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In many respects, the Trump administration is the most unique American government since 1932 – both on a domestic and foreign policy level.  In the domestic sphere, a president is at best “first among equals;” under the US constitutional system other actors – congress, courts, states, and the private sector – all have powerful balancing roles. This is not so much the case in foreign policy, where the president’s power as Commander in Chief and head of state is limited only by the country’s military, diplomatic, and economic capabilities (in the case of the US, all extraordinary), as well as internal political stability, and only in extremis, congressional or public challenge.

President Donald Trump’s unique approach to foreign policy is, first, reflected in the tone and spontaneity of his off-the-cuff comments about diplomatic and security issues. Given their life and death gravitas, other presidents exercise caution and restraint in their public messaging. Not Trump. Reinforcing rhetoric in a nationalistic vein has been strong in not just words but policies as well – from pulling out of the Pacific Trade Agreement to the “wall paid by Mexico” slogans, and the Executive Orders banning almost all travel to the US for citizens of six Muslim countries. At minimum, such positions demonstrate contempt for the sensibilities of foreign interlocutors in favor of the sensitivities of the president’s to some degree xenophobic political base. At its worst, as recently undercutting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s diplomatic approach to the North Korean crisis, Trump could shut down progress on dangerous issues.

But none of this is necessarily a fundamental rejection of US policy since 1940 – the maintenance of a global collective security system relying on American military strength, but focused as well on economic prosperity as a means to and a goal of this system, and inspired by common values from rule of law to democracy. Generations of American diplomats have taken as an article of faith that America would be allowed to run this global system only if it eschewed any open assertion of its status as system leader and paid meticulous attention to foreigners – allies, partners, neutrals, even opponents’ – feelings. In essence, while carrying a “big stick” America must in Teddy Roosevelt’s words, “walk softly” to persuade the outside world to allow America to keep on sacrificing to defend most of it. Viewed this way, it is not necessarily wrong for Trump to challenge this assumption at a time (at least since 2012, well before Trump’s candidacy) when reliable polling shows a historically high percent of Americans are wary of Washington’s global role.  

President Donald Trump’s unique approach to foreign policy is reflected in the tone and spontaneity of his off-the-cuff comments about diplomatic and security issues.

Trump’s questioning of that role in line with what the ultimate bosses of the president – the American people – surely want, and even taking up blunt, “America First” language with foreign friends, is not in and of itself a repudiation of traditional American foreign policy. In fact, the Trump administration has remained within the broad outlines of post-1940 US foreign policy. However, in terms of both the specific guiding principles of Trump’s world view – and its application – there is still uncertainty.  

Policy Principles

A country, at least one strong enough to have considerable autonomy in its foreign relations, can have according to many theorists of international relations, one of four broad approaches to the outside world: Isolationist, Nationalistic, Cooperative-realistic, or Cooperative-idealistic. Walter Russell Mead describes the first two as Jeffersonian and Jacksonian, named after the third president and  former populist and nationalist President Andrew Jackson respectively, while Henry Kissinger associated the latter two policy schools with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson respectively in his book Diplomacy. Mead, writing soon after Trump’s inauguration and thus referring mainly to Trump’s campaign assertions, draconian inaugural speech, and initial actions, termed his foreign policy “Jacksonian.” In fact, Trump even installed a bust of Jackson in the West Wing. In contrast, Barack Obama replaced Jackson's portrait on the new 20 dollar bills.  

A review of Trump’s most important foreign policy statements – his October Iran decision and his September address to the UN General Assembly following nine months of learn-on-the-job foreign policy experiences, provides a better view of how he wants to operate. “America First” comes out loud and clear, but what does that mean? As Trump noted, all leaders focus inevitably on their own nation’s and people’s interests, and past American presidents have felt that their actions benefited not just the global community but also the American people. Trump appears to be saying, firstly, that this linkage may not always be the case, and secondly, that reticence in stressing to the American people the benefits to them of its global leadership, reticence characteristic of American leaders’ discourse with the public, is a mistake. He seems to be implying that first and foremost, Americans need to trust that policies benefit them. Foreign states should not expect to be wooed by the US into being protected and encouraged to participate in the largely American-supported international legal, economic, and values systems. While most seasoned international relations observers would conclude that Trump is wrong about abandoning reticence, he is on to something. Over the last decade, the American people have become highly skeptical of Washington’s foreign policy direction. To the extent that this policy rests on the American public’s continued support for it more than those states’ acceptance of it, his approach has merit.  

This view comes through in his emphasis on sovereignty as opposed to universal values. Such comments do not represent a Trump challenge to America’s international role but rather the long-standing debate about specific priorities within that framework. One observer noted that Trump was replaying Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose focus was on national sovereignty, versus his wife Eleanor, who largely drafted the UN Charter with emphasis on states’ responsibilities to their citizens and especially their liberal rights. 

And in fact, in his UN General Assembly speech, Trump repeatedly returned to America’s role in upholding the international system and, in particular, defending it against marauding states like Iran and North Korea. On the other hand, compatible with traditional diplomatic principles, he was careful not to publicly attack Russia and China despite their own assaults on portions of the global order. Moreover, as if to balance, in other public remarks that same day at the UN he was effusive about the international system and the UN, including the Secretary General. 

By and large, in practice Trump is following Obama’s core foreign policies, albeit with a very different personal tone.

By and large, in practice Trump is following Obama’s core foreign policies, albeit with a very different personal tone. A good example is the Iranian nuclear agreement; his general rage against it was for public consumption. Trump is keeping the US in the agreement and his specific complaints – the exclusion of military sites from inspection, missile testing, and the “sunset clause”[1] – should and can be tackled by not just the US, but the international community.  

The two major exceptions to this trend – the Pacific Trade Pact (TPP) and the Paris Climate Accords – are less than meets the eye. The TTP was denounced by all three major presidential candidates and thus, cancellation was inevitable with or without Trump. The Paris Accords, however important for the long-term well-being of humanity, is not a core American global order responsibility. It is rather the secular religion of cosmopolitan elites in Western Europe and North America, but not a core constituency of Trump’s. 

However, in terms of America’s most central global role – leading the collective security system against external threats – little has changed. Obama’s priority in the Middle East – fighting ISIS – remains “job number one” for the US military, even though its threat is diminishing and that of Iran’s is steadily growing. On North Korea, Trump’s rhetoric in response to truly dangerous developments appears to replace Obama’s benign neglect with imminent preventative war. But in terms of actual diplomatic or military steps, either to give substance to American threats or signal possible compromises, nothing has been done, despite a rich menu of options and despite the enormity of the new threat out of Pyongyang. With Russia and China, Trump clearly is seeking – as did Obama –  common ground, while containing their more egregious challenges to the international order in the South China Sea and Ukraine. Unfortunately, his hands are tied on a possibly better relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin due to Russia’s attempted sabotage of the 2016 elections and Trump’s breathtakingly nonchalant reaction to it.  

Even with Europeans, where the Trump world view is an abomination, he has made progress, being wooed by President Macron and wooing East European states in Warsaw.  

In diplomacy, tone is often as important as substance, and Trump certainly violates this principle every day. But there are two caveats. First, to a degree never seen before in any American government, his senior foreign policy team routinely contradict and correct him, and second, almost always prevail with more thoughtful policy approaches at the end of the day. This is an awful way to conduct diplomacy, with a real chance of miscommunication in life-or-death circumstances, but better than the likely alternative – Trump’s rants actually being translated into policy. And on the plus side, Trump seems to be genuinely liked by more and more foreign leaders, many of whom are themselves bad boys.  

To a degree never seen before in any American government, Trump’s senior foreign policy team routinely contradict and correct him, and almost always prevail with more thoughtful policy approaches at the end of the day.

But this bonhomie can and has led to misconceptions. The Saudis and Emiratis took Trump’s fulsome embrace of them in Riyadh as a green light to launch a campaign not against Iran or the terror threat, but fellow US ally Qatar. Tillerson and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to quickly set the record straight. With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump has sought to accentuate a positive atmosphere rather than explain differences on key issues tormenting the relationship – the role of governments in judicial processes, and US support rendered to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed affiliate People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey views as an existential threat to its national security. This has led Ankara to focus on a supposed American “deep state” disloyal to Trump and hostile to Turkey, rather than seek compromise with Washington.

Finally, foreign policy is not only made up of substance and tone but operations as well, and here there are serious problems. Trump’s military buildup while actually quite modest is overdue and welcome. But his administration’s ill-advised efforts to cut funding, programs, and personnel on the civilian side of foreign policy, if not rejected by Congress, will undercut these operations. His top-level foreign policy and national security team is excellent and, equally importantly, work well together. Given Trump, they have to. Senior officials also document a more sober and thoughtful Donald Trump in close door deliberations then his public persona would suggest.  

On the other side, the foreign policy arm of the administration is a mess, be it an absence of senior policy level appointees or internal coordination and review of policies. The top people can focus on the most urgent problems, and as with the Syrian strike after the chemical weapons attack, can act quickly. But as the 1950 invasion of South Korea, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the 1989 Fall of the Berlin Wall, and 9/11 all attest, surprise developments can hijack the foreign policy agenda. Rather than a handful of leaders, a large, decentralized bureaucracy is necessary to spot and manage potential crises. By the time they gain the attention of top leaders it is often too late to respond in a routine manner. And top leaders can only field a handful of such dramatic challenges. It is thus up to the system to keep those to a handful, and Trump’s system currently is in no state to do so.   

[1] The “sunset clause”of the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - JCPOA) sees restrictions on Iran's nuclear enrichment programme lifted after 2025.  

James F. Jeffrey
James F. Jeffrey

Ambassador James F. Jeffrey is Chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, Washington, D.C. 

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