After Credibility

American Foreign Policy in the Trump Era

Trump boarding Air Force One, November 2017 Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Believe me.” U.S. President Donald Trump has used that phrase countless times, whether he is talking about counterterrorism (“I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me”), building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border (“Believe me, one way or the other, we’re going to get that wall”), or the Iran nuclear deal (“Believe me. Oh, believe me. . . . It’s a bad deal”).

Trump wants to be taken at his word. But public opinion polls consistently indicate that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans do not find him trustworthy. The global picture is no better. Most citizens of traditional U.S. allies, such as Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, say that they have no confidence in the U.S. president.

In other words, Trump suffers from a credibility gap. This is, perhaps, unsurprising. According to The New York Times, Trump said something untrue every day for the first 40 days of his presidency. His actions speak even louder. Trump has sown doubt about some of the United States’ oldest and most important commitments, such as its support for NATO—an alliance Trump described as “obsolete” in January, before declaring it “no longer obsolete” in April. He has flip-flopped on policy positions, publicly undermined the efforts of members of his own administration, and backpedaled on diplomatic agreements, including the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

The United States does not derive its credibility from the words of the executive alone, but Trump’s behavior carries consequences. As the president undermines the nation’s credibility at home and abroad, allies will hesitate to trust American promises, and U.S. threats will lose some of their force. The risks of deadly miscalculation will increase. And to demonstrate its resolve, the United States may need to take more costly and extreme actions. Other sources of credibility, such as American military prowess and a general faith in U.S. institutions, may mitigate some

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