One of the biggest criticisms against Republican frontrunner Donald Trump (as well as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders) is a lack of knowledge regarding foreign policy. Earlier today, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell skewered Trump on Meet the Press, telling host Chuck Todd that Trump is “completely uneducated about any part of the world.” She cited, as an example, Trump’s desire to cancel defense treaties with Japan and South Korea and to put a halt to the importation of oil unless Saudi Arabia paid the United States more for providing defense.
But is a lack of knowledge on foreign policy really a handicap to a presidential candidate?
According to history, the answer is a resounding “no”.
In fact, in some ways, weak or nonexistent foreign policy experience can be an asset for a president, since it forces the president to rely heavily upon an experienced and highly-skilled team of foreign policy experts. This team includes the Department of State, which plays the lead role in developing foreign policy. With more than 30,000 employees and a budget of approximately $35 billion, chances are, this department is quite capable of compensating for– and perhaps even thriving under — a president with minimal knowledge of foreign policy matters. And let’s not forget about the National Security Council. Since the administration of Harry Truman, the NSC has advised presidents on matters of national security and foreign policy.
Just as it is not necessary to be an expert mechanic in order to be a championship race car driver, it is not necessary to be a foreign policy wonk in order to be a successful Commander-in-Chief.
At least 17 former presidents fall into this category, and these are the presidents who were state governors prior to moving into the White House. As you might imagine, governing a state like Georgia (Jimmy Carter) does not exactly require many trips abroad, and governing a state like California (Ronald Reagan) does not require one to have his finger on the pulse of Nauru, Tuvalu or Burkina Faso.
While modern technology certainly helps ease the foreign policy burden, presidents have long been successful without having a lick of foreign policy experience, even long before organizations like the National Security Council were established.
Grover Cleveland, for example, served as both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. His path to the White House took him from the sheriff’s office of Erie County, New York, to the mayor’s office of Buffalo and then to the governor’s mansion in Albany. In spite of his lack of foreign policy experience, Cleveland managed to enjoy great foreign policy success under Secretary of State Thomas F. Bayard, and Cleveland was able to modernize the military under Secretary of War William C. Endicott.
Woodrow Wilson’s path to the White House took him from the presidency of Princeton University to New Jersey’s governor’s mansion. In spite of his foreign policy “handicap”, Wilson was instrumental in the creation of the League of Nations and, as a result, was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize.
On the other hand, there were presidents like Lyndon Johnson, who had a plethora of foreign policy experience. He was a military commander, U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Senate Majority Whip, Senate Minority Leader, Senate Majority Leader and Kennedy’s vice president before taking office in 1963. Such a wealth of foreign policy experience didn’t prevent Johnson from making a mess out of Vietnam.