Professor William-Burke's "International Law in The Age of Trump"

On Tuesday, November 28, Swarthmore students gathered in the Chang Hou Lecture Hall in the Science Center to listen to Professor William Burke-White’s lecture “International Law in The Age of Trump.”  Professor Burke-White currently teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and holds a A.B and J.D. from Harvard and a Ph.D. and M. Phil from Cambridge. Burke-White worked in the Department of State, was an expert witness for Argentina, and served in the Obama Administration from 2009-2011 on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff.

Burke-White spoke briefly about Perry World House, a global policy research center on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus whose events are open to Swarthmore students. Their goal is to bring leading “thinkers and doers” of foreign affairs together into conversations that they may not have had otherwise. For example, the ribbon-cutting ceremony showcased Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights shaking hands with Robert Gates, former Republican US Secretary of Defense. The space also hosts a plethora of student activities and allows for “office hours” with political figures from Aisa Kirabo Kacyira, former Mayor of Kigali, Rwanda and current Deputy Executive Director and Assistant Secretary-General of UN-HABITAT to former vice president Joe Biden.

After discussing the opportunities that Perry World House creates, Burke-White proceeded to discuss one pressing foreign policy concern – one year into the Trump administration, how do we make sense of his engagement with international law? Burke-White stated that he intended to present a “balanced analysis,” looking at “where the liberal press overstates Trump’s withdrawal” from the norm and where they understate it. He noted that the State Department is the institution that is responsible for writing new treaties, for negotiating said treaties, and for engaging with international institutions. The State Department has been gutted under Donald Trump, meaning the United States’ ability to create and maintain international law is questionable at best.

Burke-White showed two draft executive orders that came out in the early days of the Trump administration, both of which exemplified a sense of chaos and, although powerful rhetorically, meant nothing legislatively. He claims that this holds true for most of how Trump deals with international law. Trump engages in a lot of rhetorical posturing but actually achieves very little. Jack Pokorny ‘19, who attended the event, explains that he appreciated Burke-White’s approach. He explains that “it is often easy, if not attractive, for people with opposite political views to write off the "other's" perspective as idiotic. We see this all the time.” But Burke-White recognized that Trump might know what he’s doing, which is even more dangerous than simply being “idiotic.”  Pokorny shares this perspective, explaining that “I get the impression from friends back home that they think Trump is an idiot. That scares me, because it seems like a way of disengaging, while the "idiot" undermines our democratic freedoms.”

Burke-White went on to conceptualize the way he thinks about Trump’s international law policies with three case studies: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accords, and the Iran deal.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a trade deal between twelve countries intended to encourage globalized trade between member countries by reducing tariffs and making trade easier and more standardized by creating one set of regulations that would apply to the businesses from the countries involved. It also functions as the Obama administration’s key pivot to Asia, attempting to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon, controlling trade and the standards for trade in the region.

Donald Trump promised throughout his campaign that he would back out of the TPP because it would be easier for big companies to outsource jobs, taking them out of America and thus away from Americans. Burke-White noted that had Hillary Clinton won, she likely would have set the TPP aside and not discussed it. However, the populist nature of Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s campaigns made it impossible to ignore and, to many, unpalatable. Burke-White explained that Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP illuminates that he does not like multilateralism. He likes bilateralism because, in his words, “we are big and powerful and can get a better trade deal by negotiating directly with these [smaller, less powerful] countries like, say, Vietnam, than by negotiating with 14 countries with different interests. It’s not idiotic. It’s also not right.” Some benefits are only possible multilaterally, since multilateralism necessitates finding terms that all countries involved can agree upon. This is only done by each country agreeing on a few different deals that perhaps never would have been possible in a straightforward bilateral agreement.

The Paris Climate Agreement is a binding, voluntarily committal treaty that every country in the world except for Syria, Nicaragua, and the United States have signed or ratified. The goal is to avoid reaching a point of no return regarding the earth’s temperature and to do so by keeping global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. Countries involved are expected to monitor and report their carbon emissions and set their own goal on how to reduce emissions. Developed countries are expected to help developing nations since they contributed more heavily to climate change. Nations can exit the climate agreement at any time, they set their own goals, and can leave without penalty. Burke-White said it was a “fundamentally important cornerstone of preventing climate change but also the least binding treaty you’ve ever seen.”

Trump, who has tweeted 115 times about climate change being a hoax, has always wanted to leave the Paris Accords. Instead of making the commitments that the US agreed to in the accords insignificant, Trump decided to exit the agreements. A nation cannot exit until it has been in the treaty for three years and additionally has given a one year notice. So although Trump has exited the accords, it will not happen until four years from now, exactly one day after the 2020 election. Trump has not yet appointed a legal advisor at the Department of State, so he may not have known (or may have known exactly) that the US would not leave the agreement immediately. Trump has granted himself a rhetorical gift to sway a particular piece of the electorate but has not actually done anything to get the US out of the agreement effectively. Burke-White says this elucidates another key piece of how Trump deals with international law – doing very little but saying quite a lot.

The Iran Nuclear Deal tries to hinder the ability of Iran’s nuclear facilities by reducing the storage of nuclear matter, removing centrifuges (necessary in creating nuclear weapons), and bolstering the IAEA’s ability to monitor the stages of a bomb being built. In exchange, any nuclear-related embargoes the US has on Iran are removed. If Iran does not abide by its portion of the deal, sanctions return. Every ninety days the president must certify to Congress that Iran has upheld its half of the deal.

Donald Trump despises this deal. He has called it one of the worst deals in history, again promising in his campaign to destroy it. On day one, however, he did not repudiate the deal. Burke-White hypothesized that Trump perhaps realized the deal was actually quite good because it keeps Iran from getting nuclear weapons. It may have been because of such a realization that Trump did not throw it out or put sanctions back on Iran, keeping the United States in compliance with the deal.  Two weeks ago, Trump declared he would “decertify” Iran. Rhetorically, he is following through on his promises. Legislatively, this means nothing. Decertification has no impact on sanctions that have been lifted. Both parties stay in compliance with the deal but again, Trump gets to claim he is doing what he promised.

Burke-White ended his lecture by returning to the question – how do we understand Trump and international law? He gave four major hypotheses of ideologies behind his behavior.  First, isolationism and populism: Burke-White believes this is insufficient, finding proof in his commitment to the Iran deal and his willingness to continue negotiations on things like trade and the climate. Second, realist pragmatism: Burke-White finds this compelling, saying this makes sense if Trump has some missing calculations on what qualifies as a threat to the US. He calls it “extreme realist pragmatism based on a faulty conception.” Third, fear and sovereignty: Burke-White says Trump is a “deeply insecure and scared man who hasn’t put people around him in the State Department to actually do things.” Finally, stupidity and hubris: Burke-White believes Trump is a little bit stupid and has a little too much pride for his own good. He concludes that the truth most likely lies in a mix of all four hypotheses.

Omene Addeh ‘21 found the talk uninspiring, explaining that although it was “good overall,” she expected more “if Trump did this, what’s it going to look like for the American economy [or] political climate?…there were a lot of loose ends.”

Overall, Burke-White left the impression that most of what Trump has done regarding international law is a lot of talk and not a lot of action, something not currently catastrophic but certainly dangerous for the future.