President Trump’s learning curve on matters of foreign policy and national security was steep even before the bombshell report this week that he had blurted secrets to Russian diplomats.
Trump’s first foreign trip as president, which begins in Saudi Arabia this weekend, is a test of the lessons he has learned about geopolitics as well as whether he can reset his chaotic administration. Many presidents have tried to use statesmanship abroad to distract from problems at home, but the Trump brand of diplomacy has some analysts worried that the nine-day tour of allies in the Mideast and Europe might only make his troubles worse.
Trump mentioned few foreign policy agenda items when he reeled off what he called the successes of his young administration in a graduation address Wednesday at the Coast Guard Academy, except to say that his promised wall on the Mexican border is coming closer to fruition. But he did look ahead to a trip that includes a high-stakes meeting of NATO alliance leaders, with a warning about overseas partners that rely too heavily on U.S. largesse.
“With the safety, security and interest of the American people as my priority, I will strengthen old friendships and will seek new partners, but partners who also help us, not partners who take and take and take,” Trump said. That echoed Trump’s campaign promise to cut off global freeloaders, but also served to remind that Trump has reversed his frequent criticism of NATO as obsolete.
Trump’s national security stumbles and diplomatic course corrections began even before he took office.
In the weeks following his surprise election victory in November, Trump stunned the foreign policy establishment by suggesting he might upend the delicate policy surrounding China and Taiwan. He has since had to walk it back or risk losing leverage with China to help rein in nuclear North Korea.
He raised eyebrows by meeting with Brexit proponent Nigel Farage before seeing British Prime Minister Theresa May, and then suggesting that Farage would make a good ambassador to Washington. Trump then welcomed May as the first foreign leader to visit the White House, and gushed that the U.S.-Britain relationship had never been better.
Trump has backpedaled on a threatened trade confrontation with China and retracted his allegation that China unfairly manipulates its currency. He mused aloud that dealing with North Korea was harder than he thought after hearing a tutorial from Chinese President Xi Jinping during their summit in Florida. His administration is expected to back off a campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to disputed Jerusalem, largely because Arab leaders warned Trump that doing so would unleash violence and spoil chances for a peace deal.
He did pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact as promised, but has been vague about the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has dropped rhetoric about canceling the landmark nuclear deal with Iran, and he regularly calls it a bad deal. On Wednesday, the White House extended Iran’s relief from sanctions under the deal, thereby passing up an opportunity to undermine it.
While every president has a learning curve in foreign policy and national security, such as former president Bill Clinton with early crises in Somalia and Haiti, Trump is also still learning the responsibilities of governance and accountability, said former State Department undersecretary Wendy Sherman.
“This president not only has the usual learning curve, but he appears to have new ones,” Sherman said. “He needs to understand what government is about, and the responsibilities, rights, privileges and accountability the president of the United States has.”
Trump has done little to suggest he trusts or seeks out the vast range of expertise at reach at the State Department and elsewhere, although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has become a close confidant. Tillerson, a fellow Washington outsider and former business executive, has helped tutor Trump for his trip.
“The president’s learning curve on national security has been bumpy at best, opening the door for those among his detractors to assume the worst, and leaving supporters grasping for logical explanations,” said former Tennessee Republican senator William E. Brock.
“The bumps are obvious, but he is learning and growing,” Brock said, adding that any progress Trump is making on foreign policy is threatened by yawning gaps in staffing at the State Department and elsewhere.
Richard Nephew, a Columbia University scholar who was the State Department’s lead sanctions expert during the Iran nuclear negotiations, said Trump’s trip has many potential pitfalls.
“My biggest concern is the level of distraction in the administration,” at a moment when all attention should be on ensuring the trip goes well, Nephew said. “Second is this president in particular. We’ve seen he has a desire to please and end meetings on a positive note with the people he’s in front of. I worry that translates into making promises that seem like a good idea at the time, that are expedient, leave everyone smiling, but are difficult to reconcile.”
James Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who has close ties to the White House, said the most substantive parts of the trip will probably be Trump’s meetings in Saudi Arabia and Israel, two countries relieved to deal with Trump after friction with Obama.
“Everybody I talk to in the Middle East has been excited about Trump from Day One,” Carafano said.
Trump will also visit the West Bank and is expected to again tout his efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump has backed away from a decades-old U.S. commitment to a sovereign Palestinian state, but held a warm meeting at the White House with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
From there Trump goes to Europe, for the NATO summit, a protocol-laden visit to see Pope Francis at the Vatican, and a gathering of the Group of Seven economic powers in Italy.
Carafano said Trump can shine in small meetings with other leaders, and he does not worry that the president’s attention will wander during the big group sessions. Others said those lengthy sessions will be a test of Trump’s patience and ability to cede the spotlight, and they worry about a gaffe or blunder.
“Everything, from his nonverbal cues, to how he listens, to how he comports himself, to what he says, matters, and he will have multiple audiences every time he speaks,” Sherman said.
Carafano said that given the turmoil in Washington, an overseas trip presents an opportunity.
“Just being out of town for two weeks is probably great,” he said. “The great thing about a trip, they control the environment, you control the interaction, you control the agenda and you control the press access. If you fumble on one of these trips, it’s nobody’s fault but your own.”