Elephants in the Room

Trump’s First Year in Review: Views From the Republican Bench

Foreign policy veterans from previous Republican administrations look back on 2017 — the year of Trump.

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump gives two thumbs at the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump gives two thumbs at the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

From the perspective of foreign policy and national security policy veterans from previous Republican administrations, 2017 was a remarkable year.

Yes, there was a Republican in the White House, who gradually (albeit ever so slowly) filled his administration with respected members of our tribe.

But along the way, many of the debates that our side of the aisle had settled long ago seemed up for grabs:

— On balance, is an open, globalized trading system a net positive or a net negative for the United States?

— On balance, do allies bring more opportunity or more challenges for advancing American interests?

— Can American interests truly advance if we strip away American values and principles?

— Is it in America’s long-term interest to bear a lion’s share of the short-term costs of underwriting the global order?

— If an adversary attacks U.S. democratic institutions and tries to undermine the electoral system, should that adversary be confronted or coddled?

Yet when the Trump administration released its National Security Strategy this month, it seemed to resolve many (though not all) of those debates in favor of the traditional Republican formula that has been the key to America’s success since World War II.

And yet reasonable people can ask how we should weigh the different indicators — formal set-piece rhetoric from interagency documents versus impromptu reflexive rhetoric from the commander-in-chief, noble intentions versus actual behavior, and so on.

To help us make sense of a bewildering year, we have asked our herd of Elephants to weigh in with brief posts responding to the following prompt: Identify one good thing and one bad thing from President Donald Trump’s first year at the helm.

Here, in alphabetical order, is the parade:

Peter Feaver

The good. During the 2016 election campaign, I worried that candidate Trump was not assembling a quality team of national security and foreign policy advisors. Admittedly, I made that problem worse by signing the various letters (and organizing one in my own bailiwick), which had the collective effect of simultaneously burnishing Trump’s brand as anti-establishment whilst also making it harder for quality establishment voices to gain influence on the campaign. Yet, when Trump won, I urged my colleagues to join the administration if they could so as to provide Trump with a strong team. The administration has been painfully slow in filling its ranks — and there have been a few bad choices along the way — but overall I have thought the caliber of the individuals selected at the cabinet and subcabinet levels has been better than I feared it would be.

The bad. While the individual players have been better than expected, I still worry about the collective imbalance on the team. Trump has relied too heavily on members of the military — active and recently retired — to fill out senior civilian slots. I have supported every one of the selections on the current roster, but I wish the president could find stronger civilian voices for national security posts. The problem is compounded by the fact that the area where the administration has struggled the most in terms of personnel is the State Department, customarily the lead civilian agency. Towards the end of 2017, things started to look up a bit, with strong choices at the under and assistant secretary levels in both State and the Department of Defense, but the administration is still well behind where it needs to be given the daunting array of challenges facing the team in the coming year.

Michael Green

The good. The National Security Strategy. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor, and Nadia Schadlow, the senior director for strategy on the National Security Council, put together a strategy document for the president that offers friends and allies abroad something on which to hang their own strategic hats. It was flawed in terms of ways and means (no trade strategy, weak on human rights, under-resourced in terms of diplomacy), but it was the first such strategy in a generation to clarify that the United States would compete to maintain primacy in the face of great power rivalry, particularly in Asia. Criticism by former Obama advisors that the document was a failure because it ignored climate change as a national security threat only amplified the previous administration’s inability to recognize that rival powers were eating their lunch. It was good to finish the year on that positive note. Still, while we know that the president read his inaugural address in advance, it appears he did not read the entire strategy document. 2018 could be a challenging year in terms of national security.

The bad. The Inaugural address. Where friends and allies around the world look to new presidents’ inaugural addresses in hopes of seeing Aragorn, they heard from Trump only Gollum. The inaugural speech oozed with resentment, protectionism, and retrenchment. There was not one sentence that would reassure an ally standing on the front lines of freedom, on the Korean Demilitarized Zone or a prisoner of conscience alone in a cell in Caracas. If it was true that former President George W. Bush muttered, “that was some weird shit” at the end (and three witnesses near the dais said he did), then he was being generous.

Celeste Ward Gventer

The good. The Trump administration deserves credit for its recent decision to provide Ukraine with a significant increase in its military capabilities against Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. In particular, the United States will now provide Javelin anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces, a capability Kiev has urgently requested for years. There are risks to this, not least that the weapons may quickly end up in the hands of pro-Russian separatists or the Russian military, or that the transfer of weapons may escalate the conflict, as some observers have warned. But the move clearly signals the kind of decisiveness that was sorely lacking in the waning days of the Obama administration. After the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and until the end of the Obama years, the Russians were allowed to pummel the Ukrainians with virtual impunity. The United States provided limited and strictly defensive equipment and training, and that assistance increased over time, but the ambivalence and hesitation in the White House was palpable on the ground in Ukraine. Such caution may well have been read by the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin as irresolution or indifference. The Ukrainians are and will remain overmatched by the Russian military, Javelins or no Javelins. But greater capabilities will allow them to extract higher costs for Russian shenanigans in their sovereign territory, which may just be enough to change the calculus in Moscow. One possible interpretation of the recent prisoner exchange between separatists and the Ukrainian armed forces is that Russia is growing weary of the expenditure in lives and rubles required to continue the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The bad. Unfortunately, the move seems to be a strong tactic that is disconnected from any larger approach to Ukraine, Europe, and Russia. As Elephants in the Room’s Will Inboden notes, despite the strong words of the new National Security Strategy concerning Moscow’s hostile intentions towards the United States, Washington’s meager response to Russian meddling in the U.S. democratic process is deeply concerning, as are the contradictory messages from various corners of the administration about the nature and scale of threats emanating from the Kremlin. To give the Ukrainians more capable weapons systems without a larger strategy will not allow Kiev to beat back the separatists and join the happy family of Western democracies. Stubborn political facts will persist: Ukraine’s historical relationship with Russia, its highly fragile democracy, persistent corruption and penetration by Russian agents, and the skeptical attitude of the major European powers towards Ukrainian membership in their clubs, for starters. Ukraine will hold national elections in 2019, and of one thing we can be certain: Russia’s efforts to steer the outcome in Kiev will make Moscow’s 2016 interference in the U.S. vote look like a high school hackathon. All of these realities will require a more considered, coordinated approach to the problem and to the region than the administration has shown to date, and clearer messages about just how the United States intends to deal with Russian intentions, capabilities, and actions, in Europe and around the world.

Will Inboden

The Good. The Trump administration achieved several foreign policy successes during its first year. Most of them came in the Middle East, including restoring the U.S.-Israel relationship, repairing America’s eroded relations with Sunni Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and bringing the erstwhile Islamic State caliphate to the brink of complete destruction in Iraq and Syria (though the threat from the extended Islamic States network remains acute). But in my estimation the administration’s most notable achievement took place in Asia, and that is the multipronged and multilateral pressure campaign it has mounted against North Korea. Through a combination of U.N. Security Council resolutions, bilateral diplomacy with China, and unilateral measures, the United States has subjected Kim Jong Un’s regime to vice tightening at a level not seen since the George W. Bush administration’s sanctions on Banco Delta Asia in 2005. The best hope for curtailing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal short of war (itself a catastrophic option) lies in undermining Kim’s hold on power by choking off his revenue streams — the money laundering, smuggling, trafficking, indentured servitude, and other illicit activities that fuel his regime and enable the indolent lifestyle that he and his inner circle of cronies enjoy. The Trump administration is off to a good start in this respect, though the hardest road still lies ahead.

The bad. The administration also had its share of failures and setbacks in its first year, most of them attributable to Trump himself. I fear that, as Elephants in the Room’s Nicole Bibbins Sedaca points out, the most long-term harm will result from Trump’s abdication of America’s historic role as a global champion of democracy and human rights. At our current juncture, however, the administration’s biggest failure is its refusal to respond to Russia’s ongoing information warfare against the United States. America’s insipid response to Russia’s attacks during the 2016 campaign was bad enough, but even worse is America’s lack of aggressive prevention and retaliation against Russia’s continuing efforts to divide, demoralize, and weaken the United States. (For a compelling tracking of Russia’s current campaign, see the invaluable Alliance for Securing Democracy dashboard, administered by the German Marshall Fund of the United States). This may reveal the biggest division between Trump and the rest of his administration. While the National Security Strategy issued this month by the White House portrays forthrightly a clear and accurate picture of Russia’s malevolent designs and threats to American interests, Trump himself refuses to acknowledge the Kremlin’s campaign, let alone do anything about it. Meanwhile, Putin continues to lock in Russia’s gains in the Middle East, engage in hybrid warfare against Ukraine, threaten America’s NATO allies, covertly support North Korea, and target his few remaining domestic critics, such as Alexi Navalny. Trump needs to reverse course on Russia very soon, lest he become a latter-day Henry Wallace.

Ash Jain

The good. The best of the Trump administration’s foreign policy moves have been in the Asia-Pacific, where the United States has been strong and clear in reaffirming its commitment to its democratic allies. Trump’s largely successful visits to Japan and South Korea were indicative of this effort, as was the administration’s decision to revive the Asia-Pacific Quad — a strategic dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, that met for the first time in a decade in November. This dialogue represents a worthwhile attempt to integrate India and deepen cooperation within a network of democratic allies in the Asia-Pacific, and has real potential to advance American interests in the region going forward.

The bad. While the Trump administration managed to avoid any major foreign policy catastrophes in 2017, its worst moves had to do with Russia — and Trump’s failure to recognize the serious threat to U.S. national security interests posed by Putin. The administration has done virtually nothing in the face of Russia’s unprecedented, active campaign to subvert American democracy, and has stood by as Moscow consolidated its biggest foreign policy success in 2017 — the resurrection of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While he reluctantly signed a sanctions bill and permitted arms sales to Ukraine, Trump, for reasons unknown, still sees a friend in Putin. The danger of this blind-eye policy toward Russia may be in what is yet to come. Moscow could interpret the administration’s reticence to act as a green light to pursue a more aggressive strategy to undermine U.S. interests in the coming year.

Phil Levy

The good. The U.S. pullback from its traditional leadership role has had some salutary effects, alongside the obvious costs. Allies who have in the past sometimes stood in the shadows of U.S. initiatives have taken on larger roles in promoting and maintaining the global system. Similarly, it was positive that countries such as Mexico, Canada, and China demonstrated maturity in not responding temperately to unusual provocations emanating from Washington.

The bad. The decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The repercussions were felt throughout the year. There was a direct commercial cost: It was an agreement that offered the United States important gains at minimal cost. It cast into doubt U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific (even if we call it the Indo-Pacific). It called into question the reliability of the United States as a partner, given the political capital other countries had expended to strike the deal. It left the Trump administration fuming about Chinese trade practices, but devoid of effective tools to address them. Further, it has stymied the entire vision of new, better trade deals, since the rejection of the TPP marked the rejection of a modern consensus about how to address trade policy. That left countries such as Japan distinctly unenthusiastic about engaging in bilateral talks — an impressive set of accomplishments for Trump’s first week in office.

Peter Rough 

The good. Trump likes to contrast his principled realism to the progressive idealism of his predecessor. As much as anywhere, this change in presidential attitude was badly needed in the energy sector, where the Trump administration is liberating American hydrocarbons made accessible by the fracking revolution. Days after his inauguration, Trump began fast-tracking approval for the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. This month, he signed legislation authorizing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In between, the administration championed the export of liquified natural gas and eliminated excessive regulations that had stymied suppliers.

A thriving energy sector is central to the Trump administration’s goal of rebuilding the American economy, specifically manufacturing. But it also has an underappreciated impact on the global balance of power. The United States can now export gas to Europeans previously dependent on Russia, supply major allies like Japan, and build relations with third-party countries like India. Moreover, fracking in the United States has sent global oil prices tumbling, strengthening America’s European allies while undermining Russia, Iran, and Venezuela — three of the most stridently anti-American oil producers in the world. In its first year, the Trump administration has extended America’s lead in a sector that will shape the geopolitics of the future. This is what an “America First” foreign policy looks like at its best.

The bad. Since taking office, Trump has repeatedly denounced Iran for its malignant behavior in the Middle East — a refreshing change from his predecessor. In October, he even delivered a major address from the White House that promised to confront rather than accommodate Iran. These pronouncements deserve better implementation, however. For example, three days after the president’s address, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi launched a surprise offensive with Iranian backing to capture Kurdish controlled areas of Iraq, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Iraq’s Kurds have long been loyal allies of the United States. And yet, the United States looked on as Abadi strengthened Iran’s hand and weakened the United States — and this only days after the president promised the opposite.

The Trump administration faces the daunting task of reversing an Iranian breakout in the region. Reestablishing and safeguarding the U.S.-led regional order against Iran will require a sustained U.S. commitment that no president, including Trump, would want to undertake. Instead, in its first year, the Trump administration focused its sights on defeating Islamic State. However, the president’s remarks and his cruise missile strike in April against a Syrian airfield in response to Assad’s gassing of civilians raised expectations across the region that the United States was ready to take on Iran. In 2018, the Trump administration should fulfill those expectations.

Daniel Runde

The Good. The Trump administration has come to see China as a credible global competitor and is using this prism to make a series of important decisions. The Trump team is also placing serious people in serious foreign policy and national security jobs, and the evolving policies coming out of the White House reflect these staffing decisions. One example of positive learning on the job is advancement in the area of Development Finance Institutions (DFIs). These institutions are exploding in growth because of the changing nature of most developing countries: They are richer, freer, and more prosperous than before, so they need different things from United States, usually to do with trade and investment. The Trump administration’s original skinny budget envisioned closing the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. These actions would have been incredibly counterproductive for American jobs and American businesses, as well as for finding ways to respond to China. Thankfully, Congress ensured continued funding for these institutions. Then the Trump administration named a great team to OPIC and began to look for ways to grow it, or even create a new DFI. These positive changes are a result of the realization that China is not an emerging soft-power competitor, but a fully emerged one. This recognition by the Trump administration that the United States needs to grow soft power tools to counter China is really great news. The new National Security Strategy is well within the tradition of bipartisan foreign policy. And the strategy document interestingly makes reference to development finance.

The bad. The administration erred in exiting the TPP — a big potential Asia-Pacific trading bloc excluding China that was envisioned at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. As time goes on, I think the United States will regret this early Trump decision, as China fills that economic space instead. The best way to fix this would be a series of bilateral trade agreements (something the Trump administration is very open to), starting with Japan right now, and perhaps in a second Trump term, revisiting TPP (or an adjusted TPP) with the intention of putting it back together. All U.S. trade agreements come with larger geo-economic considerations. In that vein, the worst thing that could happen in 2018 is for the Trump administration to exit the North American Free Trade Agreement. Among the other bad consequences, Mexico and Canada would turn to China.

Kori Schake

The Good. Punishing the Assad government for using chemical weapons. Not only was it morally satisfying that some country would finally put a constraint on the barbarity with which Assad is torturing the people of Syria into submission — it also sent an important signal to the Russians that the United States would act despite their support for Assad. The operation was undertaken carefully, with the United States fully informing the Russians of what was coming so as to reduce the risk of stumbling into a U.S.-Russia confrontation. It announced the administration’s willingness to act to uphold international norms from which Americans and so many others benefit — a reminder (albeit a limited one) that the United States is different and better than the Syrian/Iranian/Russian side of that grisly war. Sadly, it was a false dawn.

The bad. The administration is burning through international goodwill, underestimating the value of others giving the United States the benefit of the doubt. The president seems to think there is no downside to calling fundamental and long-agreed-upon elements of the international order and the terms by which America leads it. That is incorrect. More Germans now consider Russia trustworthy than consider the United States to be. That will matter when we ask the German government to do hard things like sustain costly sanctions or go to war by America’s side. The best-kept secret of American hegemony is that most countries actually want us to succeed and help us. If they didn’t, the cost of sustaining the order would skyrocket. The president is removing one of America’s most salient and cost-effective tools: the power of inspiration.

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca

The Good. President Donald Trump’s Aug. 2017 decision to cut close to $100 million in assistance and withhold another $195 million in aid to Egypt, pending improvement in the country’s human rights and democracy record, was the right thing to do. The United States has too often shied away from tough responses to Egypt’s human rights abuses and crackdowns on political oppositions and civil society activists, given U.S. security interests. Parallel engagement on security issues and a tough line on human rights abuses and democratic development will better serve these longer-term security interests. Trump and his team have often touted his willingness to buck the conventional wisdom and keep others on their toes; here is one case where that approach resulted in the right foreign policy decision.

The bad. Trump’s stated retreat from promoting universal human rights and democratic values, combined with his domestic attacks on foundational American democratic institutions and values, have further undermined American global leadership on human rights and democracy promotion. (Obama began the significant turn away from these values in his foreign policy.) At a time when authoritarian governments are consolidating their grip, the absence of consistent, principled American leadership on these issues is a clear green light to these governments — as well as to illiberal nonstate actors — that they can continue with no challenge from the United States. Without American leadership, there is no consistent voice to motivate the international community. Trump’s domestic actions — equivocating on events in Charlottesville, attacks on the media and political opponents, and failure to respect democratic values and institutions that do not overtly support him — indicate that his retreat is not limited to his foreign policy. But these actions have foreign policy implications too. As we have seen before, when the United States does not honor its values in practice, other countries will use the American example to justify their abusive actions. This loss in moral authority and leadership will have wider implications for broader U.S. foreign policy and the development of democratic institutions globally.

Ray Tanter

The good. Trump has made some progress in confronting nuclear proliferation. He rightly sees the Iran nuclear deal as a bad one and has rattled North Korea. Consider the president’s speech at the U.N. in September, his Iran strategy speech in Washington in October, and Newt Gingrich’s analysis of the situation here. Trump’s Iran address concerned refraining from recertifying the country’s compliance with terms of the nuclear deal. He didn’t break out of the agreement but communicated that it was not viable.

The bad. Neither the Iranian nor the North Korean proliferation problem is solved, and both may be worse than feared, because the countries can collude with each other. One way Iran could potentially get around the deal and achieve a nuclear breakout, or “sneakout,” is by purchasing weapons from Pyongyang.

Dov Zakheim

The good. Trump demonstrated that, unlike the previous president, he will not hesitate to respond militarily to Assad’s brutal employment of chemical weapons. He restored relationships with the Israelis, the Saudis, and other Gulf states — other than Qatar — that Obama had frittered away and that could still result in a new peace initiative, the announcement about moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem notwithstanding. Finally, he reversed himself on Afghanistan, committing a small but non-trivial number of additional troops to that troubled theater.

Do these positive actions offset his personal and policy liabilities? Most certainly not. But one must be grateful for small miracles.

The bad. Trump’s inability to control his impulses and his Twitter finger. His tweets have frightened allies, puzzled partners, complicated an already unstable security balance in northeast Asia, emboldened the Chinese in the South China Sea, and upended an international trading system that worked to America’s favor. All of this pales before his inflammatory pronouncements, which have threatened freedom of the press, sought to undermine the special counsel’s investigation — and, in the cases of his stance on Muslim and Latino immigration, his reaction to events in Charlottesville, and his support for the senatorial candidacy of Roy Moore, have divided an already uneasy nation and have diminished America’s moral standing in the world.

Elephants in the Room is a blog about U.S. foreign policy in the age of Trump, written by experienced GOP policymakers, scholars, and others not currently working in the new administration. It is curated by co-editors Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.

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