The Trump foreign policy is like the administration’s domestic policy: a little irreverent, ambitious, and completely impervious to the warnings and pressure of the “expert class.” Despite early fears that President Donald Trump would pull American leadership back, would disengage in global affairs, and retreat to a dangerous isolationism, he is reasserting American strength and seizing bold initiative after initiative, leading partners and allies in the direction he wants the free world to go.
Make no mistake, he’s no multilateralist, not in the sense the word is commonly understood. He does not seek consensus before he makes a bold move, nor does he care if his actions agitate Justin Trudeau or Emmanuel Macon or Angela Merkel. But he is happy to have nations join him when he makes a move.
The Trump “America First” has little in common with the “America First” of 1940. Instead, he is leveraging his two biggest assets—the world’s largest economy and military—to aggressively compete with those nations that are daring to threaten the United States.
As the Trump policy documents—the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Nuclear Posture Review—outline, the administration is aggressively taking on both Russia and China. Both nations, similarly autocratic and revanchist, have been defying calls to respect sovereign borders and democratic elections, threatening US allies both rhetorically and with military deployments, and developing weapon systems to hold at risk highly valuable US radar, ships, and satellites. Both are waging constant and overwhelming cyberattacks against private sector and government entities. China, in particular, has taken the long view and is challenging not just American interests but also America’s global leader mantle.
Throw in the rogue nations North Korea and Iran, which have attached themselves to Russian and Chinese autocrats who are happy to use them against America, and Trump and his hawkish team of national security advisors aren’t intimidated at the idea of taking all of them on at once.
Now, the administration is doing this in a rather disjointed, often surprising, and sometimes unsettling way. And that’s part of the Trump foreign policy, too. The method is important. Rather than being guided by an overarching policy, implemented by a strategy that has gone through the interagency process, President Trump acts on instinct, rarely seems to doubt his own judgment, and jumps from one massive task to the next. A new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, demanding more money and military contributions from NATO allies…or else, demanding at least a commitment from North Korea’s Kim Jung-un to dismantle his nuclear program, and insisting on getting a better trade deal with South Korea, even as Trump plays hardball with North Korea.
Whether it’s with trade, arms control agreements and treaties, sanctions, or military investments and operations, one primary principle propels the Trump foreign policy agenda forward: the unapologetic assertion and strengthening of American sovereignty.
Just when one thinks the president has withdrawn from the last treaty or agreement for a while, he announces he’s withdrawing from another. The president or one of his advisors, upon announcing withdrawal, explains how it has disadvantaged the United States. The president has no tolerance for that. Unnecessary agreements, which were either negotiated poorly or have simply transitioned with time into irrelevance and weaken the US, inhibit America from reaching greater prosperity at home and limits its range of actions and influence abroad. The Paris Climate Accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran Deal), US participation in the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and the Universal Postal Union, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—they’re all history. When the International Court of Justice warned the US not to allow new sanctions against the Iran regime to violate a 1955 treaty with Iran, the Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations and Consular Rights, the administration, unfazed, simply withdrew from that treaty, too. For some of them, new agreements are now in place, for others, nothing. And President Trump loses no sleep taking the “no deal” option over a bad one.
But what about human rights? Has that concern, as many critics say, gone to the wayside? No, it has not. But it has a much different place in the Trump foreign policy.
President Trump begins with the premise that America is good. And, as a democratic republic rooted in universal principles that align with Christianity’s principles of justice, he is starting from a good place. America’s democratic republic has not been perfect, but its founding documents and citizens have managed to create and thus far sustain the most just society the world has ever seen.
President Trump views his job as defender of America. He is her CEO and bodyguard. He does speak of human rights and abuses, but he does not do it to inspire. Since he does not have the gift of eloquence, it might not be possible for him to do so anyway. When he speaks of human rights, he does so in the course of pressuring regimes to change a specific behavior. He uses public shame for a purpose—not to offer a moral scolding but to exact an outcome. Recall the 2018 State of the Union, when he outlined North Korea’s many shameful abuses of its people, and of American citizen Otto Warmbier. He did that for a purpose—to add more pressure to the pressure campaign that was meant to compel North Korea to negotiate a plan to dismantle its illicit nuclear program.
The Trump foreign policy does not beat the drums about human rights; no, not when there are more countries that fall short of US standards of just government than those that meet it. President Trump is willing both to make distinctions and act boldly while maintaining a far more modest view about what the United States is actually able to achieve in the domestic affairs of other nations, especially in the short term. Rather than reprimanding dictators for their abuses as the administration’s own cause and even flirting with the idea of toppling one dictator to replace him with another, the Trump foreign policy seeks to make do with current regimes, barring an existential threat from one. Instead, it attempts to be that example, the Shining City on a Hill, and to encourage reforms toward justice as it usefully can, as it works to care first and foremost for its own citizens. Notably, he takes the imprisonment and injury of Americans at the hands of dictators deadly seriously and does not view the same fate of non-Americans as his primary concern.
The Trump foreign policy has done all of this imperfectly and boldly while sometimes inducing cringes from those who agree in principle. Some of the efforts have resulted in amazing successes, and some are still to be determined (like the diplomatic effort to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear missile program). President Trump is leading a foreign policy that is energetic, decisive, and even disruptive. But disruption was overdue after decades of foreign policies that were more idealistic and often weakened American strength, influence, and prosperity. Some of the consequences of the decisions and actions he has already made are yet to be seen and fully felt, and they no doubt have altered regional and even global dynamics. And it’s only been two years.
Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, a contributing editor at Providence, is a fellow at Hudson Institute where she provides research and commentary on a variety of international security issues and specializes in deterrence and counter-proliferation. She is also the vice-chairman of the John Hay Initiative’s Counter-proliferation Working Group and the original manager of the House of Representatives Bi-partisan Missile Defense Caucus.
Photo Credit: President Donald J. Trump walks across the South Lawn of the White House on March 25, 2018. Official White House photo by Andrea Hanks.