There have been a great many odd things about the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, but one of the oddest is the vast distance that has opened up between the president and his own policies. Presidents never fully get their way on the entire range of foreign policy issues their administrations confront, although they do tend to get their way on the issues they care most about. But as I discuss in my new book, American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump, this president’s core geopolitical beliefs and the foreign policy executed in his name have in several cases seemed 180 degrees apart.
The president clearly loathes NATO and believes that protecting the European allies is a fool’s errand, yet his administration has continued and even expanded efforts to reinforce deterrence along NATO’s eastern flank. He has repeatedly called for a new relationship with Russia, but his administration has now decided to sell lethal defensive weaponry to Ukraine, and is taking initial steps to develop a land-based, intermediate-range nuclear delivery system to counter Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Likewise, the president himself has never shown much interest in confronting China over its behavior in the South China Sea, and he has berated U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific, such as Australia. But the administration has already carried out a more intensive regimen of freedom of navigation operations than the Obama administration did, and it has worked to revive the so-called quad — a four-way dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States — by strengthening cooperation with these countries.
With respect to North Korea, Trump has repeatedly derided the value of diplomacy, even as his administration (building on an effort begun under Obama) has carried out an intensive campaign to isolate and sanction that regime, perhaps as a prelude to negotiations. Not least of all, Trump has acknowledged that he was immensely skeptical of continuing, let alone increasing, the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, but this is just what he decided to do in August after several months of debate. In these and other cases, Trump says or appears to think one thing, and U.S. policy does another.
Two examples from the past month further illustrate this tendency. In December 2017, the administration released a National Security Strategy that had Trumpian flourishes but was not that far removed from what most Republican administrations might have written — only for Trump to give a rabble-rousing, “America first”-themed speech that bashed U.S. allies, touted cooperation with adversaries, and raised questions as to whether the president had actually read or even been fully briefed on his own strategy statement. And just before Christmas, as fellow Shadow Government contributor Rob Berschinski wrote, the administration unveiled and used a powerful new set of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions to punish suspected human rights violators — despite the fact that Trump is an indisputably pro-authoritarian president who has consistently exhibited scorn for the idea that America should seek to advance human rights and democracy abroad.
The list of such issues goes on, and may well grow in the coming year. The key questions are: Why have such glaring contradictions emerged between the president’s worldview and his policies? And how we should evaluate this situation?
The first question is easier to answer than the second. Once Trump surrounded himself largely with advisers who did not share his narrowly nationalistic agenda — as was probably inevitable, given just how few foreign policy hands subscribed to that agenda — it was assured that presidential preferences and U.S. policy were going to diverge on some issues. Given Trump’s lack of knowledge and his tendency to delegate decision-making downward, this dynamic was sure to be even more pronounced.
To be sure, there have been cases in which Trump has reportedly overruled a united front of his national security advisers — recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, for instance. But few presidents can do this over and over again. So on issues where his advisers have been united in opposing the president’s preferences, or on issues that just don’t rise to Trump’s attention, it is hardly surprising that U.S. policy has often looked more traditional than Trump might have preferred. Add in the external constraints — mostly from Congress — that Trump faces on issues such as Russia and U.S. alliances, and this outcome becomes even less surprising.
The second question, then, is whether to be reassured or concerned by this situation. On the one hand, dues-paying members of the blob can only be heartened by the gaps between rhetoric and policy. For this indicates that Trump’s advisers have indeed proven capable of pulling him back toward the mainstream on some key issues, and it means that the changes in U.S. foreign policy under the present administration have not been as severe as some observers initially feared. To put it bluntly, the situation we have now is very weird — but it is far better than if American statecraft was actually a fully faithful reflection of Trump’s incendiary critiques and disastrously bad ideas.
Of course, some of the policies that Trump’s administration has pursued have been controversial in their own right — beginning research on an INF-range missile and deciding to arm Ukraine being just two examples. But give credit where credit is due: The administration has done a number of things that would have been welcomed by many members of the foreign policy establishment, had they been carried out by another president.
On the other hand, there are also reasons to be less sanguine about the current situation. For one thing, policy has faithfully reflected Trump’s worldview on a number of key issues — trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, announcing the U.S. intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, and others — and the impact on America’s global position has been quite negative. Moreover, even if Trump’s ideas and words are not always translated directly into policy, they can still be immensely damaging to American statecraft.
When the president of the United States advocates for a xenophobic, zero-sum type of nationalism, when he disdains democracy and human rights, when he bashes and abuses allies, he unavoidably has an effect on how American is perceived and reacted to in the world. The recent global reaction to shitholegate — which reminds us how Trump seems to specialize in bringing down the scorn of the world on the White House — indicates as much. It is not enough to say, as some Republican observers have, that the country should simply pay attention to policy and ignore the atmospherics, because the atmospherics are critical when we are talking about the president of the United States.
There is also a final reason to be concerned about the gap between president and policy: It means that American statecraft is likely to be quite volatile in the years to come. There will be continual vicissitudes as the president’s views pull U.S. policy one way and the counsel of his advisers pulls another. Just witness the way in which the struggle between the president and the so-called adults in his administration have led to continually shifting narratives about whether the America-first agenda is ascendant or not. More significantly still, no policy can be particularly stable or credible so long as there are questions as to whether the U.S. president actually supports it.
The White House can issue a relatively normal National Security Strategy, for instance, but it is hard for American allies and partners overseas to take it seriously, because Trump seems determined to undercut it. Likewise, Trump’s administration is working to strengthen deterrence in the Baltics, but can any European nation really be confident about the behavior in a crisis of a president who has derided NATO and even threatened to leave exposed allies to their own devices? The answer is probably no. Over the past year, in fact, European officials have repeatedly told me different versions of the same thing: that 80 percent of the time their relationship with Washington seems more or less normal, but the other 20 percent of the time Trump does something that makes them question how committed and reliable America really is.
This is deeply problematic because the U.S. role in the world hinges on America being seen as a basically reliable, even predictable actor. The international system rests on the credibility of U.S. commitments and its partners having some minimum level of confidence that they don’t have to guess how, much less whether, America will respond if their security is threatened. A situation in which the president hardly seems to believe in his own foreign policy is thus rife with problems. We should certainly be thankful that Trump’s policies have often diverged from his dangerous preferences — but we should also recognize that this divergence is fraught with dangers of its own.