Is Trump Really a Foreign-Policy Populist?

Donald Trump speaks about tax-reform legislation in St. Louis, Missouri, November 29, 2017. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.

We haven’t seen the sharp realignment you’d have expected from the campaign.

This week, for example, Tillerson spoke at the Wilson Center, where he was hosted by former Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman, a longtime foreign-policy hawk. He unequivocally backed NATO and denounced Russia’s “malicious tactics.” According to Tillerson, “Russia can continue to isolate and impoverish itself by sowing disorder abroad and impeding liberty at home, or it can become a force that will advance the freedom of Russians and the stability of Eurasia.” Far from embarking upon a spheres-of-influence deal or removing sanctions from Moscow, Trump has essentially been on diplomatic autopilot. In fact, Congress has stiffened sanctions on Russia in the form of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which Trump grudgingly signed in August. According to a recent report in the Guardian, the bill seems to contain something of a time bomb:

“Deep inside it, section 241 is the closest thing to a bombshell for Putin’s pyramidal power structure. Indeed, it stipulates that by February 2018, the US administration must submit a detailed report to Congress containing ‘the identification of the most significant oligarchs’ in Russia, their relationship to Putin, evidence of any corruption, estimated net worth and sources of income. Anyone fitting the criteria could be subjected to personal sanctions, such as asset freezes and travel bans.

“Not only would Russia’s wealthiest come under unprecedented American scrutiny but the same would happen to their family members, and anyone doing business with them in the west. As such, the scope of the bill goes much further than anything undertaken to date against members of Putin’s entourage.”

What about China? Trump has been talking tough on trade, but he has not performed any actions that would represent a real break with previous administrations’ approach to Beijing. He is in fact seeking to work with it to stymie North Korean nuclear ambitions. For all his tough talk, Trump seems to have little idea of how to stop the North, any more than previous presidents. Indeed, his tweet today had a plaintive air to it: “The Chinese Envoy, who just returned from North Korea, seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man. Hard to believe his people, and the military, put up with living in such horrible conditions. Russia and China condemned the launch.”

When it comes to free trade, Zoellick’s case is at its strongest. Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a blunder that will cost Washington dearly. But when it comes to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, the jury is still out.

Perhaps the broader lesson that can be drawn from the Mead and Zoellick essays is that the ructions surrounding American foreign policy transcend Trump himself. Trump managed to ride a larger sense of unease about globalization to the White House, one that is not confined to America but is also manifesting itself in Europe and elsewhere as populist sentiment experiences an upsurge. These debates are becoming as pointed on the left as they are on the right. Trump or no Trump, the disputes about America’s purpose abroad are not about to go away anytime soon.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.

Image: Donald Trump speaks about tax-reform legislation in St. Louis, Missouri, November 29, 2017. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.


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