Donald Trump inauguration

What to watch out for in Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office

Ankit Panda says the US president’s early moves on trade and his first contacts with government leaders will set the course for his administration’s foreign policy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 9:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 April, 2017, 4:08pm

In the two months or so since Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election, there has been quite a bit of speculation as to the foreign policies his government will pursue once in power.

As a candidate, Trump, when he did address issues of foreign policy, vacillated and often switched positions, with the exception of trade. After his inauguration on Friday, Trump’s actual plans for US foreign policy remain mostly unclear.

There are, however, two primary areas that interested observers of US foreign policy should watch closely in the new administration’s first 100 days as the United States prepares for a change in the presidency unlike any in recent history.

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First, for a Trump administration, foreign policy may well be secondary to and borne of economic policy, so watch for early declarations and executive branch moves on economic and trade policy. For instance, Trump has said he will put an end to US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on his very first day in office.

Key appointments by the Trump transition team suggest that Trump’s rhetoric on trade is poised to become a reality, portending a possible trade war with China. Peter Navarro, an economist at the University of California at Irvine, provides analytical ballast to Trump’s “America First” economic thinking.

Navarro, a sharp critic of China, has long supported the use of tools in the US trade policy toolkit, including tariffs, that would rein in the US trade deficit in goods with China. Navarro, along with Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s incoming trade representative, the top US official charged with executing trade policy, will play an important role in realising Trump’s “America First” objective.

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Appointments will matter deeply for Trump’s foreign policy. The Trump transition team has requested that all of Barack Obama’s political appointee ambassadors vacate their posts. How Trump fills these positions, many of which will manage US diplomacy in strategically vital allied and adversary nations, will be another area to watch in the early days of the administration.

Second, in Trump’s first 100 days, watch for high-level diplomatic interactions with foreign leaders as these will be revealing of how the incoming president, who exhibits an unusually temperamental character, will handle the otherwise delicate and formal world of international diplomacy.

Foreign policy analysts and pundits expressed great concern over Trump’s early-December phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, with some suggesting that the president-elect’s unprecedented move was a sign of the United States putting an end to its one-China Policy.

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Given that Trump was president-elect at the time of the call, China, which would otherwise have been infuriated, appeared to mostly give the US president-elect a pass, instead blaming the Taiwanese president for a “little trick”.

When Trump takes the oath of office, these sorts of actions will matter intensely as they will be perceived abroad as a manifestation of the sovereign intent of the United States government.

If Trump speaks to Tsai, expresses a desire to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or threatens to pre-emptively attack Kim Jong-un, interested governments must operate under the assumption that the US president’s words are likely to translate into policy.

Trump’s expected early post-inauguration interactions are likely to include two important US allies, with both the governments of Japan and the United Kingdom angling for an early summit between their leaders and the new US president. Trump’s conduct at these high-level meetings with allies will portend how he will navigate interactions with adversaries.

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There is no doubt that the incoming US administration has left the world scratching its head about the likely direction of US foreign policy, leaving the task of prediction more of a fool’s errand than usual.

Instead, watching for early moves from the executive branch on trade and economic policy, as well as Trump’s conduct with allies and adversaries in a diplomatic setting, may prove to be a better source of insight into what the next four years have in store for the United States’ role in the world.

Ankit Panda is a New York City-based commentator on geopolitics and international security and a senior editor at The Diplomat. He tweets at @nktpnd