5 Questions: Political Scientist Richard Betts on Foreign Policy Under Trump

Richard K. Betts, the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies in the political science department, is widely known as an expert on U.S. foreign relations and national security. He is director of Columbia’s Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and the international security policy program at the School of International and Public Affairs.

Georgette Jasen
March 01, 2017

An adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and its former director of national security studies, Betts is the author of many articles and several books, including American Force: Dangers, Delusions and Dilemmas in National Security, published in 2012 by Columbia University Press. He has served on advisory panels for the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He joined the Columbia faculty in 1990 from the Brookings Institution.

Q. How would you describe the current state of U.S. foreign relations compared with the start of past administrations?

A. They are more confused than usual in a new administration. The president is inexperienced and knows very little about international politics, yet he is confident and prone to casual declarations that often have to be walked back. The administration's amateur quality is aggravated by slowness in filling the ranks of appointees at the subcabinet level. As a result, many issues must wait for the attention of top people. Every new administration has such shakedown problems, but they are greater in this case because impulses to activism outrun the capacities for staffing, assessment and careful execution.

Q. Does Russia’s launch of a cruise missile and its spy ship off the coast of Connecticut put us at the brink of a new Cold War?

A. We have been in a new \"mini\" Cold War since Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine during the Obama administration. The spy ship is business as usual; the United States has used such intelligence collection platforms itself in the past. The cruise missile could violate the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, which banned such systems. At best the missile skirts legality and at worst it exemplifies the Putin regime's disdain for post-Cold War restraints on Russian power.

Q. How should the Trump administration respond?

A. One of the few of Trump’s ideas that had any merit was his desire to improve relations with Russia, but Russia’s actions in Ukraine, hacking into the U.S. election, and anxiety among small and vulnerable NATO members in the Baltic states make it difficult to contemplate a diplomatic deal that might work. The United States needs to combine conflicting initiatives, solidifying deterrence of Russian adventurism while credibly holding out the potential for a compromise deal to reduce tensions. This would be a difficult balancing act, and probably beyond the capacity of a Trump administration.

Q. Should Trump aides and associates be talking to Russians about sanctions, Ukraine, or indeed anything? Was Michael Flynn’s firing justified?

A. Before inauguration it would be illegal to negotiate, and there is a political inhibition about jumping the gun in authority before taking office. In practice, however, informal encounters and tacit signals may occur. Press reports suggest Flynn had to go, either because he lied to the vice president about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, or had to take the fall so the president could not be charged with having violated the Logan Act [the 1799 law intended to prevent unauthorized citizens from interfering in disputes with foreign governments] during the post-election transition. The controversy may also have provided an excuse for the president to get rid of a crucial assistant whose competence he may have come to doubt. Once a new administration is in office, the most sensitive interchanges depend on the president's administrative style and who he entrusts with the lead role—usually the Secretary of State, occasionally the National Security Advisor.

Q. What other major foreign policy issues face the new administration?

A. The most important and potentially dangerous issues are relations with great powers, China and Russia. China is the main concern as time goes on because of its rising power, and immediately in regard to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Russia is an immediate problem because of war in Ukraine, Putin's general friskiness, and disarray in NATO, but over the long term it is less of a concern because of its decline in power. Iran and especially North Korea pose the most probable near-term threats, but are less of a potential danger than the two major powers. Terrorists are a big psychological threat, but should be less of a concern—unless they get biological or nuclear weapons.