Washington (CNN)The 45th president entered office raging against a post-WWII order built by the United States, pledging instead that he would put “America First. The US, President Donald Trump said during his campaign, could no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. On the stump he also dismissed core alliances in Europe and Asia, raged at trade pacts, derided international organizations such as the UN and trash-talked allies (Mexico) and competitors (China) alike. Trump voters clash over his shifting views But since his inauguration, Trump has steadily reversed course on those fronts and a host of others. The populist president has now embraced NATO, reaffirmed relationships with allies, reinforced international norms against chemical weapons use by bombing Syria and has sent more US troops to help rein in global conflicts. Almost 100 days after Trump entered the White House dismissing the international system, Trump seems to be assuming a US president’s traditional foreign policy role: being that system’s biggest defender.
Rhetoric hits reality
Analysts in Washington and overseas say a number of factors are at work, including the reality of dealing with global events, appeals from foreign leaders and the rise of experienced foreign policy mavens to Cabinet positions. But some caution that the President, with no foreign policy experience, hundreds of unfilled national security staff positions and a reliance on equally inexperienced family members, is a reactive and tactical leader who still lacks a strategic vision — preferring to disseminate his thoughts in 140-character bursts.
They also point to the fact that many of the problems shadowing Trump’s presidency in these first few months are tied to potentially compromising connections his circle has with global entities. The FBI is investigating whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow while Russia was allegedly hacking Democratic organizations to benefit the Republican candidate during 2016. Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, had to step down after a controversial call with the Russian ambassador, while his work as a foreign agent during the transition has drawn scrutiny. Meanwhile, the Trump family still maintains myriad international business holdings. Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said these ties should check the optimism of any observers who think Trump is adopting a reassuringly standard approach to foreign policy. “We’re comforting ourselves that this is normal and we should resist that view,” she said. Learning Curve Learning curve Every president goes through a learning curve and Trump is no exception.
“There’s no school for president,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator for the State Department now at the Wilson Center. “The issue for me is, is he learning? That’s the key question.”
Trump has largely turned to the military to address global flashpoints, sending the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier near the Korean Peninsula last week, dropping the “Mother of All Bombs” on ISIS positions in Afghanistan on April 13 and sending Tomahawk missiles into Syria the week before. At the same time, he’s moving to drastically cut the State Department budget, Wormuth noted.
“Everyone is focused on the Tomahawk strike, the dust-up with North Korea,” Wormuth said. “Those were tactical responses. Eventually the Trump administration is going to have to have an actual strategy and there’s going to have to be a diplomatic component if we’re going to have any real success.”
Miller pointed to an ongoing Trump evolution in which “the realities of what it takes to campaign are giving way to the realities of governance, and that means adopting positions that are well considered and thought through.”
He points to an early declaration that the US would move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem; the Trump campaign’s dismissal of the Export-Import Bank; and the suggestion that Japan and South Korea develop their own nuclear weapons. All these positions seem to have quietly been abandoned.
Earlier this month, Trump alluded to the difference between campaigning and engaging with the world. The President’s most pressing security challenge may be North Korea, which is poised to conduct a sixth nuclear test in its increasingly aggressive pursuit of a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it. Trump wants China to help with the challenge.
Trump wrote on Twitter over the Easter weekend, “Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?”
Foreign leaders have also had some sway, said Jeffrey, particularly Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and leaders from Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia.
“The system has been very good to them,” Jeffrey said of the global order, and they get “nervous” with a president “who comes in and disses the whole thing.”
He continued, “They all march off to Washington and plead to him, ‘Be the world’s policeman,’ and he agreed.”