Donald Trump’s first two months in office were focused principally on domestic policy, but over the past few weeks, international events have jumped to the top of the agenda. He met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, ordered a missile strike in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people in Syria, claimed to have directed an ‘armada’ towards North Korea and sent Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Moscow.
In January, my co-authors and I examined all these issues in a Chatham House Report on America’s International Role Under Donald Trump, which concluded that, as the campaign bluster faded away, a number of constraining factors – domestic, international and personality driven – would provide the guidelines for Trump’s foreign policy. Recent events have revealed how this is playing out.
In our report, we suggested that US economic priorities would trump (excuse the pun) other interests, such as the territorial concerns of US allies. We also noted that Trump would grasp opportunities where possible, and only push back if directly wronged. Trump needs to be seen to ensure the wellbeing of his voters, from American business to the disenfranchised.
All this was clearly manifest in his meeting with President Xi. Rather than berate Xi over currency manipulation or impose high import tariffs as he threatened to do in the campaign, he suggested that ‘tremendous progress’ had been made, starting with a positive first step in US–China relations (although, if China doesn’t follow through with action, he could quickly turn negative).
North Korea provides him with an opportunity to show that he can use American strength unilaterally, even if it means ignoring the capabilities and perhaps the interests of key allies. Of course it is all about hard power; he has exhibited no interest in soft power, which, given how much it has diminished with his election, is realistic. Trump is belligerent in word and (belatedly) action, but it’s not clear what the follow through might be.
President Trump surprised many with his use of cruise missiles against the Assad regime’s airbase at Shayrat. Some have suggested that this is a reversion to a more ‘humanitarian’ America. And yet, such an interpretation would be against everything that Trump has said thus far.
Instead, the strike conformed to his preferred modus operandi: it disregarded established multilateral structures, promoted his reputation for unpredictability and again showed that America can be strong. The strike is more probably a unique event, unlikely to be repeated. While Trump voters oppose a sustained campaign in Syria, and the cost is prohibitive, Trump is unlikely to follow through.
American commentary in the first months of the Trump presidency suggested a ‘love-in’ between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was never going to be the case.
While a short-term ‘deal’ might have been (and might still be) possible, it would not have lasted. Trump’s interest where Russia is concerned is counterterrorism. Putin needs to step up in this area and, while it should be possible to align this with Russia’s support of Assad, treading that fine line was always going to be extremely difficult. Trump was further constrained by his Cabinet, his bureaucracy and, as importantly, Congress, none of whom trust Putin. So, instead of a love-in, we have the more likely outcome of Tillerson’s visit: a wary and antagonistic relationship.
The Trump doctrine?
Trump’s foreign policy doctrine will be guided, as it is for all presidents, by America’s interests and its constraints. America’s interests have not changed from those under President Obama and Trump’s actions to date have only imposed more constraints.
Seen through these lenses, Trump’s policies over the past few weeks largely conform to a pattern. Trump is not only constrained domestically by his voters and the American economy, but also by his cabinet and a divided Congress. He is limited internationally by perceptions of Western decline and a distracted (and increasingly populist) Europe. And he is limited by his own personality, which has fuelled concerns about US unreliability.
Thus, his recent actions amount less to a new ‘Trump doctrine’ than the president confronting reality.
Xenia Wickett, Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs.