- By Hal BrandsHal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of several books, including Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order and What Good Is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft From Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. He served as the special assistant to the secretary of defense for strategic planning from 2015 to 2016.
The Trump administration is nearing its 100-day marker, a useful milestone for reflecting upon what the president has done and where he is going. There is certainly much to consider: President Donald Trump came to Washington pledging to break dramatically with American foreign policy as we have known it for decades, and his early presidency has been a whirlwind of activity, controversy, and chaos. So what do we know about foreign policy in the Trump era? There are six key takeaways so far.
1. Trump’s “America first” instincts are real. On the campaign trail, Trump evinced marked hostility to U.S. alliances, free trade agreements, support for human rights and democracy overseas, and other longstanding features of American internationalism. Since taking office, he has shown that he meant at least some of what he said.
He gave an inaugural address that seemed ripped straight from the 1930s, and withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on day one. He berated or perplexed allies, from Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and conveyed an unmistakable “drop dead” to the struggling European Union. He doubled down, at least initially, on fortifying the southern border with Mexico, and issued his infamous executive orders on refugees and immigration.
Some of these initiatives have floundered in practice, of course, while others the administration has subsequently walked back or modified. But we have seen that America First is not simply a meaningless slogan for Trump — it captures some of his most basic instincts about international affairs.
2. Radical change is hard to enact. Fortunately, the above is not the full story of Trump’s first 100 days. Nearly every president starts by pledging fundamental change, and nearly every president eventually does a good deal of reversion to the mean. So it has been for Trump, whose foreign policy has already proven more normal than many observers expected.
After a standoffish start, Trump has apparently learned to tolerate NATO, and he has affirmed U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea amid a growing crisis with North Korea. He has taken a more moderate stance on North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation and other trade issues than his campaign rhetoric augured, and he has not torn up the Iran nuclear deal or the “One China” policy. He has shelved, at least for a time, plans for a post-election rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And most notably, Trump has pulled back from an incipient effort to make peace with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sending 59 cruise missiles into Syria in response to Assad’s latest chemical weapons outrage.
There are various reasons why Trump’s bark has proven worse than his bite. In some cases, such as reconciliation with Russia, radical change just proved too hard to make happen, given strong resistance from the bureaucracy, Congress, and Trump’s own advisers. In other cases, the world got a vote — China simply refused to do business until Trump reaffirmed the One China policy. And in many cases, the president has had to confront the fact that the changes he had proposed simply did not make sense in light of even a rudimentary acquaintance with the facts.
One can thus be reassured that Trump is apparently learning — or horrified that he knew so little to begin with. But at least this most exceptional president has proven no exception to the rule that changes promised on the campaign trail almost always exceed those delivered from the Oval Office.
3. Looking tough is Trump’s top priority — but it isn’t a strategy. Trump has increased the pressure on a range of bad actors, from Iran to North Korea to Syria. There are good reasons to do so, for one can legitimately argue that President Barack Obama was too accommodating and timid in dealing with these threats to U.S. interests. The problem, though, is that so far Trump seems to have mastered the art of posturing — without necessarily determining how to get what he wants.
The administration has talked tough on Iran, but how will Trump confront Tehran in the Middle East while also preserving a nuclear deal that his advisers now concede is working? The administration has directed numerous coercive threats at North Korea, but whether it has a workable strategy for reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs remains to be seen. Similarly, the administration lobbed cruise missiles into Syria and demanded that Putin ditch Assad, but it still lacks the leverage necessary to coerce Moscow — or Damascus — to fundamentally change its policies. The Trump team has shown that looking tough is easy. it will soon learn that getting results is hard.
4. Turning the generals loose has both rewards and risks. Trump has announced that his top commanders have “total authorization,” and he has loosened the Obama-era strictures on military operations. Trump has approved more aggressive and riskier counterterrorism raids, he has permitted U.S. Central Command to delegate responsibility downward when it comes to calling in airstrikes against the Islamic State, and he has permitted his commanders in the field to employ powerful weapons — such as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast — without prior approval from Washington.
In some ways, this approach represents a healthy correction from the Obama years. Obama’s White House was notorious for requiring top-level approval of essentially tactical decisions. In fast-moving campaigns, a more decentralized and flexible approach may pay dividends. But this approach also brings risks, as Trump has begun to discover.
Decentralizing control of airstrikes can enable a more aggressive counter-Islamic State campaign, but it can also lead to higher civilian casualties. Using cartoonishly large munitions like the MOAB can undercut — fairly or unfairly — the narrative that America uses unmatched precision in conducting air campaigns. Green-lighting aggressive counterterrorism raids can increase the risk that missions will go awry, as occurred in Yemen in late January. And in general, taking a hands-off approach to military matters can remove procedural safeguards that prevent mistakes. Here, as in so many things, moderation is a virtue. Whether Trump strikes the right balance between delegation and centralization remains to be seen.
5. Discipline is not the administration’s strong suit. No one expected that this would be the case, of course, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster actually appears to doing a good job of bringing somewhat greater order to decision-making. But the administration is still struggling here. The profusion of mixed messages about U.S. policy toward Assad following the Syria airstrikes, for instance, led to a rhetorical muddle that raised more questions than it answered about what exactly Trump was trying to achieve.
More recently, there have been signs that presidential rhetoric continues to diverge from reality: Trump announced that an “armada” was headed toward North Korea, when it was on routine patrol thousands of miles away. These slips are not trivial — they undermine presidential credibility and perceptions of American competence. They also raise troubling questions about how well the administration will perform in a crisis — whether a showdown with North Korea, or something utterly unexpected.
6. The destination of Trump’s foreign policy remains unknown. In a perfect world, the first 100 days would reveal precisely what Trump’s foreign policy will ultimately be. But right now, not even the administration itself can answer this question.
Key policy questions remain unresolved. Will the administration withdraw from the Paris climate change accords? Will it live with Assad or seek his ouster? Key personnel matters, such as the fate of the firebrand White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, are still unsettled. First-order questions, such as what level of interest Trump will take in foreign policy, and how much pressure he will feel to deliver on at least some of his more radical campaign pledges, have not been conclusively resolved. Then, of course, there is the matter of what a world that has been relatively quiet to date will throw at Trump — and how a thin-skinned and easily rattled leader will respond.
We may have learned a fair amount about Trump’s foreign policy so far, but the biggest takeaways, and perhaps the biggest surprises, are yet to come.
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