ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronEye IconIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintTitle ChevronIcon Twitter

What the world has learned about Trump's foreign policy

Unpredictable president may yet revert to traditional ideas

| North America
 (placeholder image)
U.S. President Donald Trump (2ndR) sits with members of his cabinet, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (L); Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (2ndL) during a bilateral meeting with China's President Xi Jinping.   © Reuters

Many expected the insurgent presidency of Donald Trump to be accompanied by a revolutionary foreign policy that broke with the record of American internationalism since 1945. On the campaign trail and in his inaugural address, Trump promised an "America First" doctrine that distanced Washington from its traditional allies, treated trade as a weapon of statecraft, and stepped back from a global stewardship role.

But the world looks different from the Oval Office, and governance imposes compelling imperatives on the commander-in-chief of a superpower. Early tests on North Korea, Syria, China, and Russia suggest that a president who relishes unpredictability may yet revert to some traditional tenets of American foreign policy and regain strategic initiative after years in which his predecessor relinquished it to others.

Most presidents learn on the job and course-correct with experience. The dovish Jimmy Carter took office at the height of detente only to intensify the contest against Soviet power after Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan. The hawkish Ronald Reagan pursued an expansive military buildup to roll back the Soviet Empire but entered into historic negotiations with its leaders. Bill Clinton condemned the "butchers of Beijing" only to build a strategic partnership with China that allies worried was a tad too cozy.

George W. Bush decried "nation-building abroad" only to undertake the most ambitious effort to do just that in the Middle East. Former President Barack Obama promised American labor unions he would not pursue any new trade agreements, only to become a late champion of the most far-reaching U.S. trade agreements in a generation, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

American presidents adapt to reality because American national interests endure. They include preventing any hostile power from dominating Europe, Asia, or the energy resources of the Middle East; sustaining an open international economic and political order that is not subverted by spheres of influence which exclude the U.S.; protecting free access to the global commons, especially the maritime sea lanes that carry 90% of global trade; nurturing alliances that magnify American power and influence; and promoting democracy and human rights, because the ultimate source of global security is a world in which power is bounded at home by law and pluralistic institutions.

Trump may seem an odd champion of some of these causes. But his national security cabinet, which now seems to be finding its feet, is in keeping with American foreign policy traditions. In international affairs, Trump relies on two of the leading general officers of their generation, Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster; a pillar of America's globalist-corporate establishment, the former Exxon-Mobil executive Rex Tillerson; and the former president of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, who has led a so-far-successful effort to check the mercantilist instincts of White House advisers Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro. The internationalists have an ally in Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and key adviser, who takes a more pragmatic view of U.S. policy priorities.

For all the focus on Trump's personality, his unorthodox presidency may yield a more traditional focus on deploying American power for broader ends. Obama decried American exceptionalism, emphasized "nation-building at home," and pursued a dedicated policy of retracting American power from pivotal theaters like the Middle East, enabling revisionist regional powers to go on the offensive.

He did not do enough as the humanitarian tragedy of Syria played out in slow motion, destabilizing not only the Middle East but also Europe, dividing and weakening Washington's closest ally in world affairs. His rhetorical "pivot" to Asia left allies wanting more American presence and leadership than they got.

Trump remains at odds with much of Washington's bipartisan foreign policy establishment. He has yet to embrace the trade leadership that makes the world's biggest economy more competitive and dynamic. But his willingness to employ limited military force -- including ramping up military action against the Islamic State group in Syria and Afghanistan -- and to stand up to the regional power plays of revisionist states, creates opportunities to more effectively manage complex conflicts from the Levant to the Korean peninsula.


It is telling that a modest set of standoff, pinprick missile strikes against a remote Syrian airbase represents the boldest use of American military power against the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in eight years. It is also telling that the tangible threat of American military action against North Korea is on the table after eight years of a policy the Obama administration termed "strategic patience," which created a window of opportunity Pyongyang used to continue to perfect its intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-weapons programs while America looked away.

Even China and Russia look off-balance after early fears in Washington, DC, that an inexperienced president would appease their leaders. Chinese President Xi Jinping came to Mar-a-Lago last week bearing concessions designed to fend off an American trade war. At their inaugural summit, Trump was clear with Xi that the quality of U.S.-China relations would be tied to China's cooperation in tightening economic pressure on North Korea.

Having secured strategic gains during the Obama presidency, and given the five-year leadership plenum approaching this fall, Xi would be wise to exercise strategic restraint during Trump's first term, and demonstrate China's utility by tightening the pressure on its ally North Korea to deter further nuclear tests.

Given that Trump wants to manage trade with what he sees as a mercantilist superpower that does not play by the rules, China would also be prudent to pursue the kind of voluntary-export-restraint agreements that Japan struck with the Reagan administration in the 1980s when U.S.-Japan trade frictions peaked. Trump's threat to use trade barriers as leverage to move China to assume a tougher posture with its client in Pyongyang clearly has gotten Beijing's attention.

Ironically, Trump is likely to be the first American president since the end of the Cold War not to pursue a "reset" in relations with Russia. The ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign's dealings with Russian agents of influence severely restrict the ability of this administration to pursue any kind of entente cordiale with a regime that invades democratic neighbors, threatens U.S. NATO allies with nuclear attack, attempts as a matter of state policy to subvert Western elections, and murders political opponents.

Indeed, the mounting domestic opposition to President Vladimir Putin's autocratic rule at home -- as manifested in popular protests in cities across Russia -- creates a new pressure point that the U.S. could leverage through a heightened force posture in Europe and more robust pressure for Russia to conform to international law by severing dealings with the outlaw Syrian regime. As Tillerson pointed out on his way to Moscow to meet Putin, Assad now has become a liability rather than an asset to Russia's geopolitical ambitions.

Early days

The Trump administration is still in its first 100 days. It has not been subjected to the kind of international crisis that tests almost every administration, and which will call into question not only its statecraft but the judgment of the commander-in-chief. There remain reasons to be concerned, particularly about the administration's trade agenda. But anxious allies are breathing a sigh of relief that American power is back as a force to be reckoned with in a dangerous world, after what many see as Obama's abdication of the U.S. role as global guarantor and following a political campaign in which the U.S. was presented as a victim of globalization rather than as its engine.

In Asia in particular, American friends seek a robust commitment to U.S. military and diplomatic leadership as well as skill in stewarding the pivotal U.S.-China relationship in ways that preclude both condominium and conflict. North Korea poses a harder test than Syria: Asian allies will want to see that the Trump administration is as adept at diplomacy on the Korean peninsula as it is at projecting military power in the Middle East. The White House will also need to be willing to risk an increase in tensions with China by imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese banks and businesses that are the lifeline of the North Korean economy.

Perhaps a harder test for the Trump administration, which Asians in particular will monitor closely, will be whether it can re-assert American economic leadership to sustain the open global trading order and prevent China from building a new Asian economy around itself, at America's expense. Before the wars of the 20th century required it to "pivot" to Europe, much of the early American Republic's diplomacy was centered on opening Asian markets to U.S. commerce. That mission is even more important today, as economic power shifts east. Taking back the initiative on trade and investment liberalization in the vacuum left by TPP's collapse will be essential to this administration's foreign policy success.

Daniel Twining is counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He served on the U.S. secretary of state's policy planning staff during the George W. Bush administration, and as foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 1 month for $0.99

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends October 31st

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to Nikkei Asia has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more