For last few weeks, there has considerable discussion in the US about whether there’s change afoot in President Donald Trump’s nascent foreign policy—specifically, whether he’s bending and shifting his so-called “America First” foreign policy more in line with traditional Republican foreign policy values and interests. Those who believe this is the case point to a slew of recent events and statements emanating from the Trump White House: the US air strikes and bombings in Syria and Afghanistan, Trump's public support for NATO, his administration's criticism of Russia, and a palpable de-escalation of tensions with China. In total, these moves may signal a foreign policy direction for Team Trump. But is it? And what’s really going on here?
Below CWCP President Dr. Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman offer their takes on these topics.
Trying to describe and explain Trump's foreign policy is basically, in my view, trying to answer whether structure or agency is more important. With regards to structural analysis, one could make a strong argument that Trump's recent moves toward "mainstream" GOP foreign policy is basically a result of structural push-back. For instance, in trying to unilaterally punish China economically, he found out that China supposedly holds the cards that might allow him to solve North Korea problem. Similarly, he is moving against Russia because that's the only way for him to deal with Syria problem. As a result, he ends up moving to conventional/mainstream GOP position.
That said, the agency part here is also important: whichever part of the globe Trump is focused on is based on Trump’s whims. And we can actually also make a strong argument that Trump's cajoling China or throwing missiles at Syria is a part of bargaining, in the sense that Trump remains unpredictable, outside the mainstream GOP policy, but he capitalizes on it, thus making moves that catch his domestic and foreign opponents off guard. Assad most likely didn't expect Trump to attack him due to Trump's perceived closeness with Russia. Similarly with North Korea, by dangling the carrot of economic cooperation and the stick of retaliation, Trump might be able to pressure China to actually do something about North Korea. This negotiating stance, which to borrow Nixon's term, the Madman theory, would be outside the GOP's mainstream position.
That's an interesting take. But it assumes that Trump's foreign policy really has changed in concrete, significant ways. I look at it this way: I separate Trump's foreign policy goals from his and his staff's statements and the actions taken/implemented by Team Trump. Regarding the latter, sure, there has been considerable shifts and turns since January. Indeed, we seen changes on this front from Trump himself, on NATO, Russia, intervention in Syria, his willingness to use force more generally, and so on. And there's been public pivots and mixed signals within Team Trump. Most notably, it seems as if almost every comment by Nikki Haley is contradicted Trump and his spokesman Sean Spicer.
But all the statements and actions by the White House are done in the service of some foreign policy goal or goals. That's the point of them; they're put out there or implemented to achieve certain outcomes. And so, in my mind, the bigger issue is whether Trump's foreign policy goals have changed in the last three months. On this matter, I'm not so sure. And this is what some hardcore Trumpites are currently arguing, in response to the prevailing view that Trump is forming foreign policy in a random, ad hoc manner. They believe his goals haven't changed at all, and that Trump is flexible in pursuing these goals. In other words, the words and tools used by the US vis-a-vis various global problems and issues might vary over time, but the overarching foreign policy goals will remain mostly the same. Sure, there is a self-serving, partisan aspect to this argument, but it also has some merit.
I think of the 59 missiles recently launched on Syria as one example. American pundits, commentators and analysts were breathlessly quick to proclaim this act a decisive shift in US foreign policy. After all, he campaigned on keeping the US out of needless foreign wars, especially the one in Syria, even going so far as to signal that he'd be willing to delegate the issue to Russia to solve. But additionally, US intervention in Syria up to that point had been solely directed against AQ and ISIS members and activities. So, in their view, the attack on Assad was something new and different--and also something good. This crowd loudly cheered the attack, seeing it as a just and proper punishment for Assad's use of chemical weapons, and something that was long overdue, since Obama walked back his infamous red line years ago.
Meantime, Trump did suffer a temporary blowback from a part of his base as a result of the attack on Syria. These folks started to worry that he'd betrayed them. Was he becoming a normalized GOPer? Were establishment GOPers getting the upper hand over Trump in their battle with outsiders like Steve Bannon? And where was the restrained foreign policy they voted for? Bombing Syria isn't American First, is it?
But in the end, much of this is massive hyperbole. A one-off, limited attack on Syria does not portend deeper US involvement in the war. And since the attack, US defense officials have declared that there aren't further plans to attack/oust Assad. Moreover, there's reason to wonder whether the attack was done solely with Assad in mind. At the time of the bombing, he was meeting with Xi Jinping at Trump's "Southern White House" in Florida, and so it's possible the timing of the attack purposeful: yes, to punish Assad, but also to send a signal to Xi that he's not a pushover, that he's a strong, decisive leader. Of course, there are other possible audiences as well. The North Korea problem has seemingly loomed larger over the last three months, with the Kim cabal and Trump and his staff publicly sparring. It's very possible that Trump hoped the Syria bombing got Kim's attention, serving notice that Kim ought not to test Trump. And lastly, because of a host of scandals and investigations, Trump has been battling low approval polls since the inauguration. It would not be a surprise if the hyper-sensitive Trump thought that bombing Assad would add a distraction into the news cycle and offer a brief rally around the flag effect for his benefit.
But let's get back to the discussion of Trump's foreign policy goals. It seems evident that Trump's main foreign policy goals center around a handful of projects: (1) improving relations with Russia and China, (2) combating terrorism, (3) reducing the threat of North Korea, and (4) bringing more, better jobs back to the US. Does anything that Team Trump has said or done over the last month or so undermine these goals? Not really, right? I mean, I'm not seeing much change on those fronts. The #MOAB was just dropped on ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan; more anti-terrorism troops have been sent to Syria; Trump's already vetoed the TPP, may open up NAFTA, and extracted some Chinese investments while Xi was in town. And Trump hasn’t backed off the notion that better US-Russia ties are a desirable goal.
Oh sure, some will point to the White House's more stringent comments on Russia's actions in Syria, in addition to Trump's statement that US-Russian relations are at a low point, as evidence that big policy changes are in the works. Perhaps, though I'm skeptical. With the hubbub surrounding Team Trump's possible collusion with Russia to win the election, Trump has an incentive to publicly distance himself from Russia. It's one of the paradoxical outcomes we may find going forward: while Trump campaigned on having good ties to Russia, and he may still want the US to have better ties with Russia, the election shenanigans and the subsequent investigations may well force him to pump the brakes on improving ties to Moscow and giving Russia the concessions it desires (lifting of sanctions, reduced support for NATO, etc.). But before we declare Trump's proposed outreach to Russia completely dead, we need more information. In particular, I'd like to know what what's being said behind the scenes: just because public rhetoric on Russia may be heating up a tad from Team Trump, that doesn't necessarily mean that's what's being communicated to Russia privately, away from the public's eyes and ears.