In five short weeks, President Trump has upended the established global order.
He cozied up to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who received worldwide attention while giving up relatively little in return. He waged rhetorical war against loyal U.S. allies in Europe, unsettling a 69-year-old security pact. And on Monday he slammed his own FBI and intelligence agencies in the course of defending Russian President Vladimir Putin against charges of interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
The moves have clearly served Trump’s desired image as a dealmaker willing to upset the status quo and throw away conventional wisdom.
But what’s less clear to many, including Republican lawmakers and Trump’s own advisers, is what the president is trying to accomplish — and how he expects to get there.
“Dialogue is useful, but the question is: To what end?” said Thomas Graham, who served as a high-ranking Russia policy official in the George W. Bush administration. “What you don’t see is a clear articulation of what the American interest is. And it’s particularly disconcerting that you’re trying to build up a dialogue with China, North Korea and Russia at the same time when you’re undermining what has been, historically, a very productive dialogue between the U.S. and its European allies and East Asian allies.”
Trump has cast his high-stakes geopolitical endeavors as an overdue course correction for a U.S. foreign policy that had become bogged down by groupthink and rendered ineffectual against threats such as terrorism, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and Chinese trade practices.
During the campaign, Trump cast disdain on multilateral institutions for trade and defense that have defined the post-World War II liberal order and were designed largely under U.S. leadership. Once in office, he made clear that he was willing to give the leaders of rival nations the benefit of the doubt, casting their hostile actions as an outgrowth of the “foolishness” and “stupidity” of past administrations, as he put it in a tweet Monday regarding Russia.
Daniel Fried, a former diplomat who is an expert on Russia and Eastern Europe, noted that Trump has rooted his foreign policy in an affinity for nationalism, reducing global relationships to a transactional zero-sum contest among nations.
“That reduces the U.S. from being the leader of the free world to being just another grasping great power,” said Fried, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council. “It means the world becomes a world of 19th-century power politics, where might makes right. That undoes 100 years of America’s grand strategy, which worked out well for us. It won the Cold War, because people behind the Iron Curtain were inspired by our ideas and ideals.”
In pursuing meetings with Kim and Putin, Trump proclaimed that his ability to forge a personal rapport with his counterparts would pay more dividends than following the more traditional path of allowing diplomats and policy experts to engage in long, painstaking talks to determine whether a deal is possible.
“I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace, than to risk peace in pursuit of politics,” Trump said at a joint news conference with Putin in Helsinki, a quote he later highlighted on his Twitter feed next to an image of him standing next to the Russian leader.
Yet Trump’s approach also has been marked by an enthusiasm for disparaging U.S. allies. Where his White House predecessors sought to build consensus among Western nations to present a united front against adversaries, Trump has routinely reserved his most pointed criticisms for nations that have the most in common with the United States.
After departing an economic summit outside Quebec last month, Trump reacted to mild criticism from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by abruptly yanking U.S. support for a joint statement among the Group of Seven nations that his administration had signed on to just hours earlier.
Ahead of his summit with Putin, Trump demanded during a NATO summit that the other 28 member nations increase their defense spending under an implied threat that the United States would abandon the mutual defense treaty. Moscow has long sought to upend the alliance.
Trump also disparaged British Prime Minister Theresa May, criticizing her politically tenuous strategy for extracting Britain from the European Union, in an interview with a tabloid newspaper that coincided with his arrival in London for a working visit last week.
“Trump is doing enormous damage to an international order that is already unwinding,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the risk analysis firm Eurasia Group, who has written on the trend toward a world without global leadership. “It’s getting worse than I expected.”
A world in flux, with U.S. leadership among democratic nations in retreat, is marked by opportunity — for other coalitions in the West to assert themselves, but also for autocratic governments to fill the void, analysts said.
Adversaries can attempt to “build a competing image of what a world without American leadership would look like,” said Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. “It’s one that’s incredibly hostile to our interests and values and those of most of our allies and other democratic countries around the world.”
Trump associates noted that for all his bluster, the president did not seek to pull out of the NATO alliance or to lift U.S. economic sanctions on North Korea or Russia.
But Trump also has little to show for his meetings with Putin and Kim. The president’s defensive performance at the Helsinki news conference, during which he failed to denounce Russia for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, ratcheted up political blowback on both sides of the aisle in Washington.
And despite the president’s declaration after the Singapore summit that he had successfully defused North Korea’s nuclear threat, there are growing signs that Pyongyang has no intention of dismantling its program.
“He’s certainly showed that he’s going to take big gambles and shake things up,” said Dan Blumenthal, an East Asian security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “Yet there are huge risks involved. The risk with North Korea now is that if, in the next month or so, there’s no real progress . . . then we’re going to have to change tack again.”