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America First? Not So Fast! What We’ve Learned from 100 Days of Trump Foreign Policy

A. Trevor Thrall and John Glaser

After President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, a
“Trump doctrine” has yet to emerge fully, but one
important lesson is already clear: making radical changes in
American foreign policy is very difficult.

Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 election portended
a dramatic break with the traditional approach to American foreign
policy. Since World War II, no other presidential candidate from
either party had ever challenged the liberal internationalist
strategy of the United States so explicitly, or so
successfully.

His populist campaign slogan, “America First,” was
never a precise guide to his thinking, but the outlines of a
doctrine were always visible. In addition to disavowing the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, forswearing nation-building, and criticizing
the uneven costs of alliances and the liberal world order, Trump
staked out a nationalist agenda that included protectionist trade
policies, stricter immigration policies, and a more hawkish
approach to combating the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

But after all the talk on the campaign trail, it’s hard to
find many clear signs of Trump’s “America First”
strategy or radical shifts in U.S. foreign policy. Even
Trump’s own team is having trouble. At a planning session to
discuss messaging about Trump’s first 100 days, in fact,
communications advisor Mike Dubke told staffers that foreign affairs was going to
be a challenge because “[t]here is no Trump doctrine.”
At least on paper, he was correct. The list of “America
First” successes is short. Trump did sign an executive order
officially withdrawing the United States from the Trans Pacific
Partnership trade deal. But since that deal was already dead in
Congress, the move was mostly symbolic.

Trump has discovered what
all new presidents learn: It’s easy to call for change, but hard to
make it.

Meanwhile, the list of unfulfilled promises remains long. There
is no border wall. There is no ban on Muslims entering the country.
The Iran deal remains intact. Trump has not yet renegotiated NAFTA,
nor has he gotten tough with China on trade. The United States
remains embroiled in nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, Trump
bombed the Syrian regime, and we continue to reassure treaty allies
with reliable security guarantees. In essence, Trump has discovered
what all new presidents learn: It’s easy to call for change,
but hard to make it. It is much easier to tweak a policy than to
overhaul it completely. In fact, on issue after issue, the Trump
administration appears to be settling into an approach to foreign
policy that exhibits more continuity with past administration than
divergence. The reasons for this are important, but also can shed
light on how the next few years of the Trump presidency are likely
to shake out.

Political Reality

In part, the lack of follow-through is what happens to every
president’s campaign rhetoric when it meets political
reality. Though “America First” worked well for Trump
on the campaign trail, he quickly discovered that his slogans
weren’t much of a guide once he was in charge. After calling
NATO obsolete, for example, Trump changed his mind after he learned
more about it, acknowledging that, “People don’t go
around asking about NATO if I’m building a building in
Manhattan, right?” Rather than pulling out of the alliance or
calling for major changes to the American role in NATO, Trump has
limited himself to nagging allies to increase defense spending,
just as every president before him has done. Similarly, after
promising to rip up NAFTA, a trade deal he repeatedly called
a “disaster,” the administration has recalculated after
hearing from a chorus of potential opponents to the move. As a
result, Trump now plans to seek more modest amendments to the agreement.

In other cases, Trump appears to have changed his mind about the
political costs of radical change once in power. When Trump
confronted Chinese President Xi Jinping about North Korea, for
example, he got a crash course on the issue and changed his mind.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so
easy,” Trump admitted. “I felt pretty strongly that
[China] had tremendous power” over North Korea, “but
it’s not what you would think.” Trump also discovered
that a lot of what he thought he knew just wasn’t so, including the fact that,
contrary to his own repeated claims, China was no longer engaged in currency manipulation.

Institutional Roadblocks

Trump has also run into the institutional roadblocks that stand
ready to frustrate all presidents. As much power as presidents
wield in the national security realm, many policies require the
help or approval of other branches of government. Trump’s
executive order to restrict travel from seven,
later six, Muslim-majority nations, for example, has twice been
blocked by the federal courts and will have to overcome
constitutional challenges before it comes into effect.

Nor has Congress been any more helpful with Trump’s
signature issue, the Mexican border wall. Trump issued an executive order calling for the immediate
construction of the wall, but the follow through will depend on
Trump getting funding from Congress. However, now
that Mexico’s leaders have said they won’t pay for it,
Congressional Republicans have made it clear that they are not willing to pony up either.

The Rest of the World

Another challenge to Trump’s efforts is that the rest of
the world is not making it easy to change gears. Thanks to
long-standing expectations of American leadership, the pressure to
act in response to events abroad can be overwhelming. The best
example of this is the Assad regime’s use of sarin gas against
civilians in Idlib
. After seeing graphic images of the tragedy,
Trump felt compelled to respond with military force. He did so
despite having opposed a similar attack in Syria when Obama
was in office. The inconsistency between Trump’s
“America First” campaign rhetoric, and his behavior as
president, reveals how difficult it is to resist the pressure to
play global policeman.

In other cases, change is difficult because the facts on the
ground simply leave little room for strategic innovation. North
Korea’s development of long-range missiles and nuclear
weapons continues to provoke U.S. concerns, but despite tough talk
the Trump administration has few real options other than to work
with China and others in pursuit of a diplomatic solution.
Likewise, Trump’s desire to pursue a more aggressive campaign
against the Islamic State is stunted by the fact that there is
simply no way to speed up the battle short of sending tens of
thousands of American troops back into harm’s way. As a
result, Trump’s Islamic State strategy looks a lot like an
amped-up version of Obama’s strategy.

Where Art Thou, America Firsters?

Another factor in Trump’s gradual bend towards foreign
policy convention comes down to personnel. So far, Trump has
only managed to confirm 22 of the more than 500 federal
appointments that require Senate confirmation, many of them in the
national security realm. This makes implementing policy, never mind
tectonic shifts in strategic posture, much harder.

The personnel shortage influences even the highest reaches of
Trump’s own cabinet. Early on, the prominence of volatile
hawks like retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and brash ideologues like
Steve Bannon produced an approach that tended to amplify
Trump’s policy illiteracy and spurn the experts within the
national security bureaucracy. Now, with Flynn ousted and Bannon possibly marginalized, mainstream Republican foreign
policy views held by people like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis,
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki
Haley have gained greater purchase in the White House’s
approach to the world.

The ascendance of more traditional Republican foreign policy
officials has coincided with Trump’s decision to give greater
leeway to military leaders. President Obama was sometimes
criticized for micro-managing military actions in Afghanistan, the
fight against the Islamic State, and the drone war. Trump has gone the other way and authorized the military to engage in
airstrikes, special operations raids, and troop deployments with
wide latitude. This has necessarily meant an
approach more in line with traditional U.S. foreign policy and less
consistent with “America First” ideas.

A more fundamental challenge underlying the personnel issue is
the fact that, for more than 70 years, Washington has been
dominated by a particular set of ideas about the need for a grand
strategy of deep engagement, an activist foreign policy, and
American leadership of the international system. Staffing the
executive branch with “America Firsters” is hard to do
— mainly because they don’t exist anywhere in the
Washington foreign policy community. As a result, when Trump gets
advice from mainstream military leaders and other veteran policy
advisors about Syria, North Korea, or Russia, their advice comes
steeped in the assumptions of liberal internationalism.

Process Trumps Doctrine

But perhaps most detrimental to Trump’s “America
First” vision is the fact that the Trump doctrine has taken a
backseat to the Trump process.

For starters, Trump does not seem entirely wedded to his own
“America First” doctrine. Despite the manifestly
ideological nature of the Trump campaign, to most observers it
looks like Trump — for good or ill – simply does not yet have well-formed
opinions about how to confront the many foreign policy challenges
the United States faces. As president, Trump thus appears to be
ideologically unmoored, priding himself on “flexibility,” and eager to abandon ideas
that helped get him elected if they seem to hamper effective
governance. The result has been a series of flip-flops on matters
of policy without a hint of hesitation or shame.

The lack of ideological principle translates to a lack of
strategic deliberation. Trump’s missile strikes on Syria and
his saber rattling on North Korea both smack of a desire to look
tough, but neither are part of a serious broader strategy. The
Syria strikes will not mitigate the humanitarian suffering there
and were not even intended to affect the balance of power in the
civil war. And the threats of preventive war on North Korea
won’t compel Pyongyang to denuclearize. In the absence of an
overarching ideological or strategic approach, short-term tactical
considerations tailored to achieve quick but small wins rule the
day.

The “America First” program remains at the mercy of
Trump’s personality and governing style. On this score, a
review of his first 100 days in office makes clear that Trump
injects an element of unpredictability to the entire foreign policy
enterprise. Trump’s tendency to comment on breaking news and
to create foreign policy on the fly via Twitter, often without warning
his senior advisors first, not only worries old foreign policy
hands but raises the chances that Trump will call an audible rather
than stick to the “America First” playbook. Perhaps the
only consistent theme in Trump’s approach is the desire to

bolster
his
domestic legitimacy and shore up American prestige abroad
.
Those motivations, we note, have so far pushed Trump toward greater
foreign policy activism, not “America First”
isolationism.

What Does the Next Hundred Days Hold?

At just 100 days in it is impossible to know what form a Trump
doctrine will finally take. Given how much momentum the status quo
has, and how lightly Trump appears to hold his vision of America
First, the most likely outcome is something that looks a great deal
like the strategy of liberal hegemony pursued by the past two
presidencies. Trump will fight terrorism, support America’s
global alliance system, and continue to field the world’s
largest and most capable military, occasionally using it to
intervene abroad out of humanitarian and security concerns.

Nonetheless it is certainly possible that the rest of
Trump’s term will look more “America First” than
the first 100 days have. Though overhauling NATO or significantly
reducing America’s role in the world will be difficult, with
time, Trump might overcome some of the institutional roadblocks on
immigration reform and economic protectionism.

Domestic political pressures may also encourage Trump to seek a
deeper embrace of America First. In the short term, Trump may get
away with experiments in foreign policy that depart from his
rhetoric. But Trump eventually faces the prospect of a second
presidential campaign. And though foreign policy typically plays a
muted role in elections, the genius of Trump’s vision of
“America First” was the way it connected foreign
affairs with domestic outcomes. Trump criticized intervention and
nation-building because they hurt working Americans. For Trump,
unlike for other presidents, pursuing an interventionist and
internationalist foreign policy risks abandoning his political
base. Thus, as his term proceeds, Trump may feel the need to take a
more visibly nationalist approach to foreign policy to boost his
chances for reelection.

Trevor
Thrall
is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and associate
professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George
Mason University. John Glaser is
Associate Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.