Over at The National Interest, I review some recent articles (e.g. here, here and here) claiming that President Donald Trump has completely reoriented U.S. foreign policy in the span of one year. If true, that would be a pretty mean feat. After all, Barack Obama claimed to have tried to do the same thing, and he essentially admitted to being rolled by what Obama adviser Ben Rhodes labeled “the blob.”
But, it turns out, it isn’t true. Trump hasn’t, for example, restructured U.S. alliances.
On the contrary, he allowed Montenegro’s admission to NATO to go forward, the first new member in ten years. Last month, he backed the sale of weapons to Ukraine’s government as it struggles to put down a Russia-backed insurgency. He increased the number of U.S. troops in Europe. None of these decisions advance U.S. security—arguably, they undermine it—so it is hardly consistent with what most Americans think of when they hear “America First.”
Aside from his running feud with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the U.S. presence in Asia remains largely unchanged.
The U.S. Navy continues to operate extensively throughout the Asia-Pacific. There are still tens of thousands of troops in Korea and Japan, and the Trump administration has shown no signs of reducing that permanent presence, despite the president’s stated misgivings, and the dubious connection between such a presence and U.S. safety.
And, in the Greater Middle East, Trump’s approach isn’t so different from Obama and Bush 43, except for the fact that many more civilians are being killed. And Trump’s decision to continue the war in Afghanistan indefinitely provides the most obvious evidence that the foreign policy establishment is winning.
“To be sure,” I observe:
Donald Trump has pushed through a number of changes to U.S. foreign policy that neither Obama nor Clinton would have (e.g. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; reversal on better relations with Cuba; threats to undo the Iran nuclear deal; calls for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital). Indeed, if there is a single theme connecting his disparate actions it seems to be “If Obama did it, it must be wrong.” But, on matters of substance, and particularly with respect to the U.S. global military posture, Donald Trump hasn’t changed that much.
So, why all the fuss? Because Trump is different. Words matter, and Trump’s Twitter rants and ill-considered off-hand comments have not made us, or the world, safer.
Unsurprisingly, European leaders, from Angela Merkel to Emmanuel Macron to Theresa May, have pushed back against Trump–but also, more broadly, against U.S. leadership. “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands,” Merkel said in May. “The times in which we can fully count on others—they are somewhat over.”
She’s not alone. “Germany can no longer simply react to U.S. policy but must establish its own position,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel explained in early December, “even after Trump leaves the White House, relations with the U.S. will never be the same.”
To be honest, I think we should be encouraged that the leaders of other countries, appropriately unsettled by Trump’s unpredictability, now question the wisdom of basing their security on the wishes and whims of an American president–even if future chief executives aren’t as mercurial as Donald J. Trump. Whether they act on those concerns, however, remains to be seen. A lot will depend not on what Trump says, but on what he actually does.
In the meantime, I conclude:
We should be disappointed…that concerns about Trump and Trumpism haven’t prompted a more serious debate over the future of U.S. foreign policy. Instead we get lamentations that all is lost, followed by a forlorn hope to go back to the way it was before.
You can read the whole thing here.