Foreign AffairsOpinion

Making Sense of Trump’s Foreign Policy After the First 100 Days

By Mark Narusov

After his first 100 days in office, Donald Trump is maintaining the established trend of continually not meeting the expectations of both his critics and supporters alike. He did not decrease American commitment to NATO, undermine traditional alliances, or try to reduce the tensions with Russia by handing over unilateral concessions. Steve Bannon, far from becoming the éminence grise of this White House, is losing influence over the president’s actions, while the more “establishment” figures like Mike Pence have become more powerful[1]. On the other hand, some features of Trump’s foreign policy could be — and were — predicted before he took office. The beginning of the new presidency did mark a break with the Hamiltonian tradition of upholding free trade arrangements as an important pillar of the world order, as well as the Wilsonian idea that democracy promotion should be at the top of the foreign policy priorities of an American administration.

No strings attached

It should be obvious to any honest observer that Trump did not turn out to be a Russian puppet. He would not have supported Montenegro’s accession to NATO or punished the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons if he was. It is nonetheless equally obvious that the Kremlin had a significant role in getting Trump elected, but there is no contradiction between the two. The most plausible scenario is that the Russian regime simply did not attach any strings, nor set conditions for the amount of PR help they delivered through Wikileaks, social media bots, and media outlets. The story of a dictator making a misjudged bet on a democratic candidate and suffering the negative consequences is not without precedent. It is a well-established fact that the now deposed tyrant Muammar Gaddafi contributed €50 million to Nicolas Sarkozy’s election fund in 2007. It did not stop the recipient from being the initiator of the NATO campaign to depose his sponsor, and a solid case could be made that these allegations created an incentive for Sarkozy to act in such a way that would disprove the claims of his critics.

“A true friend of Muslims”

In dealing with the Middle East, the Trump administration has demonstrably dropped democracy promotion as a priority. In a very emblematic act, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dropped human rights-related conditions on the sale of $3 billion worth of arms to the authoritarian monarchy of Bahrain that the Obama administration had set due to the regime’s crackdown on its Shiite minority. The Egyptian strongman El-Sisi, whom Trump called “a fantastic guy”, hasn’t gotten any pressure so far from the current administration concerning his regime’s systematic abuse of human rights. The meeting between Trump and his aides and the Saudi delegation left the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman utterly ecstatic and led him to non-ironically proclaim that Trump is “a true friend of Muslims”. The United States’ change of policy on democracy promotion among allies in the Middle East, as well as the new administration’s more hardline approach to Iranian expansionism in the region, has already led to the strengthening of the bilateral relationships between the US and its non-democratic allies in the regions. While these regimes will be less constrained in their abuses of human rights, it is also very likely that they will be more willing to cooperate on counter-terrorism, potentially offering more assistance in the ongoing campaign against ISIS in particular.

Consistently inconsistent

The pretty glaring and relatively unprecedented level of incompetence and ignorance of the American president has created a number of problems for American foreign policy. The most obvious one is, of course, the fact that he does not have a clear set of beliefs, goals and principles that would guide his decisions and define his strategy. While Trump has established the credibility of his threats early on in the term — by punishing the Assad regime for its chemical weapons attack —  the predictability of American power under Trump may well be in danger.

Whatever one thinks of Trump’s final decision to strike the Shayrat airbase, what pushed him to consider it was not a thought-out calculation of the long-term costs and benefits in terms of upholding the Chemical Weapons Convention, pleasing allies, or threatening enemies. Rather, it was a quite impulsive and emotion-driven decision based on the anger he felt after seeing the images of children injured by  chemical weapons. Trump’s aides transformed Trump’s reaction into a rational and, in the end, well thought-out act, but there is no guarantee that they would be able to do so at another time.

This is exactly what averted the disaster of a Trump-like person being in charge of the foreign policy apparatus — a disaster that many, including me, anticipated — the highly professional and competent team that the president has assembled around him, in addition to Trump’s willingness to ask questions and fill in the gaps of his understanding [2]. The top executive’s incompetence, however, has distinct negative consequences. In the aftermath of the Syrian strike, for example, American representatives struggled to cohere and offer a consistent message on American policy towards Syria. Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN, said that there can be no political settlement while Assad is still in power and that “Regime change is something that we think is going to happen”, while Secretary of State Tillerson said that the campaign against ISIS is “being coordinated somewhat with the Syrian regime” and “We are hopeful we can work with Russia” to achieve peace in Syria. Some progress is being made on the problem of message discipline, but the administration is a long way from the relatively consistent positions their predecessors took on issues at hand.[3]

Even after the first 100 days, one cannot distinctively define what a Trump doctrine would look like, if clearly laid out. The same was relatively true of his predecessor — Obama did not come into office with a well-detailed plan for dealing with the outside world, but he did espouse a firm belief that the U.S. should become less embroiled in the Middle East and must restrain itself to diplomatic means of action when its core interests are not threatened. This firm attitude was manifested through, among other things, inaction in Syria, lack of commitment to the post-revolutionary future of Libya, rapprochement with Iran, and a “reset” with Russia. Obama’s actions as president were very much predictable. Trump, however, has very few, if any, solid guidelines for operating on the international arena. We can only wait and see what factors will shape the rather remarkable continual change of Trump’s foreign policy views in the future.





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