The point of departure for any effort to decode Trump’s foreign policy is an understanding of what he means by “America first” — less a set of rules and more a state of mind. To the president, America has been getting taken to the cleaners for years via “disastrous trade deals,” freeloading allies and commitments made by Beltway establishment that have dragged America into endless, costly wars and nation-building efforts that have drained American prosperity in the dog-eat-dog world darkly described in his national security speech. Trump’s view of the world is much like his view of his business career — a cruel zero-sum game where the weak are to be taken advantage of and only the strong emerge as the real winners. These are views he’s held all his life; not an ideological construct imposed on a credulous first-time officeholder by a manipulative Stephen Bannon. America first is a variant of Trump first, which is why it subordinates the United States’s national interest to a solipsistic worldview uniquely ill-suited to dealing with the complicated challenges we face.
It helps to think of Trump not as a foreign policy president, but as a recently minted politician trying to play one on TV. His approach to foreign policy is guided by his need to constantly assuage the constituency that elected him, not necessarily by actions that serve the long-term strategic interests of those constituents or U.S. allies. His ideological Svengali, Bannon, no longer inhabits the White House, but his whiteboard to-do list — with items ranging from “Build the border wall and eventually make Mexico” pay for it, to move the U.S. Embassy from “Tel Aviv to Jerusalem” — always beckons.
In February, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told Politico that “at one point” Trump and his team “were ready to move the Embassy” to Jerusalem “at 12:01 on January 20th” — a move that would have been capricious then and remained so when it was announced this month, despite warnings from advisers. Trump’s immediate withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; his capricious exit from the Paris climate accord; and the various iterations on his ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries are valuable as gestures to his base, but mostly worthless as policy. The president’s campaign rhetoric and his determination to be the un-Obama have so far won out, and as the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election approach, expect Trump’s political impulses to increasingly dominate governance — at home and abroad.
Tony Schwarz, who co-wrote “The Art of the Deal,” wrote this year that Trump’s “sense of self-worth is forever at risk.” The president is driven by deep insecurities and an inordinate need for adulation and one-upmanship, on display in his speech accepting the GOP presidential nomination, when he declared “I alone can fix” what ails the American system. It was also reflected in his national security address, when he said: “For many years, our citizens watched as Washington politicians presided over one disappointment after another.” He fancies himself the greatest negotiator in the world, but allies and adversaries alike have cracked the code: If you flatter and fete Trump — as the Saudis and Israelis did in his first trip abroad, and as the Japanese and Chinese did during the president’s Asia trip — he is pliable. Witness his failure to push the Saudis on their atrocious human rights record and military campaign in Yemen, to confront Israel on its unhelpful settlement activity, and to press China and Japan on trade.
Trump the deconstructionist
Far from a builder, so far Trump has proved more adept at condemnation and demolition, spending a lot of his time trying to tear down what was built by his predecessors — particularly President Barack Obama — without offering viable alternatives to take their place. A prime example is the Iran nuclear agreement, which has its flaws, but so far has been working and is far better than no deal at all. Trump provides no logic or specifics to back up his claim that the Iran deal is “incomprehensibly bad” and as seasoned diplomats have noted, the president isn’t much of a dealmaker. If it weren’t for cooler heads such as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump may already have abandoned the deal (and still could down the road), leaving Iran to go full-speed ahead with its nuclear ambitions and isolating the United States from the other parties to the agreement.
It’s ironic that, for a president who desperately wants to appear tough and muscular, Trump is as cautious and risk-averse as his predecessor when it comes to leveraging American military power. Though his administration just announced the sale of long-denied “lethal” weapons to Ukraine, in defiance of Russia, in general, on these issues, Trump isn’t the un-Obama, he’s Obama redux. For all of Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea — “fire and fury,” “locked and loaded” and so on — he has not yet taken military action; he ordered a small missile strike after Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons (even though, he, like Obama, had far more robust options); and he mostly adopted Obama’s playbook for combating the Islamic State. With Trump’s use of military force, far more yellow and red lights have been flashing than green. The world remains a turbulent and unpredictable place, but Trump seems to have accepted the military’s view, at least for now, that projecting American force is an instrument to be used carefully in pursuit of realistic goals. Let’s hope that remains the case with North Korea — one scenario where Trump’s ego, his carelessness, domestic politics and Kim Jong Un’s recklessness could combine to create a catastrophe.
The administration’s new national security strategy brief brands China and Russia as “competitors” and promises more aggressive push back to their efforts to upend the global status quo. Maybe the president has had an epiphany about America’s two main geopolitical rivals, but his rhetorical flexing is belied by his embrace of the dictators, President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin, who rule these two countries. It looks increasingly likely that he’ll soon lower the trade boom on China by imposing anti-dumping penalties and retaliating against Chinese theft of intellectual property, but he continues to give Russia a pass. Trump’s favoring of dictators is evidenced by the way he has sucked up to autocrats and human rights abusers in Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. All while verbally roughing up democratic leaders, including allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose refugee policy he described as a “catastrophic mistake” and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whom he accused of “appeasement” in a Twitter outburst.
Trump deserves credit for dealing a death blow to the Islamic State’s territorial conquests in Syria and Iraq — his only laudable national security achievement to date. But the yardstick for judging Trump’s foreign policy isn’t whether his administration solves the world’s toughest problems. The question is whether his approach to foreign policy can manage the challenges the United States cannot resolve in a way that strengthens our interests while avoiding international crises, such as an escalation of conflict with Iran or, particularly, North Korea, that might irreparably harm those interests. A year in, the record does not inspire confidence. His worldview isn’t one that carefully calibrates means and ends or clearly defines true U.S. national interests and makes them a priority. Instead, it is one that will likely end up putting America last, not first, on a range of issues critical to its long-term prosperity and security.