Trump’s foreign policy

Donald Trump’s foreign policy amounts to saying one thing and practicing the other. On one hand he seems to be fairly orthodox in approach, harsh on the Chinese and the Russians rhetorically, while on the other hand being fairly light on application. Yet when observed closely it is a fire and fallback routine that puzzles both friend and foe.

Now in Trump’s defense, he simply calls China and Russia “rivals,” which is just stating facts. He did not stoop to grandstanding when Russia was faced with an internal problem. Mike Pompeo, the director of Central Intelligence, alerted the Russian government to a terrorist threat, an action which Vladimir Putin thanked Trump for. What Trump’s intentions are is “peace through strength,” a not unreasonable goal. It is certainly not bellicose in intention.

Same with China. Trump now focuses more on bilateral diplomacy rather than being dependent of multilateral organizations. For the president it is an assertion of American power without the moral lectures on the internal interference. Under this formula all states are potential friends, as well as possible enemies. No prerequisites are set, only interests are on the table. It may certainly easier than dealing with a power that uses good and evil as a debating point.

But there are drawbacks. Trump’s go-it-alone policy is a strain on allies. His withdrawal from the Transpacific Trade Agreement, the Paris Climate Accord and the Iranian Nuclear Deal resurrected the specter of the unilateral actions of President George W. Bush. His recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital served to divide America’s allies.

But it is an exception rather than a rule with Trump. Certainly Nikki Haley, the highly inarticulate United Nation’s Ambassador, recalled the days of Samantha Powers, Obama’s representative. But Trump has allies in the United States on this point; the Democrats in the House and Senate scrambled on the Jerusalem bandwagon. In tone and directness, Trump differs from Obama but not in substance. Remember Obama advocated such a move in 2009 and the first presidential candidate to advocate for the transfer was Democrat Gary Hart in 1984. Only overseas was the move condemned.

The Jerusalem issues, as well other moves, underscore a chief weakness in American foreign affairs. Domestic politics arguably plays a greater role in determining actions diplomatically than it should. Trump is certainly not alone there. What makes him different is that he expresses interests, such as economic and military power, as the paramount goals. Every other administration shares this, but is not so direct.

Despite Trump’s clumsiness he has forged a foreign policy that has dialed down the rhetoric as to the more unworthiness of an opponent. Perhaps it is unwise; the United States is not as strong as in 1972, and China and Russia are more advanced technologically than in past eras. But it is an approach that for all its swagger might be sound and safe.