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Trump’s Foreign Policy, One Year In

Sahar Khan

President Trump was elected on the promise to make America great again.
As best as one can decipher from a campaign that consistently
contradicted itself and was headed by a candidate with no real
foreign policy experience, this meant prioritizing U.S. interests
and security and improving America’s standing in the
world.

Russia and China’s growing assertiveness, fears over
terrorism and cyber security, and costly military quagmires
Afghanistan and Iraq certainly indicated a need to reassess
American foreign policy. Yet, after a year in office, it remains
unclear how the president’s approach to foreign policy will
accomplish this reassessment. The bigger question: what are the
core principles of Trump’s foreign policy? And how have these
principles affected U.S. interests and status in the world?

The Trump Doctrine seems to consist of three characteristics:
protectionist trade policies (dubbed “economic
nationalism
”), cracking down on immigration in the name
of security (e.g., the current travel ban), and
basing foreign policy decisions on personal relationships rather
than strategic interests.

A year of the Trump
Doctrine has not fundamentally changed U.S. interests or U.S.
foreign policy, but has eroded the moral high ground the United
States’ used to enjoy – and use to its advantage.

The first two characteristics of Trump’s foreign policy
approach are deeply ideological. For example, Trump’s
withdrawal from the
Trans-Pacific
Partnership
trade agreement was based on the notion that the
agreement was taking jobs away from
Americans. In reality, the TPP would have expanded economic
freedom
and was projected to increase growth and
American jobs. While NAFTA may not suffer the same fate as the TPP,
Trump’s insistence on renegotiating parts of it is creating
tension between the
United States and its two neighbors, Mexico and Canada.

Similarly, the president’s focus on countering terrorism
via immigration, which he suggests is the most prominent threat to
the American homeland, ignores empirical evidence saying otherwise.
Not only is 99.7 percent of migration
legal
, but the greater threat facing the U.S. homeland is
coming from domestic right-wing
groups
. It is not coming from refugees nor is it
coming from Muslim migrants inspired by jihadism.
Furthermore, none of the countries listed in the travel
ban
have been responsible for terrorist attacks within the
United States.

The most disturbing characteristic, however, remains the
president’s penchant for choosing inexperienced
national security officials as top foreign policy advisors. For
instance, the president chose Rex Tillerson, the ex-CEO of
ExxonMobil, to lead the State Department. Tillerson, however, had
no foreign policy experience, which was blatantly obvious during
his confirmation hearing,
but was offered the position because of his business expertise. As
a result, the State Department is in disarray and roughly
half of the positions, including an ambassadorship to South Korea,
remain empty. Similarly,
Trump named Jared Kushner a senior advisor to the
White House simply because he is the president’s son-in-law.
In his capacity, Kushner is tasked with addressing some of the most
intractable international disputes and routinely meets with other
world leaders; he was just recently in Saudi Arabia – his
third trip this year.

The president’s nepotism, contempt for the political
process and democratic institutions, and attempts to discredit the
media by making claims of “fake news” and
“alternative facts” are all hallmarks of authoritarianism.
Trump continues to surround himself with yes-men (and women, like
UN Ambassador Nikki Haley),
resulting in a self-proclaimed
foreign policy of “principled realism,” which is in
fact inconsistent,
incoherent, and bears
little resemblance to realism.

Still, Trump has yet to implement major changes to U.S. foreign
policy. For example, traditional alliances are still holding up,
and in some instances, are growing stronger, as is the case with
both U.S.-Israeli and
U.S.-Saudi Arabia
relations. Even though the president is trying to hold foreign
states more accountable for
their own security, the United States continues to maintain its
military bases
and security commitments all over the world. In
fact, Trump has decided to increase U.S. troops
in Afghanistan, which has been followed by a NATO troop increase.
And the contested liberal
world order — though faltering
still remains intact.

What has changed is the United States’ reputation and
image, both of which
have steadily declined under Trump.
One consequence seems to be the erosion of the United States’
credibility as a reliable partner. For example, Trump’s
decertification of
the Obama-era Iran Deal, which effectively halted Iran’s
nuclear weapons program, not only highlights his carelessness and
ignorance regarding the complexity of the region, but also leaves
European allies wondering if the United States can be trusted as a
partner.

In sum, a year of the Trump Doctrine has not fundamentally
changed U.S. interests or U.S. foreign policy, but has eroded the moral high
ground
the United States’ used to enjoy — and use
to its advantage. The Trump Doctrine, however, is based on the
president’s unpredictability, and hence, it is hard to
predict what U.S. foreign policy will look like in the remaining
years of this administration.

Sahar Khan is
a visiting research fellow in the Cato Institute’s Defense and
Foreign Policy Department.