Foreign Policy

What would US foreign policy look like under President Pence?


With President Trump lurching from crisis to crisis, each more unsettling and damaging than the last, it is time to ask what has previously seemed improbable: Are we approaching the end of the Trump presidency? If Vice President Pence ascends to the top job, what would his foreign policy look like?

This may seem premature. Much depends on what actually emerges from special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry. An actual impeachment may need to wait until after midterm elections are held. Then, they might only proceed if the Democrats regain the majority. But if the unpredictable first 120 days of the Trump presidency are any guide, there is no telling what the coming period will bring.

Indeed, it took essentially 120 days — from May 9, 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee opened formal impeachment proceedings against President Nixon, until his resignation on August 9 — for the Watergate scandal to conclude. Beyond impeachment, there’s a chance Trump may simply resign

{mosads}The two of us have spent a combined 20 years in the United States government, in key foreign policy institutions — Defense, Homeland Security, State, the Agency for International Development and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — and one of us hails from Pence’s home state of Indiana. Given the current volatility, we thought it important to share ideas on what President Pence’s foreign policy might look like. 


Two major aspects would characterize Pence’s foreign policy: a re-embrace of the Republican establishment and an aggressive uptake of Christian social conservative thought. 

Among the Republican establishment, particularly the neoconservative wing, Pence has an impeccable reputation. Many describe him as a “hawk’s hawk.” He was a strong proponent of the Iraq War, has vigorously stood up for a strong military and “American values” and, as vice president, has taken on an informal role as an emissary to NATO and other alliances. All of this contrasts starkly to what candidate Trump said on the campaign trail.

Likewise, Pence’s evangelical Christian faith is central to his identity. He has proudly built up a reputation as one of the most conservative lawmakers in the country and frequently describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” There is a high probability that Pence would explicitly embed religious morals in U.S. foreign policy and push an activist social conservative agenda.

For example, as the governor of Indiana, Pence signed one of the strictest abortion provisions in the country and approved a controversial law intended to allow businesses to deny services to members of the LGBT community for religious reasons (only after intense blowback did he backtrack). Translated into the foreign policy realm, it is not hard to imagine Pence defending Christian minorities around the world, possibly to the exclusion of other religious groups.

He will undoubtedly continue Trump’s expansion of the “global gag rule,” and it is possible he may try to push a “clash of civilizations” strategy, primarily seeking alliances with countries that have a “Judeo-Christian” character.

But a Pence presidency could also mean re-adopting a “values agenda,” with a greater emphasis on human rights, democracy and development that would be closer in line with President George W. Bush’s policies. Under Bush, funding for development — particularly global health programs — expanded, bringing together an unlikely coalition of secular development advocates and faith-based stakeholders.

It is not hard to envision a similar coalition coming together under Pence’s watch. A Pence presidency also may lead to a shoring-up of security and economic alliances. Just as Trump has cast the free-trade regime into jeopardy, castigated NATO (at least before an abrupt about-face last month) and signaled massive funding cuts to the Bretton Woods Institutions, Pence may reverse many of these pronouncements.

In the current configuration of the Trump administration, three separate groups tangle for foreign policy primacy: the economic nationalists/populists led by Stephen Bannon, the military pragmatists represented by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and the economic globalists fronted by National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Under Pence, the Bannon wing would likely make a quick and graceless exit. The economic globalists and the military pragmatists would stay entrenched in strong positions, but old groups would likely return, such as the neoconservatives and religious faith leaders. 

A Pence presidency would bring big style changes. Gone would be the late night tweets and blustery rhetoric. More than likely, “America First” would gradually disappear, with a return to a more traditional form of American exceptionalism. The impulsivity, erratic swings of policy and casual disregard for intelligence and briefing material would also likely pass.

These changes alone would considerably ease fears about an accidental stumble into a major war or nuclear confrontation. On the other hand, the divisive culture wars that have framed Pence’s political career would presumably return in a major way and likely spill over into the foreign policy arena. 

On a regional basis, we can also expect significant differences. In the Middle East, President Trump has focused on three issues thus far: Israeli-Palestinian peace, countering ISIS and containing Iran. While it is unlikely that President Pence would jettison any of these efforts, what is likely is that he would reprioritize and change the tenor of engagements.

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Pence might be less likely to swing for the fences to achieve an unlikely peace and might side even more closely with Israel. He would also most certainly continue to counter ISIS, but would do so in a manner less aligned with Russia, which might mean more direct pressure on the Syrian regime.

On Iran, President Pence would likely not reverse Trump’s policy to both stick to the nuclear agreement but build pressure on Iran through closer ties to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, but he might inject a push for greater democracy and human rights, which would certainly strain ties.

Turning to Asia, Pence’s approach to North Korea may not vary appreciably from the current strategy — ramp up economic pressure and sanctions and convince China to play a more assertive role in reigning in Kim Jong-un — but Pence will refrain from Trump’s Twitter baiting and will tamp down the bellicose rhetoric.

Instead, expect a more concerted, behind-the-scenes effort to force the North Korean regime to the negotiating table. When it comes to China, we can anticipate more consistent pushback from Pence, including reestablishing clear markers on the South China Sea and efforts to put together a TPP-like economic alliance to counter China’s ambition. 

Finally, there is Russia. If Congress forces Trump out of office, it will be due in large part to charges of collusion with Russia. Undoubtedly, this will reverse the current rapprochement that Trump is engineering. It is also a safe bet that, under Pence, the days of sharing codeword-level intelligence with Russian diplomats in the Oval Office would be over. Most likely, we would see a return to an icy standoff between the United States and Russia, characterized by increasingly hostile rhetoric and mistrust.

While we are not advocating impeachment, we view it as increasingly possible. Thus, the implications of a Pence presidency are valuable for all of us to ponder —Democrats and Republicans alike.

Hady Amr served in the Obama administration as deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and as deputy head of the Middle East Bureau at USAID. He is a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings and tweets at @HadyAmr. Steve Feldstein served in the Obama administration as a deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor. He is the incoming Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University. Follow him on Twitter @SteveJFeldstein.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Compassionate conservatism Donald Trump foreign affairs Foreign policy International relations Mike Pence Politics of the United States Social conservatism

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