Last Saturday marked Donald Trump’s first anniversary as president of the United States. As one might expect during such an occasion, various news outlets published a stream of news reports looking back on President Trump’s first twelve months, some tracking his accomplishments and failures during that time while others analyzed how the entire country has evolved under the billionaire’s stewardship. The Washington Post wasn’t far behind; on January 21 , the paper reached out to current and former foreign diplomats around the world to gauge how their countries have adapted to Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. The conclusion the story’s authors make is a succinct indictment on the Trump administration’s foreign-policy record: “the ‘America first’ approach has . . . left the United States far more isolated. The overall impact of the policy, say diplomats, politicians and analysts interviewed around the world, has been a clear retrenchment of U.S. power—and an opportunity for U.S. adversaries such as China and Russia.”
Continue reading and you could be forgiven for assuming that America’s very essence as the unchallenged superpower has passed. The mainstream, bipartisan Washington consensus that has dominated U.S. foreign policy ever since the Soviet Union came tumbling down a quarter-century earlier, the story suggests, is now being replaced by a nation deliberately ceding strategic influence to its great power competitors and allies alike. The Trump administration, we are told, holds an unconventional view of the world and a drastically different interpretation of America’s responsibility in it. It is as if the foreign-policy graybeards who served in multiple administrations are imprisoned in a dudgeon somewhere in the Beltway, locked up in their cells, never to be heard from again.
This assessment, while popular among the foreign-policy intelligentsia and commentariat in the Washington Post , the New York Times , and the Weekly Standard , is inaccurate to say the least. If Donald Trump the presidential candidate was the brash, unworldly, neophyte who ran against the liberal internationalism and neoconservatism that drove this country into a ditch, Donald Trump the president has largely grown comfortable with the very conventionality that has dictated U.S. grand strategy since the Cold War ended. Indeed, if European diplomats, not to mention many U.S. officials who once managed the national-security bureaucracy, are worried about Trump taking the United States in an altogether new direction from the hawkishness that gave us the strategic disaster of the Iraq War, the sixteen-year-and-counting expansion of the war on terrorism, and the slapdash 2011 NATO campaign in Libya, they ought not be. The actual policies Trump has signed onto during his first twelve months on the job are largely continuations of the U.S. foreign-policy status quo and in the spirit of the previous four administrations.
As both a presidential candidate and later as president, Donald Trump excoriated NATO allies for being stingy and sluggish with regards to their own defense spending. While previous presidents have expressed similar, justifiable complaints to their European colleagues about declining or stagnant military budgets, Trump took it to a new level entirely. He talked of Germany, the backbone of the European Union and the wealthiest and most productive economy in Europe, as a nation that had grown used to Washington’s military largess much as a spoiled child gets used to a hefty allowance from his parents. During his first meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Trump avoided pledging the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, and he later used a private meeting with European leaders to criticize them for not meeting their spending commitments to the alliance.
But, when the pressure to conform from his own White House advisers, members of Congress, and to the vast majority of foreign-policy scholars in the Beltway was to great, Trump offered the same pledge that every Republican and Democratic president has made since NATO was founded nearly seventy years ago. The United States, he said, was indeed supportive of the alliance’s mutual-defense clause. Regardless of many times European members of NATO neglected to meet their own spending commitments to the alliance, the United States would meet its commitment to the Europe’s collective security. European leaders could rest assured that the Uncle Sam would not be leaving the continent to its own devices anytime soon.
Before President Trump decided to increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by an additional three thousand to four thousand troops, and before he decided to relax the rules of engagement for commanders in the field, he essentially equated the Central Asian nation as a bottomless pit of doom. To Trump, the war in Afghanistan was never going to end as long as the United States stayed involved. For the businessman, bailing out a corrupt, weak and unstable Afghan government with tens of billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money was the definition of foolishness. “When will we stop wasting our money on rebuilding Afghanistan?” Trump tweeted in October 2011, “We must rebuild our country first.” Less than a year later, Trump tweeted again of his disgust for the war effort, remarking that because the Afghans were plagued by systemic corruption, Kabul simply didn’t deserve the payments Congress was pouring into the country. After a war that lasted over a decade, Afghanistan was very much considered by Trump as a lost cause where any further sacrifice from American service members would not make a difference. "Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back,” Trump wondered. “Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home.”