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Donald Trump's Real Foreign

Policy Has Arrived

February 9, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: Donald Trump,

Realist, Foreign Policy, War, Venezuela

Does Trump indeed mark the end of an era? Or will he

prove a transitory gure who created a mere
interregnum in America's quest for primacy after the
Cold War?

by Jacob Heilbrunn L
ow that he has been in o ce for two years,
Donald Trump is moving to assert control over
foreign a airs. The most prominent members of
his original foreign policy team—Rex Tillerson,
H.R. McMaster, James N. Mattis and Nikki Haley—are gone.
Their departure has provoked consternation among those
members of the foreign policy elite who viewed them as the
“adults in the room,” as the popular phrase had it, who
would restrain Trump himself.

During his rst two years, Trump took several steps that
appealed to his base—abandoning the Iran nuclear deal,
withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, imposing trade
tari s and demanding that NATO allies contribute more
nancially—but he did not fundamentally reorient
American foreign policy. In recent months, with his
declarations that he wishes to withdraw American troops
from Syria as well as Afghanistan, Trump has signaled that
he is returning to the precepts that he enunciated in 2016.
But as Trump—besieged by the Russia investigation and
stymied on the domestic front—lashes out against his real
and perceived enemies, there are ample grounds to wonder
whether he can really ful ll his decades-long exhortation
for American retrenchment.

There can be no doubting that Trump himself remains

undaunted by the serial controversies that have engulfed
his administration. Trump, who has never been shy about
touting his accomplishments, o ered his own assessment
of his record this past November in an interview published
in the new book by Corey R. Lewandowski and David N.
Bossie, Trump’s Enemies . In it, Trump suggested that even
Reagan, the most hallowed gure in the modern Republican
pantheon, was already eclipsed by him, the sun around
which all members of the GOP must now orbit. According to
Trump, “the amazing thing is that you have certain people
who are conservative Republicans that if my name weren’t
Trump, if it were John Smith, they would say I’m the
greatest president in history and I blow Ronald Reagan
away.” A more quali ed verdict was rendered by Henry
Kissinger during an interview with Edward Luce of the
Financial Times :

I think Trump may be one of those gures in history who

appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to
force it to give up its old pretenses. It doesn’t necessarily mean
that he knows this, or that he is considering any great
alternative. It could just be an accident.

Does Trump indeed mark the end of an era? Or will he prove

a transitory gure who created a mere interregnum in
America’s quest for primacy after the Cold War? In speaking
about America’s purpose, Trump himself has repeatedly
made it clear that he seeks to overturn what he regards as
the benighted policies of the past. In contrast to his
predecessors, Trump has repeatedly disparaged the notion
that America is uniquely virtuous. In his inaugural address,
he thus signaled that the era of American exceptionalism—
the notion that America is an indispensable nation, to
borrow former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s
wording, that can set wrong aright—was coming to an
abrupt terminus. “We do not seek to impose our way of life
on anyone,” said Trump, “but rather to let it shine as an
example. We will shine for everyone to follow.”

In his hostility to the European Union—he referred to it in

July as a “foe”—Trump has made it plain that he wants to
deal with states on an individual basis when it comes to
trade matters, which is why he has urged Britain, among
other things, to ful ll Brexit and conclude a separate deal
with America. Similarly, he appears to regard America’s
European allies as, more often than not, mendacious
mendicants who are failing to ful ll their scal obligations
to NATO, on the one hand, and exploiting America
economically, on the other. Like Lord Palmerston, who
declared “we have no eternal allies, and no perpetual
enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those
interests it is our duty to follow,” Trump’s inclinations are
for independence, not interdependence. As Lord Macaulay
put it in an 1845 parliamentary speech on the propriety of
sugar duties:

I do not say that we ought to prefer the happiness of one

particular society to the happiness of mankind; but I say that, by
exerting ourselves to promote the happiness of the society with
which we are most nearly connected, and with which we are
best acquainted, we shall do more to promote the happiness of
mankind than by busying ourselves about matters which we do
not fully understand, and cannot e ciently control.

But Trump’s velleities on foreign a airs are one thing. The

ability to translate them into actual policies is another. In
an essay in Foreign A airs , Thomas Wright, a senior fellow
at the Brookings Institution, discerned an embryonic
Trump doctrine:

For the rst time, observers can identify a uni ed, if still
incomplete, Trump foreign policy in which the administration
accommodates the president’s impulses and seeks to act on
them. This uni ed foreign policy is one in which the Trump
administration has no permanent friends and no permanent
enemies. It takes a transactional approach with all nations,
places little value in historical ties, and seeks immediate
bene ts ranging from trade and procurement to diplomatic

But this uni ed eld theory of Trump foreign policy may

inadvertently ascribe more coherence to it than actually
exists. On a variety of issues, ranging from Syria to Russia,
dissension, not unanimity, appears to characterize the
administration’s stands. Director of National Intelligence
Daniel Coats testi ed to the Senate in January that North
Korea is unlikely to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. What’s
more, CIA director Gina Haspel stated that Iran is
complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Trump responded with a belligerent series of tweets
chastising the intelligence agencies. In short, the president
can propose, but his o cials dispose.

Trump’s new crop of cabinet o cials has often sought to

split the di erence with him rather than engage in open
confrontation. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
delivered a speech in Brussels in December, for example, he
sought to anneal Trumpian nationalism to a traditional
Reaganite crusading foreign policy. He decried the
shortcomings of various international organizations, from
the European Union to the United Nations, and stated that
multilateralism could become an “end in itself.” In a
January 24 interview with Martha MacCallum of Fox News,
he equivocated when asked whether the United States would
come to the aid of new NATO member Montenegro: “I’m
not going to get into hypotheticals about what might
happen or how a certain scenario might unfold, but make no
mistake about it: America has always been there when there
were important American and global interests at stake.”

Throughout, Pompeo has made it apparent that he views

America as Mr. Big. In Brussels, Pompeo declared,

This is what President Trump is doing. He is returning the

United States to its traditional, central leadership role in the
world. He sees the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. He
knows that nothing can replace the nation-state as the
guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests. He
knows, as George H.W. Bush knew, that a safer world has
consistently demanded American courage on the world stage.

Pompeo is championing a hawkish posture toward Iran in

the conviction that it can lead to internal regime change.
Writing in Foreign A airs , Pompeo extolled the power of
“moral clarity”—a term straight out of neocon 101—in
dealing with Iran and North Korea: “President Trump’s
actions in confronting outlaw regimes stem from the belief
that moral confrontation leads to diplomatic conciliation.”
One area where Pompeo may be able to claim success is in
speeding the departure of American troops from
Afghanistan. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad is
negotiating with the Taliban to secure a peace deal—one
that would include an enforcement clause that ensures they
oppose any attempts by Al Qaeda or the Islamic State to
establish bases in Afghanistan. But as Seth G. Jones
carefully explains in this issue, the path to exiting is strewn
with serious obstacles.

Then there is National Security Adviser John Bolton. The

rumbustious Bolton has targeted international
organizations and nuked the Intermediate-Range Nuclear
Forces treaty between Washington and Moscow, all with
Trump’s approbation. Trump has also rebu ed his e orts to
torpedo peace talks with North Korea. But most recently,
Bolton has sought to impede Trump’s expressed wish to
depart Syria. While meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli prime
minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December, Bolton openly
contradicted Trump. He indicated that the Trump
administration would not exit Syria precipitously.
According to Bolton, “There are objectives that we want to
accomplish that condition the withdrawal. The timetable
ows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”
In addition, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Bolton
repeatedly solicited plans for a military attack on Iran,
starting in the fall of 2018—a move that alarmed defense
department o cials. The Trump administration is hardly
the rst to feature rival factions within its ranks. The
Reagan administration, for instance, featured erce battles
between Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and
Secretary of State George Shultz over the presence of
American troops in Lebanon in 1983. But the Trump
administration appears to be the rst in which the president
and his foreign policy team continue, at times, to work at
cross purposes.

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