No Longer Held Back by His Advisers, Trump Puts His Imprint on Foreign Policy
Posted May 9, 2018 1:57 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — The relative caution that constrained President Donald Trump for much of his first year in office has been cast aside, and an emboldened commander in chief is finally reshaping foreign policy to reflect the “America First” philosophy he promised during his campaign.
Having shed or sidelined some of the top advisers who held him back in the past, Trump gives the appearance of a leader liberated at last to follow the china-breaking instincts that have long animated his approach to the world even as they troubled diplomats and national security veterans of both parties.
The president’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday may be only the start of a period of several weeks in which he repositions the United States in the world in a way that could last for years. After breaking with European allies over the Iran agreement, Trump will break with Arab allies on Monday with the formal opening of a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
He has until the end of the month to decide whether to impose punishing steel tariffs on key U.S. trading partners. He has said he hopes to forge a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada within weeks or blow up the North American Free Trade Agreement. Then he will test his theory that he can force the mercurial North Korea to surrender its nuclear arsenal through “maximum pressure” coupled with threats of military action followed by high-stakes one-on-one diplomacy.
The quick succession of deadlines and tests come as Trump steps out on the international stage more than he has in months.
In addition to meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, Trump plans to huddle with leaders of the Group of 7 powers in Quebec and NATO allies in Brussels, then make his first visit to Britain as president amid the prospect of mass protests. He is also talking about organizing a White House meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
“I think we’re now entering ‘the full Trump’ period of the administration’s foreign policy — it’s high decibel, high tempo and high risk,” said Amy Zegart, a director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and an author, with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, of “Political Risk,” a new book on global insecurity.
Until recently, Trump had talked loudly about some of these goals while allowing himself to be talked out of following through on them by a coterie of advisers that included Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser; Gary D. Cohn, his chief economics adviser; and John Kelly, his White House chief of staff.
The president has since fired Tillerson and pushed out McMaster. Cohn quit after losing a fight over tariffs. Trump has a strained relationship with Kelly, while Mattis has lost key allies. In their place have risen John Bolton, the president’s new national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, his new secretary of state, both of whom take a harder-line approach to Iran and some other issues than their predecessors.
“Year 1 of the Trump administration was a series of tough tweets and statements, but very little or restrained action,” said Heather A. Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former State Department official under President George W. Bush.
“Year 2,” she added, “is a significant transition to action as the president not only feels more comfortable in taking unilateral decisions but grows confident that the more the so-called experts tell him it is the wrong thing to do, the more he is encouraged to take that exact step.”
That is not to say that Trump did not take actions in his first year that upended convention. Most prominently, he announced that he would withdraw the United States from two major international agreements negotiated by his predecessor President Barack Obama: the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and the Paris climate change accord.
Those moves sent a strong early signal of Trump’s rejection of multilateral diplomacy and the global integration favored for the most part by presidents of both parties in the generations since World War II. But neither had an immediate tangible effect. The trade pact had yet to be approved by Congress and, given opposition in both parties, might never have been. And the climate accord had yet to go into force and, under its cumbersome rules, the United States cannot technically withdraw until 2020.
Tillerson and other advisers were more concerned about the consequences of initiatives like moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem, which would alienate the Palestinians and undercut prospects for peace; ripping up NAFTA, which has governed trade in North America for a quarter-century; or starting tariff wars, which could provoke retaliation and damage certain industries.
In many cases, Trump grudgingly acceded to their caution, delaying decisions while insisting he would not do so forever and demanding better options. But now he has grown impatient and more confident in his own judgment with a new team that reinforces rather than argues with his instincts.
“Bolton and Pompeo joining the team left Mattis isolated in arguing the Iran deal was working,” said James M. Goldgeier, a professor and former dean of international relations at American University. Pulling out of the Iran agreement is not a political winner for Trump beyond his base. Sixty-three percent of Americans surveyed by CNN said the United States should not scrap the deal, while only 29 percent said it should.
But Trump’s decision has strong support among select constituencies, particularly national security hawks and advocates of Israel. And it fits Trump’s worldview that the United States has been rolled by allies and adversaries alike in essentially every international agreement reached in recent decades.
Some veteran diplomats said Trump may yet find moments where he will scale back his more radical impulses at the urging of advisers. They point to his decision last year to send more troops to Afghanistan rather than pull out, as he had previously proposed. And he may yet avoid tearing up NAFTA or imposing tariffs on European allies by the June 1 deadline he has set.
“I believe his foreign policy will continue to be a mix of the two,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as ambassador to the United Nations under Bush. “His instinct and values are what he committed to during his campaign but will continue to selectively adapt to circumstances and transact based on both.”
That tension will be especially acute in coming weeks as Bolton and Pompeo are putting together their teams and settling into their roles. Zegart noted that Trump is engaged in complicated and dangerous nuclear standoffs with both Iran and North Korea, as well as a burgeoning trade war with China, the trade disputes with allies and a confrontation with Syria, all at the same time.
“With a list that long and a policy process that undisciplined, the odds of a policy breakdown are higher than a breakthrough,” she said.
Process, of course, has never been Trump’s top priority. And he may find himself on the opposite side of his new empowering advisers. Bolton, for instance, has for years been a skeptic of the sort of diplomatic initiative that Trump is embarking on with North Korea and will most likely make the case that it is not a fruitful venture if it does not seem to be working. Trump may then once again have to choose between his advisers and his instincts.
“Trump is making unilateral decisions with long-term consequences for U.S. foreign policy with little grasp of the issues,” Goldgeier said. “But he’s delivering on his campaign promises and undoing Obama’s legacy, both of which are important to him.”