The Skeptics

Why Is Trump Abandoning the Foreign Policy that Brought Him Victory?

Candidate Donald Trump offered a sharp break from his predecessors. He was particularly critical of neoconservatives, who seemed to back war at every turn.

Indeed, he promised not to include in his administration “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” And he’s generally kept that commitment, for instance rejecting as deputy secretary of state Elliot Abrams, who said Trump was unfit to be president.

Substantively candidate Trump appeared to offer not so much a philosophy as an inclination. Practical if not exactly realist, he cared more for consequences than his three immediate predecessors, who had treated wars as moral crusades in Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. In contrast, Trump promised: “unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct.”

Yet so far the Trump administration is shaping up as a disappointment for those who hoped for a break from the liberal interventionist/neoconservative synthesis.

The first problem is staffing. In Washington people are policy. The president can speak and tweet, but he needs others to turn ideas into reality and implement his directives. It doesn’t appear that he has any foreign policy realists around him, or anyone with a restrained view of America’s international responsibilities.

Rex Tillerson, James Mattis and H. R. McMaster are all serious and talented, and none are neocons. But all seem inclined toward traditional foreign policy approaches and committed to moderating their boss’s unconventional thoughts. Most of the names mentioned for deputy secretary of state have been reliably hawkish, or some combination of hawk and centrist—Abrams, John Bolton, the rewired Jon Huntsman.

Trump appears to be most concerned with issues that have direct domestic impacts, and especially with economic nostrums about which he is most obviously wrong. He’s long been a protectionist (his anti-immigration opinions are of more recent vintage). Yet his views have not changed even as circumstances have. The Chinese once artificially limited the value of the renminbi, but recently have taken the opposite approach. The United States is not alone in losing manufacturing jobs, which are disappearing around the world and won’t be coming back. Multilateral trade agreements are rarely perfect, but they are not zero sum games. They usually offer political as well as economic benefits. Trump does not seem prepared to acknowledge this, at least rhetorically. Indeed he has brought on board virulent opponents of free trade such as Peter Navarro.

The administration’s repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was particularly damaging. Trump’s decision embarrassed Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who had offered important economic concessions to join. More important, Trump has abandoned the economic field to the People’s Republic of China, which is pushing two different accords. Australia, among other U.S. allies, has indicated that it now will deal with Beijing, which gets to set the Pacific trade agenda. In this instance, what’s good for China is bad for the United States.

In contrast, on more abstract foreign policy issues President Trump seems ready to treat minor concessions as major victories and move on. For years he criticized America’s Asian and European allies for taking advantage of U.S. defense generosity. In his March foreign policy speech, he complained that “our allies are not paying their fair share.” During the campaign he suggested refusing to honor NATO’s Article 5 commitment and leave countries failing to make sufficient financial contributions to their fate.

Yet Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson have insisted that Washington remains committed to the very same alliances incorporating dependence on America. Worse, in his speech to Congress the president took credit for the small uptick in military outlays by European NATO members which actually began in 2015: “based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning” to “meet their financial obligations.” Although he declared with predictable exaggeration that “the money is pouring in,” no one believes that Germany, which will go from 1.19 to 1.22 percent of GDP this year, will nearly double its outlays to hit even the NATO standard of two percent.

Trump’s signature policy initiative, rapprochement with Russia, appears dead in the water. Unfortunately, the president’s strange personal enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin undercut his desire to accommodate a great power which has no fundamental, irresolvable conflicts with the America. Contrary to neocon history, Russia and America have often cooperated in the past. Moreover, President Trump’s attempt to improve relations faces strong ideological opposition from neoconservatives determined to have a new enemy and partisan resistance from liberal Democrats committed to undermining the new administration.

President Trump also appears to have no appointees who share his commitment on this issue. At least Trump’s first National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, wanted better relations with Russia, amid other, more dubious beliefs, but now the president seems alone. In fact, Secretary Tillerson sounded like he was representing the Obama administration when he demanded Moscow’s withdrawal from Crimea, a policy nonstarter. Ambassador-designate Huntsman’s views are unclear, but he will be constrained by the State Department bureaucracy, which is at best unimaginative and at worst actively obstructionist.