When Trump moved into the White House, he promised a neo-isolationist platform that could have reshaped US foreign and trade policy more radically than at any point since the beginning of the Cold War. That was the time that President Harry Truman helped build a consensus around US global leadership.
Trump has indeed made some moves to shift away from this post-war orthodoxy — pursued by both Democratic and Republican presidents — such as building US-led alliances to expand the liberal democratic order. He has, for instance, scrapped US involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal with key allies in the Asia-Pacific region and the Americas; withdrawn from the Paris climate change deal that was agreed by more than 170 nations; and launched a review of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which may yet collapse in 2018.
The first two of these initiatives were signature Obama-era policies, and Trump has also partially rolled back other key measures from the previous administration, including the Cuba liberalization initiative, while putting into serious jeopardy the nuclear agreement between Iran and the US, China, Russia, UK, France and Germany.
But dismantling policies is one thing. Building something new is another.
Thus far, the new administration has not managed to forge any new Trump doctrine centered on his “America first” vision. And the new national security strategy does little to bring any clarity to this approach.
The new strategy prioritizes four “vital national interests” of protecting the homeland; advancing US prosperity; preserving peace through strength; and advancing US influence. However, while the document stresses “competitive engagement” with allies and foes alike, it also has significant and surprising continuity with previous national security strategies, including an emphasis on “preserving the world order that has lifted so many out of poverty and maintained this world order for 70 years.”
Trump’s political window of opportunity to live up to his neo-isolationist campaign promises and put an enduring stamp on US foreign policy is narrowing.
In practice, especially given Trump’s contrarian character, this is likely to lead to further policy U-turns, which have already been observed on issues such as military action in Syria — a departure from Trump’s isolationist campaign rhetoric; and whether international organizations like NATO are “obsolete” or “not obsolete.”
These flip-flops reflect the divisions within his team on key foreign policy issues. Take the example of North Korea. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week that he would be willing to “sit down” unconditionally with Pyongyang “and see each other face-to-face.” His remarks prompted the White House to take the unusual step of releasing a statement slapping him down and attempting to clarify the administration’s position, with Trump having previously asserted Tillerson is wasting his time pursuing dialogue with North Korea.
Almost a year into office, Trump’s political window of opportunity to put an enduring stamp on US foreign policy is narrowing.
It is to be hoped that the new strategy can help enable a clearer, more coherent foreign policy that will serve as a compass to help navigate the significant uncertainties of international affairs in 2018 and beyond.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics