AFTER A YEAR and a half in office, Donald Trump’s foreign policy appears poised for success, though some major challenges in approach and execution remain. While still a work in progress, the president’s approach already reflects some commendable and much needed changes, genuinely putting America first and making foes and friends alike take American positions more seriously.
America’s international conduct has become noticeably more muscular, relying on a significant increase in the military budget and a demonstrable willingness to use force. This is particularly true in Syria; Trump’s red lines are more credible than Obama’s, and when Trump threatens to use military force, few are ready to gamble that the American president is bluffing.
Indeed, when the president has decided that important U.S. interests are at stake, he has been prepared to go further than his predecessor Barack Obama. Limited but psychologically effective air strikes against Syria, as well as the decision to supply Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles (which Obama avoided due to fears of escalating the conflict there), show that Trump is willing to use military force not only as a last resort, but as a legitimate and essential tool of American foreign policy. This offers the United States an important advantage in dealing with adversaries like Iran and North Korea. As a result, each is less certain that America will give up on its core objectives if it fails to get what it wants through economic and military pressure.
But there is a lot to worry about too. So far, the administration has struggled to complement appropriate pressure with equally creative diplomacy. Moreover, the president and other key players in his administration often act and speaks inconsistently. Notwithstanding a formal National Security Strategy released in December 2017, the administration continues to lack a coherent strategic framework that defines national security priorities. To be more precise, the administration has yet to define American priorities in a serious analytical manner and has acted as if the United States can escape hard choices and the risks of potentially costly unintended consequences.
Paradoxically, while many governments increasingly appear to view the United States as a formidable superpower that they cannot easily cross or ignore, many of the same governments see the administration as erratic, unable to evaluate situations objectively, and prone to personalizing relations with foreign leaders and countries—even in dealing with other major powers. To these governments, the United States seems capricious and offers few tangible incentives for accommodating American preferences. This is an obstacle for Trump in accomplishing his international objectives.
It is fair to give the president credit for delivering, or working to deliver, on many of his electoral promises, something that is reportedly a source of pride for Trump. As a candidate, Donald Trump said that he would take a tougher stance on illegal immigration, demand more beneficial trade arrangements from other nations, downplay the struggle against climate change, and avoid regime change and meddling in the internal politics of other states.
While there is still no sign of a Mexico-financed border wall and Trump’s vigorous calls for concessions from American trading partners have yet to demonstrate significant results, the president has stayed on course despite the numerous domestic and international obstacles. Trump has forced the outside world to take him seriously. Other nations, including major powers such as the European Union, China, Russia, and even North Korea and Iran, have appeared ready to display some flexibility. In the case of Russia, while Obama’s sanctions succeeded in causing indignation among the Russian people, and particularly among the elites, Trump’s more far-reaching sanctions—zeroing in on key public companies and top Putin-friendly tycoons—are beginning to disturb Moscow and to curtail its earlier snide dismissal of U.S. and Western pressure. At a minimum, Trump’s willingness to impose new sanctions discourages Russia from risking escalation with the United States in Syria or Ukraine.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy rhetoric was its fresh and unorthodox attitude towards America’s national security priorities. Candidate Trump was not sophisticated about international affairs and struggled to present well-formulated alternatives to America’s conventional foreign policy approaches. Yet he did have a business leader’s intuitive practical sense in looking at the world as it relates to America’s national interests. Throughout the campaign, he raised valuable questions without necessarily offering thoughtful answers about alternative national security strategies for the United States. Trump started by questioning conventional assumptions about America’s allies and adversaries and seeing neither category as wholly self-evident, unlike the establishment, whose cliches he refused to repeat. Instead, he asked what America’s allies were doing for the United States and what U.S. alliances cost. As far as adversaries are concerned, he began asking some obvious but rare questions about which countries present significant problems for the United States and which pose lesser problems that might be amenable to resolution.
In thinking about national security, Trump seemed to view radical Islamic terrorism—responsible for 9/11, the Boston Marathon attack, and many other attacks in the United States and Europe—as the top threat. Focusing on that problem is neither capricious nor inherently racist. Trump clearly saw trade imbalances with China and many European nations as a major problem too. Even free trade champions would not deny that Beijing was introducing new protectionist measures denying U.S. companies market access parallel to what Chinese companies enjoy in America. Questioning why prosperous Europeans enjoying subsidized U.S. defense deserve trade advantages too should not be considered offensive; it is a fact that average U.S. tariffs on goods are just 2.4 percent when average eu and Canadian tariffs are 3 and 3.1 percent, respectively. But Trump will need to pursue his trade policies in a more coherent fashion that avoids gratuitously damaging relations with longtime allies—who are still very important to U.S. security—and artificially inflaming tensions with American adversaries. Simultaneous trade disputes with Mexico, Canada, Europe and China would defy strategic logic.
After America’s physical survival and economic prosperity, Trump appears to see maintaining sovereignty over America’s borders and preventing an influx of illegal immigrants as the country’s next most important national interest. For Trump, this and a $70 billion trade deficit in 2016 made U.S.-Mexico relations a top challenge and an area needing game-changing corrections.
As a candidate, Trump did not include Russia on his list of the top challenges to the United States, despite increasingly widespread establishment perceptions of Russia as an adversary. With Russia’s gdp around 10 percent of America’s and its conventional forces far from a match for NATO, Trump had good reasons to wonder why a country that Obama described as an economically-weak regional power should become an organizing principle of America’s security policy.
This raised an inevitable question about NATO: was it a necessary instrument to protect American security or a Cold War–era organization that had outlived its original purpose to contain Soviet expansionism? If the Europeans were so afraid of Russia, why were they spending so little on defense compared to the United States, and why were so few European nations prepared to meet NATO’s stated defense spending goal of at least 2 percent of gdp? Since NATO was no longer relevant to the fundamental challenges candidate Trump saw to America, was it a sacred cow rather than a powerful vehicle to protect American interests? Was America quietly being taken for a ride by European allies while becoming increasingly enmeshed in European conflicts of little importance to the United States?
George Washington counseled against steps that would “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice.” The fact that America has a commitment to defend NATO allies need not imply a parallel commitment to support their every venture. Europeans certainly feel no such obligation to America, as demonstrated by their lack of support for America’s commitment to Israel, including at the United Nations. Trump appeared intuitively to see this asymmetry and to turn a skeptical ear toward virtuous language that obscured limited help for Washington and its priorities. He likewise seemed to dismiss assertions of superior values from governments building a supranational bureaucracy that constrains businesses and limits freedoms.
The problem with Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric as a candidate and, at times, as president is that he poses good questions more often than he provides adequate answers. Trump has exposed himself to legitimate criticism because he often seems prepared to risk important relationships without clear gains. Mexico can be a troubling partner, but it is also an essential one. The combination of geography, extensive trade and millions of Americans of Mexican heritage requires approaching any revision of U.S.-Mexican relations with great finesse—something in short supply in rhetoric that ranged from condescending (or worse) references to Mexican immigrants to unrealistic calls for an impenetrable Mexican-funded border wall. America’s relations with its European allies are likewise important to U.S. security, as are partnerships with key governments in the Middle East. Simplistic rhetoric—whether about Mexican immigration, Islamic terrorism or the flaws of our European allies—can turn off millions of American voters. It is also highly divisive and, as a result, is an obstacle to Trump’s effort to reform American foreign policy and to “Make America Great Again.”
Trump’s treatment of Russia has become a special problem that has handicapped the first part of his presidency. The president is not responsible for the habits of the foreign policy establishment and mainstream media in building up Russia as a threat while treating it like a helpless giant, a trend that began well before the 2016 presidential campaign. Nor is the president responsible for the numerous and demonstrable flaws in Russian foreign policy and domestic governance or the fact that Moscow tends to deny every accusation, whether over its military involvement in eastern Ukraine, the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, attacks on government opponents at home and abroad, and most importantly, interference in U.S. and various European elections.
Moreover, when one looks closely at the matter, Russia’s interference in American politics during the 2016 election campaign appears half-hearted and inept—less a product of careful design and more a series of uncoordinated responses to what the Kremlin thought the United States and its European allies were undertaking to influence Russian politics. Still, Russia did interfere and its interference—in combination with Trump’s electoral college victory despite receiving almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton—became a major issue in U.S. domestic politics. The perception among some that Trump won the election only with help from Moscow put the new president and other advocates of a more pragmatic policy toward Russia in a very difficult position.
In the absence of any real evidence of collusion, however, Russia’s actions are Russia’s, not Trump’s. More serious is that too many of his associates had business contacts with shady Russian tycoons. Even if legal, these contacts often did not pass the smell test. Trump’s failure to lay out a clear blueprint for establishing better relations with Moscow either during the campaign or since is also problematic. Trump has not yet explained why improved relations with Russia would be in America’s national security interest, how such an improvement can be accomplished, what precautions must be taken to avoid abandoning other key U.S. interests, and how to protect America if overtures to the Kremlin are not successful. Instead, he has made vague statements indicating that having a better relationship with Moscow would be a good thing, that Putin really admires him, and that other countries, America included, are “not exactly innocent” and have killed too. This hardly constitutes a convincing case to the Congress or the American people for improving relations with Russia. It is least persuasive with the foreign policy elite, who have increasingly seen Russia as public enemy number one and have little interest in reviewing Washington’s past conduct. In this context, suggesting to return Russia to the G7 during a trade dispute with U.S. allies was needlessly provocative.
Trump visibly struggled to create an impressive team of foreign policy advisers who combine national security credentials with independent thinking and sympathy for his basic foreign policy instincts. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, with his anti-Islamic rhetoric, his deaf ear to the Russian challenge, and his chants of “Lock her Up” during Trump’s rallies, became a symbol of the newly-elected leader’s lack of foreign policy gravitas. In the wake of Flynn’s political demise, Mr. Trump appointed people of considerable accomplishment (if not always in foreign policy) like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and un ambassador Nikki Haley, but these officials rarely demonstrated much enthusiasm for Trump’s unorthodox foreign policy ideas. The White House grilled candidates for subcabinet and senior working level foreign policy positions on whether they made anti-Trump statements, but appeared to make little effort to determine whether they were either capable of or interested in helping Trump to develop his foreign policy vision.
President Trump has only recently assembled a national security team whose key members do not distance themselves from the president or pretend to be autonomous players—rather than advisers to the president and implementers of his policy preferences. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or National Security Advisor John Bolton, it is refreshing and reassuring to see officials on television who demonstrate less interest in personal aggrandizement and greater effort to present their personal views on policy to the president rather than in public. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a particularly strong pick, combining vast military experience and a demonstrable toughness in confronting adversaries with the pragmatism and sophistication of a real statesman. How this new team will work together in practice, and how its members will interact with the president, remains to be seen. If Trump provides clear direction, they have the potential to deliver.
Fortunately, the administration’s ill-defined foreign policy has thus far caused no irreparable damage. As leader of the world’s only multidimensional superpower, Trump has shown that ignoring him carries considerable risks and potentially high costs. Practically every nation in the world remains interested in a constructive relationship with the United States. Conversely, nobody is eager to be America’s enemy. As a result, with the right mix of hard and soft power coupled with skillful diplomacy, Trump can still achieve major successes.
The president has created a foundation that may allow him to deliver on his objectives. While the outcome of the planned summit in Singapore with Kim Jong-un is unclear at this writing, Kim seems open to negotiating. Pyongyang’s destruction of a nuclear site, release of three American prisoners and rhetorical willingness to proceed with denuclearization suggest that there may be more opportunities than existed at the end of the Obama administration; while Pyongyang promised to give up nuclear weapons in the past, it didn’t have them yet. Additionally, despite America’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran is so far still abiding by the terms of the deal. The Europeans and Russia do not appear prepared to go as far as Trump in demanding comprehensive Iranian concessions—ranging from enrichment limits to missile tests and changes in their regional behavior—but do seem to want to persuade Iran to make some concessions that were unthinkable during the Obama era. Likewise, China does not appear ready to change its trade policies and open its domestic market to the extent that the United States wants, but is acting like it seeks to avoid a trade war and, accordingly, appears prepared to walk at least some distance to accommodate American concerns.
Despite U.S. air attacks on Bashar al-Assad’s forces, Russia’s Iranian allies and Russian mercenaries—scores of whom reportedly perished—Moscow seems to display new energy in finding a cooperative political solution in Syria. During a recent meeting, Putin encouraged Assad not to count on a military victory and to accept a meaningful—if insufficient—constitutional reform that would redistribute power in Syria, an important U.S. objective. In Ukraine, Moscow severely criticized Washington’s delivery of anti-tank missiles—something that Obama feared would result in military confrontation—but has not retaliated militarily or politically. Russia appears open to a negotiated end to the conflict in the Donbass region, which it is unprepared to annex and is weary of supporting financially. What Russia wants is a reliable formula to postpone Ukraine’s nato membership, something few alliance members support soon anyway, and to win a measure of autonomy for the separatist regions in Donetsk and Luhansk. Moving forward, the Kremlin’s early infatuation with Trump is definitely over. Notwithstanding Moscow’s diminished expectations, Russian officials retain a healthy respect for his unpredictability and determination. And judging from their public complaints over slow U.S. follow through on Trump’s proposal for a summit with Putin, they still appear eager to engage the Trump administration.
There is no denying that Trump’s combination of symbolic and sometimes real pressure, bombastic threats, and equally over-the-top efforts at charming foreign leaders has produced at least some tangible, positive results. For Trump to avoid squandering the opportunities he has created, force, pressure, and unpredictability must be coupled with creativity and diplomacy. Short of war, achieving significant results in dealing with other serious powers—even regional powers like Iran—is impossible unless leaders see incentives as well as punishments. The margin between success and failure in such undertakings can often be quite narrow—and the costs of failure can be quite high, even potentially catastrophic in dealing with other nuclear-armed states. This requires a deadly serious policy, and a systematic process.
Trump faces another obstacle, this one not of his own making, in the U.S. tendency to treat any gains for our adversaries, even providing them with minimal legitimacy, as a betrayal of American virtue. Whether it is Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, or Ayatollah Khamenei, the fact is that we must either defeat our adversaries or cut deals with them—there is no third option. America’s status as the sole superpower allows it to cut better deals than anyone else, but even a good deal isn’t an unconditional surrender. Fortunately, as a businessman, Trump understands this better than most American officials and politicians. Nevertheless, his administration needs a coherent strategy in which the president’s attempts to make deals are not isolated efforts, but interlocking moves on a global chessboard. Among other things, this requires recognizing that victories in one area may impose heavy—or even prohibitive—costs in others. That in turn means defining priorities.
In his rhetoric, President Trump has clearly identified China as a top issue. This is less apparent in the administration’s strategic planning. In practice, our relations with a rising China are both a paramount challenge to the United States and the most important factor in sustaining U.S. global leadership at an acceptable cost. Terrorism remains the most immediate threat to most Americans, however, something that argues for cooperating with other nations (even some adversaries) where possible rather than attempting to isolate them and backing them into a corner in which support for anti-American terrorism becomes an attractive retaliatory tactic. With Russia, Trump’s realistic objective should not be an unnatural friendship, but rather to avoid Russian-Chinese cooperation against U.S. interests or Moscow reflexively assuming the role of a spoiler. No less important to continued U.S. leadership is to rebalance U.S.-European relations without unduly alienating European allies.
None of these objectives will be easy to achieve, but all of them are realistic if President Trump and his administration can succeed in playing America’s exceptionally strong hand well.
Dimitri K. Simes, publisher and CEO of the National Interest, is president of the Center for the National Interest.