Donald Trump’s comments about U.S. foreign policy during the 2016 election campaign offered some promise of a policy bright spot in what was otherwise likely to be a dismal, if not alarming administration. Trump condemned the Iraq War for the folly it was and he displayed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the entire concept of nation building. He also subjected Washington’s long-standing alliances in Europe and East Asia to withering criticism. Trump quite accurately termed NATO “obsolete,” and he took allies in both regions (as well as countries such as Saudi Arabia) to task for shamelessly free riding on America’s security exertions. Such comments continued even when he became president-elect.
Unfortunately, hopes for a more focused and enlightened U.S. foreign policy are fading fast. Trump administration officials had barely arranged the personal photos in their new offices before adopting a belligerent policy toward Iran. The imposition of new sanctions on Tehran threatens to derail a bilateral relationship that had shown cautious signs of improvement under Barack Obama. Trump seems even to be backing away from his call for improved relations with Russia. Expectations for an easing of sanctions against Moscow are at least on hold, and the president’s initial telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin apparently included comments sharply criticizing the New Start Treaty on nuclear weapons as unfairly limiting Washington’s ability to modernize and possibly expand its nuclear arsenal. That’s not a very astute way to begin a process of rapprochement.
Worse yet, as I discuss in a new article in the National Interest Online, Trump and his advisers are beating a rapid retreat from his critical comments about Washington’s alliances. One of his first actions as president was to reassure German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders that he regarded NATO as having “the utmost importance.” Why an alliance that he had repeatedly termed obsolete now possessed such importance Trump did not explain.
The president also dispatched Secretary of Defense James Mattis on a trip to East Asia to reassure both Japan and South Korea of America’s undying devotion to their security. Trump himself did the same during his just-completed summit meeting at the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.