to a good call with Trump is less about policy agreement than personal chemistry.”
If Trump’s Jacksonian approach and personality echoes the South’s honor culture, that could mean that America is in for more and lengthier militarized disputes, albeit with more victorious outcomes.
On the other hand, what if Trump is just lying about taking offense? Weirdly, Trump’s tendency to dissemble gives him an out that many Southerners wouldn’t take. He can deny being insulted or disrespected in a situation he doesn’t want to escalate by asserting that there was no insult. Since Trump’s relationship with the truth is, um, distant at best, there’s little downside about lying away a perceived insult when it is politically inconvenient for him to acknowledge it. This is how Trump handled Judge Neil Gorsuch’s comments that were specifically critical of Trump. He simply pretended that the senators who relayed those comments to the press were lying about it. Then Trump had Sean Spicer repeat those absurdities at his news briefing.
The Gorsuch case is about domestic politics, but Trump has also climbed down from his bold rhetoric on foreign affairs. As I noted 10 days ago, on foreign affairs, Trump has managed to become more predictable and less credible as president. This trend has been reinforced since then. It has been a few weeks since Trump put Iran “ON NOTICE,” and, to my knowledge, nothing of substance has happened. His response to North Korea’s missile tests could best be described as muted. There’s no way to paint Trump’s recognition of the “One China” policy as anything but acquiescing to the status quo after suggesting during the transition that it would be a bargaining chip.
It is to Trump’s credit that he backed down on the One China policy — his gambit was never going to fly. But the point is, he backed down. As Matthew Miller points out in Politico, it’s not a good look:
Had Trump and his team designed the Taiwanese call as part of an overall strategy to rebalance interests with Beijing, it might have made sense. As an impulsive move to satisfy lobbyists for a foreign government, it was a catastrophe, and it ended Thursday in quiet capitulation, when Trump finally expressed support for the One China policy. Somehow, Trump managed to turn a mere restatement of longstanding U.S. policy into a public relations coup for a Chinese government he promised he would bring to heel. Experts now worry that China has taken Trump’s measure, and found him easily cowed. That’s dangerous.
So maybe Trump won’t act like a Southerner as president, but rather a faux Southerner. Southerners are quick to take offense when they feel their honor is slighted, but that is because honor is important to them. Trump doesn’t seem terribly honorable, which can allow him to de-escalate when he wants.
This could be good news — maybe Trump isn’t actually going to be as bellicose as he seemed. But in case you were wondering, being more predictable and less credible is not a good foreign policy combination. As Fred Kaplan notes, allies might play into Trump’s sense of faux honor and flatter him. But Miller is right — rivals are learning that Trump bluffs a lot. That’s a reputation that no one, Southerner or Northerner, wants to have as president.