In last night’s presidential debate, policy issues were barely discussed among the conspiracy theories and scandal-mongering. But even the limited discussion of foreign policy highlighted a pretty strange fact: the Republican ticket effectively has two distinct foreign policy approaches. And though it’s hardly unusual for running mates to differ to some extent on issues – indeed, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine differ on some key foreign policy points – Trump’s statements last night, publicly repudiating his running mate’s proposals for Syria, were bizarre.
Despite his choice of vice presidential candidate, Trump and Pence have been largely at odds on foreign policy since day one. Trump’s approach to foreign policy is highly inconsistent but has certainly been unconventional. The GOP nominee advocates a militaristic, ‘America First’ foreign policy, but differs from GOP orthodoxy on key topics like Russia, the Iraq War, U.S. alliances, and trade. In contrast, Pence is a hawk’s hawk, supporting the war in Iraq, increases in defense spending, and further Middle East intervention. In 2005, then-Representative Pence even introduced a House Resolution which would have declared that President Bush should not set an ‘arbitrary’ date for the removal of troops from Iraq until nation-building was complete.
The result has been a curious dichotomy in the Republican ticket’s foreign policy proposals. At last week’s vice presidential debate, Pence ignored Trump’s prior foreign policy statements, advocating for intervention against the Assad regime, the creation of safe zones in Syria, and a substantially harder line against Russia. Yet last night, when moderators pushed Trump on these differences, the Republican presidential candidate bluntly rejected Pence’s stance, noting that “he and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.” Trump then further contradicted his running mate, arguing for better relations with Russia, even refusing to attribute recent hacking incidents to Russia despite substantial evidence from the intelligence community on the issue.
To be sure, there are also some differences between candidates on the democratic side of the ticket. While Clinton has argued that the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force gave President Obama the authorization to use military force in Libya and against ISIS, Tim Kaine has been an active Senate proponent of greater congressional oversight of foreign policy. In particular, Kaine has advocated for the repeal of the 2001 AUMF, and its replacement with a more narrowly tailored AUMF focused on ISIS. Yet the difference in opinion is largely procedural: Kaine supports Clinton’s proposals to create a safe zone or no-fly zone in Syria and the campaign against ISIS if properly authorized. At the same time, he has toned down his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership to match Clinton’s newfound reticence on trade.
There has been little such accommodation on the Republican side of the contest, where Pence and Trump each seem determined to pursue their own distinct foreign policy agendas. This is concerning for several reasons. First, it is possible that Pence may be able to exert more influence on foreign policy than a typical vice presidential candidate. Before settling on Pence as his running mate, Trump reportedly told potential running mate John Kasich that he would be the most powerful vice president in history, running both domestic and foreign policy. Second, some conservatives have suggested that Trump has little interest in actually being president, and might well step down after his inauguration in favor of Pence.
Though there are strong reasons to doubt how restrained Trump’s foreign policy would be in reality – as well as substantive concerns about his temperament, and his connections to Russia – there is no doubt that Mike Pence’s foreign policy would be far less restrained. No matter how entertaining it may be to watch, therefore, the split in the Republican ticket offers little reassurance for those concerned about foreign policy during a Trump presidency.