Way back on December 3, 2017, still getting over the surprise and shock at Donald Trump’s election, I wrote a counterintuitive article in Politico arguing that Trump’s foreign policy might not turn out to be as disruptive as many assumed. I predicted that while his approach to the world would be marked by plenty of bluster, mistakes and incoherence — all bad enough — he would likely back away from his more extreme campaign positions and refrain from doing some of the things that most worried domestic critics and America’s allies abroad — such as walking away from treaty commitments or launching trade wars.
I believed this because Trump had few fixed views on policy issues and no compunction about changing his mind, and he was putting together a foreign policy team that included serious people like Defense Secretary James Mattis while considering moderates such as Mitt Romney or David Petraeus as secretary of state. Given the president’s extreme narcissism, he couldn’t afford to risk looking like a “loser” by pursuing risky adventures abroad, and surely, even for Trump, the world would look a lot different from the Situation Room than from a campaign stage. I concluded that “while Trump will be by far the most ill-informed, inexperienced and morally compromised man ever to assume the presidency, his foreign policy may not prove to be as radical as many seem to assume.”
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For more than a year, I think that assessment proved to be mostly right. But now, especially after last week’s decision to blow up the nuclear deal with Iran, it’s time to admit it was wrong. Since the start of 2018, Trump has installed a new national security team more closely aligned with his nationalist instincts, slapped big tariffs on steel and aluminum imports even from close U.S. allies, made outlandish trade demands of China, and moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — a controversial move being celebrated there today by a high-level U.S. delegation amid escalating violence in Gaza.
What all this shows is that the relative caution and systematic backtracking on radical campaign commitments that characterized the president’s first year in office are being abandoned and a new Trump foreign policy approach is emerging. This unshackled version of Trump is far riskier and more disruptive than the first version, and Trump seems to be reveling in the attention it brings. That probably means the trend is likely to continue — with deeply damaging consequences for the United States and the world.
For most of 2017, the thesis that Trump would not be as radical as many hoped or feared held up remarkably well. Persuaded in most cases by the so-called “adults in the room,” Trump did not act on the vast majority of his more controversial ideas and commitments. He repeatedly if grudgingly certified to Congress that the “disastrous” Iran nuclear deal was working, and throughout the year regularly waived the sanctions necessary to keep it alive. He twice waived a congressional mandate to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, deferring to the view of advisers at home and in the region that such a move could undermine prospects for peace. Trump backed away from his pledge to “bring back waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse,” admitted that NATO was “not obsolete” after all, and, after consulting the leaders of Canada and Mexico, agreed not to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
In Asia, Trump re-committed to the “One China” policy he had once questioned as he flirted with Taiwan, maintained U.S. defense commitments to Japan and South Korea even without getting them to spend more on their own defense, and refrained from declaring China a currency manipulator. He talked tough on North Korea and threated “fire and fury,” but took no action beyond tightening sanctions.
And perhaps most telling was Trump’s flip-flop on Afghanistan. Having previously called for a “speedy withdrawal” to “stop wasting our money” there, Trump in August 2017 announced that he would actually increase the U.S. military presence by nearly 4,000 troops. He admitted in a rare act of candor that he was going against his instinct out of respect for the views of his military advisers, and because “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
To be sure, Trump’s first year included some more radical steps consistent with views on trade and climate. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in January 2017 and abandoned the Paris climate agreement in August – both consequential decisions that will do severe damage to long-term U.S. interests. But in one sense both moves were exceptions that proved the rule in that neither was likely to have major consequences immediately. The TPP Trump abandoned didn’t even exist yet at the time, and withdrawing from the non-binding Paris Accord was a “freebie” – red meat for the base with no risk of the sort of immediate explosion that could come with new trade tariffs or tearing up a nuclear accord. The bottom line is that a year after his election, notwithstanding plenty of daily chaos and controversy, U.S. foreign policy had not changed in fundamental ways.
What a difference a few months make. The new Trump is breaking free of his self-imposed shackles and now forging ahead with the sort of bold and controversial moves from which he had previously shied away. The first of these came in December 2017, when Trump departed from 70 years of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy by announcing that the U.S. Embassy would move to Jerusalem after all. With the traditional foreign policy establishment up in arms (but as much of his base cheered), Trump reveled in the knowledge he was breaking new ground, and gloated when the warnings of his critics proved at least initially unfounded, no doubt only encouraging a future willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom.
In early 2018, having delayed serious action for a year, Trump also started to get more aggressive on trade, announcing in March (against the advice of top economic adviser Gary Cohn, who has since left the White House) that the United States would impose a 25 percent tariff on steel and 10 percent on aluminum imports on every country in the world. After the initial announcement, the administration temporarily exempted some key allies but is still threatening to drop that exemption if it does not get other trade concessions by June, which the European Union says would lead to significant retaliation in the form of tariffs on key U.S. exports. Doubling down on the trade front, in early May a U.S. delegation led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin traveled to Beijing to demand that China reduce its trade deficit with the United States by $200 billion (doubling previous demands), end all subsidies for high-technology industries, and sharply cut its tariffs on U.S. goods, lest the United States impose new tariffs on some $150 billion of Chinese exports. The demands are bold and unprecedented, and China has threatened massive tariffs on U.S. products in response.
The new Trump is also putting a new team in place to pursue this agenda: after a year of changing his policies to fit with his advisers he is now changing his advisers to fit with his policies. Moderates such as economic adviser Cohn, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster are all out, and hardline nationalists such as Mike Pompeo and John Bolton are in. Pompeo has shown himself to be a loyal and articulate proponent of the Trump view of the world, and Bolton embodies the disruptive, ideological “America First” nationalist agenda that Tillerson and McMaster sought to contain. It was probably not a coincidence that just one month into Bolton’s tenure as national security adviser, Trump not only finally fulfilled his pledge to end compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, but did so while rejecting far-reaching European offers to accommodate his demands to revise that deal and while re-imposing sanctions that targeted the European allies themselves. The way the Iran deal was terminated – against the will of most of America’s international partners, despite a unanimously supported U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing it, and with Trump promising confrontation with Iran from the White House with Bolton looking on – epitomized the change in the administration’s approach to the world. It took almost a year and a half, but it looks like Trump is going to be a radical foreign policy president after all.
What explains Trump’s apparent new course, and where did my earlier analysis go wrong? First, it remains glaringly true that on many issues Trump has no fixed views, and his capacity to contradict previous statements without apparent embarrassment remains unparalleled. But it also turns out that on certain issues he is consistent and passionate. These include a profound aversion to free trade and immigration, resentment of the need for compromise with allies, and an appreciation for authoritarian strongmen. The new Trump seems increasingly to pursue policies that reflect those core instincts, regardless of the consequences of doing so.
Second, I overstated, at least ultimately, the ability of advisers to constrain him. To be sure, they did so for a while on everything from trade to torture, NATO to Afghanistan and Iran. But Trump clearly chafed under these constraints and after a year just couldn’t stand it any longer. In my original article, I had predicted his “more level-headed Cabinet officials might be able to stop him from tearing up treaty commitments or authorizing ill-advised air-strikes, but they probably cannot prevent him from causing serious diplomatic incidents in ad-libbed calls with foreign leaders or in angry, after-midnight tweets.” Now it appears they can’t even prevent him from tearing up the commitments, either.
Third, Trump’s desire to be different from Barack Obama – or for that matter all of his predecessors – also appears to be an ultimately uncontainable force. When the president talks about ripping up the Iran deal, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or sitting down with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, he seems more focused on how it distinguishes him from his predecessors than on the alleged benefits such moves are meant to deliver. “I get a big, big, kick out of that,” Trump admitted recently about the prospect of “watching people that failed so badly over the last 25 years explaining to me how to make a deal with North Korea.”
Finally, I was wrong about the way Trump’s need for adulation and appreciation would play out. I thought it might prevent him from doing things that could alienate majorities of Americans and imperil his reputation and presidency. But Trump seems to care less about winning a broad base of support – perhaps he’s given up on that – than about deepening it among his most committed backers. Moves like ending the Iran deal, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and pulling out of the Paris climate accord were all opposed by strong majorities of Americans, but they were wildly popular among sections of Trump’s base. The president would clearly rather win wild applause from a narrow slice of Americans than try to satisfy the rest of them.
So what next? Maybe getting my initial assessment at least partly wrong disqualifies me from speculating about where these conclusions lead, but it does seem to me the trend now points even more in the direction of more controversial moves, and increased risk and instability. Trump clearly loves the attention his bold recent moves are generating, and probably also welcomes them as distractions from his mounting domestic political and legal problems. Killing the Iran deal on national television, greeting North Korean hostages on the tarmac at 3 a.m. (while noting the television ratings), and flying off to Singapore for the spectacle of a historic summit with Kim provide at least some relief from the daily stories about FBI raids on his personal lawyer, lawsuits from porn stars and ethical breaches of so many of his Cabinet members.
And here’s the worst news of all: As the Mueller investigation moves inexorably forward, and especially if Democrats take control of the Congress in November, we can probably expect Trump – like Nixon during Watergate – to turn even more to foreign policy, where presidential action is less constrained. That does not necessarily mean that Trump will eventually walk away from NAFTA, start a trade war with China, pull out of NATO if allies don’t spend more, or use force against North Korea or Iran, but it does mean that all of these things are considerably more likely than they were before. Trump 2.0 has arrived, and with it comes a growing risk the system will crash.