Who says Donald Trump doesn’t have a foreign policy? He does, but it wasn’t the one he rolled out in a speech Monday on his administration’s national security strategy.
Much of the speech contains language quite consistent with Trumpian values, particularly the focus on America first, homeland security, trade protectionism, America’s sovereignty, and withdrawal from Paris Climate and Trans-Pacific Partnership. But it’s also full of bromides, slogans and platitudes to persuade Congress, the media and the public that the administration has a coherent strategy to protect U.S. interests in a turbulent world.
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Still, there is little in the speech that reflects much of what Trump has actually done in foreign policy or why. Here’s a more politically inconvenient guide to Trump’s foreign policy. And unlike the national security strategy, it may well provide clues as to how he’ll operate for the remainder of his presidency.
Domestic politics trumps sound policy
Trump clearly wasn’t going to address the importance he attaches to placating his domestic constituencies, though his repeated references to the record breaking stock market reflects those priorities. Indeed, domestic politics is one of the organizing principles of Trump’s foreign policy and approach to national security, specifically the overriding importance of preserving his political base; fulfilling campaign commitments, and separating himself from the policies of his predecessor. All presidents inject politics into their foreign policy. But rarely has a president been drawn, like a moth to a flame, to politics over policy in such a consistent and injurious manner. From withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Climate Change accord to declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel and not certifying Iranian compliance with the Iran nuclear agreement, Trump has acted more like a politician than a foreign policy president. Add to this list the wall, his anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the travel ban; and what Henry Kissinger once quipped about Israel — it has no foreign policy, just domestic politics — applies to this administration in spades. And as 2018 and 2020 nears, you can expect Trump’s foreign policy to be shaped even more by political concerns.
Not as tough as he wants to appear
We know how much Trump loves his generals and a good military parade, and listening to his speech one might have thought that this was the most militaristic and risk-ready administration in decades. Trump trumpets in his speech the massive build-up of the U.S. military. Yet, rather than throwing its military weight around, what you see in the past year is restraint in action. From the limited military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians and the restrained surge in Afghanistan to the modest deployments of U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq to defeat the Islamic State and roll back Iran and his opposition to military intervention in Syria’s civil war, Trump has fortunately been the mouse that roared. Ironically, even though Trump prides himself on being the un-Obama, he has proven so far to be not much different than his predecessor when it comes to the use of force, particularly in building on Obama’s policies to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
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A value-less foreign policy? It depends.
Franklin Roosevelt purportedly said about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia, “he may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” The president seems to be borrowing a page from FDR’s playbook. Trump has sucked up to some pretty autocratic and repressive leaders — Putin in Russia, Xi in China, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, al-Sisi in Egypt; Erdogan in Turkey and Duterte in the Philippines. But he has not spared the human rights rod with most of America’s perceived enemies — North Korea, Venezuela, Iran and Cuba. This cherry-picking about where the U.S. will stand up or not about America’s values commitment reflects the hoary tradition of previous administrations, which have had to balance the promotion of these values with the pursuit of other economic, security and diplomatic interests.
Love those authoritarians, our allies not so much
The new national security strategy brands Russia and China as strategic competitors and promises a more aggressive effort to push back at their efforts to overturn the global status quo. This chest-thumping his hard to reconcile with the love-ins he has had with Putin and Xi. Trump remains in denial over Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election and has therefore not lifted a finger to prevent Moscow from doing it again. Likewise, he has essentially looked the other way while China gobbles up more of the South China Sea and has treated Beijing with kid gloves on trade issues to secure its cooperation on North Korea. By contrast, the president has roughed up America’s allies, questioning U.S. security commitments to NATO, Japan and Korea, accusing allies of “free riding” on American military protection, and picking gratuitous fights with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the presidents of France and South Korea, and the prime ministers of the U.K. and Australia.
National Security Strategies are typically less detailed foreign policy to do lists than broad principles and platitudes designed to persuade Congress, the media and the public that an administration has a compelling and effective strategy. A year in it’s certainly not at all clear that the Trump administration has one.