Cocktail Banter, Episode 3: Do presidential elections really change U.S. foreign policy?

Cocktail Banter connects you with the best of politics and pop culture. It’s the podcast that gives you everything you need to know to be in the know.

This week, we're talking with Ben Chang, a foreign service officer who served for nearly two decades as a communications and policy advisor for White House and Cabinet officials. He’s consulted on key foreign policy issues in both Republican and Democratic administrations, and now he’s using that expertise as the Managing Director of U.S. Public Affairs & Crisis practice at Burson-Marsteller.

Ben talks with us about whether the presidential election really matters when it comes to foreign policy. Republican party leaders are making the case that surrounding their candidate with experienced advisors will temper his ideology. (In spite of the evidence to the contrary and Kasich's warning that Trump is influencing GOP foreign policy.) So how influential is the foreign policy establishment? Once a President-elect takes office, does his or her view of the world impact policy-making? Or is U.S. policy consistent, regardless of who holds office?

Tune into our conversation below, or find us on iTunes and subscribe to Cocktail Banter. 

In this episode, Ben talks about his experience overseas as a high school student (5:30), traveling to the Soviet Union and Central America. Click here to watch Reagan talk about the program Ben participated in – an exchange program designed to promote international exchanges between the USSR and the U.S. Reagan touted citizen diplomacy as a path to an enduring peace, since "people-to-people contacts can build genuine constituencies for peace in both countries.” If you're interested in the idea of citizen diplomacy, here’s more from a city in Florida that partnered with a Russian city in the 1980s, and has continued its efforts in the decades since then. They've created a citizen diplomacy program that builds sister city relationships between cities in Israel, Palestine and Jordan and the United States.  

Ben discusses the Bush-Obama transition (22:00) and how the tone set by incoming and outgoing leaders makes an impact (23:50). I mention the missing Ws on the keyboards during the 2001 transition between Clinton and Bush. Was that "fraternity-party disarray" or the scandal that wasn't

In our conversation, I noted that Ben worked at the United Nations for both the Clinton and Bush administrations (11:30), but neglected to mention that he worked with Madeleine Albright when she served as Secretary of State in the 1990s. (At the UN, he served with U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson.) Albright recently said Trump would flunk her class on foreign policy, and while that's a good quip, I thought this was an even better point: "I have been in the situation room. I know what...temperament is necessary. What you need to have is somebody who doesn't think he knows everything...who is respectful of people's opinions, who listens, who makes considered judgments..." 

We talk about the impact of presidential priorities (19:30), and I mention how I saw the impact of presidential agenda-setting as genocide erupted in Darfur (34:47). Bush made Sudan a priority, even in a post-9/11 context, and he took the lead on working to bring peace to the region. He called the situation in Darfur genocide before others were willing to do so, and worked to make a difference through strategic diplomacy. Of course, the situation in Sudan is now as complex as ever, and citizens there are no closer to finding peace (for reasons we can discuss on a future episode). 

Ben raises a good point in our discussion - what's the longer-term impact of seeing foreign policy as a zero-sum game? (28:30) 

Check out Ben's TEDx talk, "Let your passions impact your day job." (Spoiler: Ben mentions a conversation with Obama about Jay-Z in the Oval Office.) Continue the conversation by connecting with him on Twitter