In his quest to Make America Great Again by putting America First, U.S. President Donald Trump spent his first weeks in office disrupting relations with allies and adversaries alike. He complained to the Australian prime minister about what he called the “dumb deal” the United States made in agreeing to relocate approximately 1,250 refugees from Australia to the United States; he suggested to the Mexican president that the United States might help take care of some “tough hombres” there; and he declared to French President François Hollande that the United States should get its “money back” for its years as NATO’s leader. He apparently also remains determined to enact an executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries despite the early judicial rulings against his efforts.
Micah Zenko and Rebecca Lissner, from the Council on Foreign Relations, have described Trump’s approach to foreign policy as “tactical transactionalism,” that is “a foreign-policy framework that seeks discrete wins (or the initial tweet-able impression of them), treats foreign relations bilaterally rather than multidimensionally, and resists the alignment of means and ends that is necessary for effective grand strategy.”
But the problem isn’t just about any one deal. It isn’t even Trump’s lack of an overall grand strategy. The problem is that successful foreign policy is largely invisible. It often means paying up front for benefits that are hard to see until you lose them, or that will only be obvious when you really need them. Sometimes, successful foreign policy even means keeping real victories quiet.
Invisible foreign policy doesn’t appeal to a president who cares about showmanship and flashy successes. Although Trump’s initial storm of activity seems to have calmed in recent days, there is no evidence that he has turned to the kind of quiet, routine actions that make U.S. foreign policy run smoothly. Such efforts are not dramatic, but they are essential, and their absence could severely undermine U.S. interests.