The 8-month tenure of Donald Trump at the White House has been a dense period for observers of US foreign policy, with a confusing succession of stances, announcements and new operators. It was thus that “Guessing on US Foreign Policy” was chosen as title for the public discussion held at the GCSP on Thursday 14th September with Dr James Lindsay, Senior Vice President of the Council on Foreign Relations, an authority on the American foreign policy-making process at this leading US think tank. Opening the discussion moderated by Associate Fellow Dr Paul Vallet, Dr Lindsay offered three remarks. Firstly, Donald Trump took office having campaigned on the promise of a US foreign policy conducted with different methods and aims than those of the previous administrations. Secondly, the past eight months have shown that it is much harder than expected to conduct a disruption of the US foreign policy process. Thirdly, the conjuncture of events, relations with Russia that remain tense, a deepening nuclear and security crisis on the Korean peninsula, and a conflict-ridden Middle East region all present challenges to this ambition of a different US foreign policy as promised by Donald Trump.
Conducting US foreign policy with different methods and aims amounts to an indictment of all previous presidencies. The ambition of “America first”, while distinct from the purely isolationist views of Sen. Rand Paul, aims to indict the trading partners and security partners of the US for benefitting at American expense. Donald Trump’s agenda is conceived with no sentimental or intellectual attachment to the previous liberal internationalist order, to be replaced by bilateral deals negotiated on nationalist and transactional terms.
The difficulties in actually disrupting the policy-making process stem in complications that were not expected, especially by a team with no experience of government, but also a fair amount of push-back both from domestic policy actors and by foreign actors. The numerous communications over Twitter reflect this frustration. Close advisors from the early days, Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon, have had to leave office, with the new White House chief of staff John Kelly now trying to organize the presidential office as it was under predecessors. A more “traditional” and “globalist” entourage with the Secretaries of State and Defense, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis and the National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, weighs in, and the Congressional majority has also raised its profile against the presidency’s, in particular in deepening sanctions against Russia and repealing the proposed budget cuts in foreign operations. Much of the change announced by Trump has thus not materialized. While there has been a step back from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and from the Paris Climate Change Accord, there has yet been no abandonment of the One China policy, no withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, no withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, no improvement of relations with Russia, no denunciation of the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article V, no building of a wall on the Mexican border, no shift of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem… There is also an ambition to overhaul the US State Department, but this represents a formidable and complicated task alongside conducting policy, the more so while the foreign policy positions requiring presidential nominations and congressional confirmations remain critically and deliberately under-staffed.
While there is uncertainty on the achievement of Donald Trump’s announced diplomatic disruption, the international context itself is challenging. The hoped-for reset of relations with Russia is difficult to bring about because Congress’ attitude has hardened against it, and the 17 agencies of the US Intelligence Community hold a consensual view that Russia interfered in the 2016 US elections. Added to this, Russian foreign policy has not been altered and several of the Eastern and Northern European partners of the US still feel threatened. In Asia, the progress of North Korea’s ballistic and nuclear programs towards a capacity to hit US territory is a game changer and as challenging as if Hillary Clinton had been president. Tackling the challenge requires assistance from China which, despite a Trump charm offensive, is still limited in restraining a very determined push by Pyongyang to secure those strike capabilities.
At the close of the conversation, while observing that the announced disruptions to the international order and to US foreign policy have not fully taken place, but also remarking that traditional US policy values have been under assault, one can retain the impression that “guessing on US foreign policy” may continue some more time under this administration given its challenges and limitations. Neither the international nor the domestic US political contexts offer easy circumstances for the definition or accomplishment of Donald Trump’s stated objectives, whose measure of success will also be complicated to determine.