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Imagine two U.S. foreign policy analysts plucked from their Washington think tanks and marooned on desert islands, one just before Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy and the other just before the 2016 election itself. After the election, both are told that the Republican candidate won and are asked to predict the new administration’s foreign policy. Whose predictions would have been more accurate?
At times this spring, the second analyst’s forecasts would have been on the money. Having followed the bitter election, he or she would have foretold the nature of the transition and the early weeks of the new administration as a logical continuation of the campaign. The starkly nationalist rhetoric of Trump’s inaugural address; the president’s unpredictable tweets; the departure of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after only 25 days in office; and a whole host of other developments solidified many professionals’ sense that Trump would break dramatically with long-standing traditions and with recent policy. As the months passed, however, the analyst’s predictions would have been increasingly off base as the administration’s foreign policy became more conventional.
Meanwhile, the other desert-island refugee, who would have missed Trump’s surprising ascent and the bizarre campaign that followed, would likely have predicted that no matter who won the GOP nomination and despite any idiosyncrasies that emerged during election season, the realities of governing and of leading in a complex world would ultimately produce a fairly familiar Republican approach to foreign policy. And on balance, this analyst would have been right.
The Trump administration has been in office for less than six months, and most jobs below the cabinet level still remain unfilled, so one must tread carefully when making judgments about its approach or predictions about its future. But it is already clear that this is not a revolutionary administration. The broad lines of its policy fit easily within those of the last few decades. Trump might not be a conventional president, but so far, his foreign policy has been remarkably unremarkable.
This is a far cry from what many observers expected (and what some continue to worry about): a radical departure from tradition and the emergence of what might be called a Bannonite administration, after Steve Bannon, the populist-nationalist provocateur who chaired Trump’s campaign and was later named his chief White House strategist. Before joining the Trump team, Bannon had led Breitbart News, the online publishing company that he described as “the platform for the alt-right” and that regularly railed against “globalists” in the foreign policy establishment.
There was good reason to think that Trump would allow Bannon to help shape his approach. After Trump’s inauguration, Bannon was rewarded with a seat on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council—an unprecedented position for a political adviser. And during his candidacy, the transition, and the first few months of his administration, Trump had shown an almost gleeful willingness to part ways with foreign policy orthodoxy. He had called NATO “obsolete,“ warning that if the United States were not “reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth . . . I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, ‘Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.’” He had infuriated China by becoming the first U.S. leader in nearly four decades to communicate directly with the Taiwanese president and by suggesting that he might not uphold the “one China” policy, which Washington has followed since the early 1970s. He had repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and waved off criticisms of Putin’s woeful record on human rights—retorting, in one instance, “What, you think our country’s so innocent?” And Trump had made stalwart U.S. allies and trading partners nervous by threatening to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and to “terminate” the U.S.–South Korean trade deal.
It is understandable that anyone who heard such statements or who read the scores of tweets that the president fired off might conclude that the new administration would break sharply with tradition. In reality, however, Trump has not deviated much from conventions. In February, Trump reaffirmed the “one China” policy and abandoned his plan to label China a currency manipulator. After pledging to eliminate the Export-Import Bank, Trump changed his mind. He has failed to follow through on his threat to “tear up” the U.S.-led nuclear agreement with Iran. And after repeatedly disparaging NATO, Trump backtracked after a meeting with the organization’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, in April. The alliance, Trump now declared, was “no longer obsolete.” Perhaps most striking of all, despite having said many times that he wanted to improve relations with Russia and to use military force only when concrete U.S. interests were at risk, Trump launched a cruise missile attack on Syria (whose dictatorial regime is heavily supported by Russia) in response to the Syrian regime’s use of sarin gas—a crime against humanity that nonetheless did not directly threaten the United States.
If the Kremlin was initially pleased by Trump’s victory, Putin and his allies might now be feeling buyer’s remorse.
If the Kremlin tried to assist Trump’s campaign covertly (as the U.S. intelligence community has concluded) and was initially pleased by Trump’s victory, Putin and his allies might now be feeling buyer’s remorse. When it comes to Russia, the Trump administration has adopted a negative tone, sometimes exuding real hostility. “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” asked Washington’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, after Syria’s sarin attack. The White House has not lifted the sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration in response to Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and meddling in the campaign. And Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who was seen as supportive of closer ties with Russia, was forced to resign after reportedly misleading Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he had had with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, lamented in late March that U.S.-Russian relations were “at the lowest possible point” and later complained that the U.S. strike in Syria dealt “a significant blow to relations.” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s April visit to Moscow highlighted the deep rifts between the two countries and revealed what Tillerson called a “low level of trust.”
Those who had anticipated major policy changes—with hope or with fear—began to have doubts as soon as Trump assembled his core national security team. Trump tapped well-respected retired generals to head the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security (James Mattis and John Kelly, respectively), a highly regarded active-duty general as national security adviser (H. R. McMaster), the chief executive of ExxonMobil as secretary of state (Tillerson), and a member of Congress with degrees from West Point and Harvard Law School as director of the CIA (Mike Pompeo). Trump’s national security team embodies “the Establishment” as much as John F. Kennedy’s or Dwight Eisenhower’s did. The appointments suggest that, at least on foreign policy, Trump wants reliable people who will give him sober advice largely untinged by ideology. (In early April, Bannon was removed from the National Security Council’s Principals Committee, underscoring the move away from the “alt-right” populism of Trump’s campaign.) There are some “America first” ideologues on the White House staff, but they are clearly in eclipse, and their influence is on the wane. The foreign policy views of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and an influential White House adviser, remain largely unknown, but there is no evidence that they are out of the mainstream. So on foreign policy, the Trump administration is looking more and more conventionally Republican.
What’s more, the administration’s remarkable slowness in filling subcabinet posts means that currently, all the most senior advisers to top officials are not Republican political appointees but civil servants from what many Trump supporters decry as “the permanent government” or “the deep state.” The Bannonite wing has managed to keep out many officials from previous Republican administrations (including me, after I was selected by Tillerson to be deputy secretary of state), usually for the offense of having criticized Trump during the campaign. But this tactic has backfired on the Bannonites: for the moment, those jobs are instead filled by career civil servants who are very likely Democrats. That will change over the coming months as cabinet members choose their own deputies. But it would be very surprising if they did not select people in their own image: experienced and conventional. If personnel is policy, the Trump administration will likely be far less disruptive than many have imagined and predicted.
Another way in which Trump seemed likely to represent a dramatic change was in his apparent discomfort with the traditional role of “leader of the free world.” For Trump, claiming that mantle would entail too many commitments to abstractions, such as “the international community.” President Barack Obama, despite occasional rhetorical gestures, eschewed that role as well, casting doubt on U.S. commitments to democracy and human rights, especially in the Middle East. In 2009, Obama barely responded to Iran’s brutal suppression of the liberal Green Movement. And he did little to stop Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s campaign of mass murder. It was reasonable to expect that, in this regard, Trump would follow Obama’s lead and would likely show even more indifference or hostility to policies based on intangible values such as international leadership, morality, and human rights.
That is what made Trump’s decision to strike Syria so surprising. Trump addressed the nation to announce and explain the strikes and concluded with these words: “As long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will prevail.” When Tillerson later spoke about the attack at a press conference, he noted the threat of chemical weapons falling into the hands of those who would use them against Americans. But he also stated that “it’s important that some action be taken on behalf of the international community to make clear that the use of chemical weapons continues to be a violation of international norms.” So after only a couple of months in office, the “America first” administration had used U.S. military force on behalf of justice, the international community, and international norms.
One cruise missile attack does not define a president’s foreign policy. But Trump clearly wanted to establish U.S. power and credibility in a fairly traditional manner. Although Obama did not do this sort of thing, most other modern presidents have, following what Obama once dismissed as “the Washington playbook.” And Trump acted at least in part to assert American moral leadership. “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” he said, referring to the Assad regime’s use of sarin. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
Trump might not be a conventional president, but so far, his foreign policy has been remarkably unremarkable.
Trump’s strike on Syria was a defense of human rights, not democracy, and was not meant as a prelude to the kind of “nation building” that Trump had derided during the campaign. “If I become president, the era of nation building will be brought to a very swift and decisive end,” he had declared in August 2016. It is impossible to say how Trump and his aides will sort out the tension between that sentiment and the challenges the United States will face in the coming years. After all, when George W. Bush ran for president, he was equally critical of nation building. Yet he found the task impossible to avoid after the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Trump might similarly find that nation building will be a necessary and vital part of stabilizing Syria.
More broadly, it remains unclear how the goals of protecting human rights and promoting democracy will fit into Trump’s foreign policy; both tasks seem unpopular among his advisers. In March, when 11 nations, including close U.S. allies such as Canada and the United Kingdom, sent an open letter to China raising concerns about Beijing’s treatment of Chinese human rights activists and lawyers, the Trump administration declined to sign on. And when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the White House in April, the White House made no public statements on human rights. Meanwhile, Trump seems less inclined than any of his recent predecessors to protest the repressive actions of strongmen and authoritarians. Trump has hailed Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for example, as a “fantastic guy,” and Sisi, like Xi, was spared any public criticism of his horrendous human rights record when he visited the White House in March. When Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claimed victory in a close and completely unfair referendum vote that awarded him more power, Trump jumped to congratulate him before the outcome had even been certified by Turkish authorities. And Trump has invited the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, to visit the White House despite the Duterte government’s record of extrajudicial killings.
But it’s worth remembering that other presidents have taken a similar stance early in their administrations, only to shift gears later on. When the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos made a state visit to Washington in 1982, the words “human rights” were never uttered in his presence. Yet four years later, President Ronald Reagan was demanding and arranging for Marcos’ resignation. Reagan and George W. Bush both came to office having criticized the foreign policies of their Democratic predecessors as naively moralistic and lacking in realism. But both later concluded that holding high the banner of human rights enhanced the United States’ prestige and influence in the world. And both came to see nation building as a way to avoid or shorten U.S. military interventions. No one should be surprised if the Trump administration evolves in the same direction.
There are some things about Trump’s approach to foreign policy that are new. The administration is pursuing the defeat of the Islamic State (or ISIS) more actively than Obama ever did, investing more resources to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Mosul and putting more Americans on the ground in Syria. Under Trump, Washington is pushing back harder against Iranian aggression and subversion, more actively patrolling the approaches to the Suez Canal in the Bab el Mandeb Strait (between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa) and giving more assistance to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iranian proxies in Yemen.
On trade, the Trump administration will likely take a dimmer view of multilateral deals than did any of its predecessors in recent decades. Trump will not, in the end, recklessly abandon existing treaties, and his administration’s proposals for revisions to NAFTA are fairly mild. But in trade negotiations, Trump will clearly prioritize the security of American jobs and de-emphasize environmental protections.
The Trump administration will probably continue to raise human rights issues only in private. That is often the right move. But the White House will sometimes choose private criticism even when public pressure seems necessary and justified. And sometimes, the administration will not bring up the topic at all, even when it should. The president seems to have a deep aversion to telling friendly authoritarians how to run their countries, and that view will be difficult to displace. If it changes, it will be because Trump comes to see human rights abuses not as abstractions but as instances of raw and obvious inhumanity—as he saw the killing of children in Syria with sarin gas. Another example: Trump said nothing about the repression of dissent in Venezuela until he met the wife of the imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López. The meeting made the issue concrete for Trump: this woman and her husband are brave people, and the Venezuelan government is mistreating them. Similarly, Trump not only pressured Egypt’s Sisi to release an American aid worker, Aya Hijazi, from prison but then also invited her to the White House for a face-to-face meeting.
Trump’s early actions offer few clues—and some conflicting signals—about how he will respond to some of the greatest tests he is likely to face. On North Korea, Tillerson rightly lamented “20 years of a failed approach,” but thus far, the (hardly novel) Trump strategy appears to be asking China to do more. The administration has not junked the Iran nuclear deal and has revealed little about how it will change course on the Iranian nuclear threat—and even less about its broader Iran policy. Finally, there is no way to know how Trump will react if China proceeds with its expansionism in the South China Sea. But all of those things would be unclear no matter who was president; policy on such critical matters is never certain after only a few months, when appointees are just settling in or have not yet been confirmed.
Every administration’s policies are a combination of the old and the new. In Trump’s case, the expectation was that the mix would change: a great deal more of the new and a broad rejection of the foreign policies of Trump’s recent predecessors. That was certainly the impression left by Trump’s rhetoric. But his foreign policy and his national security appointees have so far pointed in a mostly conventional direction. Of course, this could change, but based on early impressions, the Trump era will be marked more by increasing adherence to traditional U.S. foreign policy positions than by ever-larger deviations.