As we start 2018 and approach the anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration, the foreign policy assessments of his first year are coming in. Most of them are not terribly nice. Evan Osnos, in a New Yorker essay on China’s rise, brutally assesses Trump’s first year as a foreign policy president: “Barack Obama’s foreign policy was characterized as leading from behind. Trump’s doctrine may come to be understood as retreating from the front.”
Not everyone has been so down on Trump’s first year. In USA Today, David Gordon and Michael O’Hanlon argue Trump’s first year as a foreign policy leader was not too bad. They fully acknowledge Trump’s unpopularity across the world and his self-inflected wounds on climate change, human rights, and the Middle East. But they argue things have, so far, worked out better than expected:
Trump himself is a maverick and populist. By virtue of his style and temperament, he has complicated U.S. diplomacy, and lowered America’s standing in the world at least temporarily. And yes, 2018 could bring momentous White House decisions on issues like North Korea and Iran that may invalidate this analysis going forward. But largely because of the strength and coherence of the foreign policy team that Trump assembled, 2017 in fact witnessed a far less dramatic departure in American foreign policy than has often been alleged. It was, for example, certainly less momentous than 1950, 1964-1965, or 2001-2003 when the nation went to war.
Candidate Trump questioned the value of American alliances around the world, emphasizing the need for fair burden-sharing from any nations that expected American protection, and suggesting that countries like Japan and South Korea might be better off with their own nuclear weapons. Yet President Trump has assembled a team — starting with Vice President Pence, plus Mattis at the Pentagon, Kelly and McMaster in the White House, Haley in New York, Tillerson at Foggy Bottom — that quickly underscored America’s commitment to its allies and took active steps to demonstrate the enduring bonds. Over time, Trump himself largely came around to recognize that it was dangerous to sow doubt about U.S. resoluteness, and his new national security strategy makes this point clearly.
On the conflicts with terrorists and Islamic extremists, while neither of these two men might welcome the comparison, Trump’s and Obama’s policies share far more continuities than differences. Trump effectively sustained, and reinforced, the basic approaches Obama had finally settled on in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. The basic concepts have included building up the capacity of partners, supporting them with air power and special forces and drones, and prioritizing the defeat of ISIS as well as any al Qaeda affiliates above other goals.
You would be hard-pressed to find a reality-based better defense of the administration’s record on foreign policy in 2017. The thing is, it does not make me feel sanguine at all about 2018.
I agree with Gordon and O’Hanlon that the biggest foreign policy success of Trump’s first year is the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. As they explicitly note, however, this was also the element of Trump’s foreign policy that had the most continuity with his successor. Trump deserves real credit for not altering course when it seems like his foreign policy is predicated on being anti-Obama.
What Gordon and O’Hanlon are really suggesting is a 2018 version of the Axis of Adults thesis: that Trump’s foreign policy team has been able to keep the president from acting on his own uninformed whims. When his foreign policy team has been steering the ship, the thinking goes, things have been going okay.
There are a few problems with this narrative, however. First, let’s just say some in Trump’s foreign policy Cabinet have not performed as expected. Second, contrary to Gordon and O’Hanlon’s claims, the cognitive dissonance between Trump’s national security strategy and Trump’s foreign policy musings is massive. Third, Trump’s lassitude means coherence is far from guaranteed for the executive branch‘s management of foreign policy (see: Qatar). Fourth, in 2018, the Trump administration starts to encounter some of the defining moments on issues they had punted on in 2017. Allegedly, we are going to see Trump unchained by his advisers this year. If that is true, then I am far from sanguine that American foreign policy on trade, the Iranian nuclear deal or North Korea will work out well.
The biggest problem with the Trump administration’s foreign policy is more subtle. Think of the foreign policy agencies and U.S.-designed multilateral structures as capital that needs constant investments. Then appreciate that the Trump team has made zero investments in this area whatsoever. The effect is akin to driving a car without getting the oil changed or living in a house but providing no upkeep. You can get away with this for a while, and then everything falls apart.
The New York Times’s Steven Erlanger notes U.S. credibility is already one area where Trump’s tweets have damaged American interests:
Two things stand out about the foreign policy messages Mr. Trump has posted on Twitter since taking office: How far they veer from the traditional ways American presidents express themselves, let alone handle diplomacy. And how rarely Mr. Trump has followed through on his words. Indeed, nearly a year after he entered the White House, the rest of the world is trying to figure out whether Mr. Trump is more mouth than fist, more paper tiger than the real thing . . .
While allies do not necessarily take his Twitter posts as policy pronouncements, they still create significant confusion, said Pierre Vimont, former French ambassador to Washington and former top aide to the European Union foreign policy chief.
Even in areas where allies agree — for example, on the threat posed by North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un — “we have a hard time understanding the real policy line from Washington,” Mr. Vimont said.
Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the most nonpartisan foreign policy group in existence. His assessment of Trump’s first year in office is far more critical:
Support for alliances, embrace of free trade, concern over climate change, championing of democracy and human rights, American leadership per se — these and other fundamentals of American foreign policy have been questioned and, more than once, rejected. Trump is the first post-World War II American president to view the burdens of world leadership as outweighing the benefits. As a result, the United States has changed from the principal preserver of order to a principal disrupter.
This change has major implications. It will make it far more difficult to deal with the challenges posed by globalization, including climate change and nuclear proliferation, to regulate cyberspace on terms compatible with American interests, or to help relieve the plight of refugees on terms consistent with American values. It will make it more difficult to build frameworks that promote trade and investment and to ensure that the United States benefits from them . . .
This raises a larger, related point. There must be a presumption of continuity in the foreign policy of a great power if allies are to remain allied and if foes are to be deterred. Unpredictability may on occasion make sense as a tactic, but not as a strategy. The many departures introduced or threatened by the Trump administration (most recently extending to both the NAFTA agreement and the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran) create doubts as to U.S. reliability. This is not meant as an argument for standing pat in foreign policy. The world is changing and U.S. foreign policy must change with it. The argument, though, is that the international project should be a renovation based on the existing order, not a teardown.
Gordon and O’Hanlon focus in their op-ed on the tangible foreign policies of 2017. The question foreign policy commentators need to ask is whether Haass’s bleak worldview winds up explaining 2018, 2019 and 2020.