Comment: Trump’s first 100 days show ratings come first, not America
Is there any coherence or overall thrust to the way in which US President Donald Trump’s administration handled foreign policy in its first 100 days in office? Well, yes and no.
On his inauguration day, Trump stunned observers by outlining what amounted effectively to a new grand strategy and concept of the American national interest.
Outlining his vision for an “America first” foreign policy, seemingly oblivious to that phrase’s odious historical use by opponents of US involvement in the second world war , Trump said the United States would not “seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow”.
And so, early on, Trump laid the groundwork for a dramatic departure from the post-second world war status quo, positioning himself as the president to end a streak of presidents who’d seen the intrinsic benefits for the US of investing in and maintaining the liberal international order, underpinned by both economic self-interest in free, open commerce and also a belief in the supremacy and righteousness of American values.
Reality, however, had other plans for the Trump administration. Very quickly, “America first” was tampered and watered down into a warped rendering of more conventional US foreign policy, accompanied by an overt push to militarise national security decision-making and expand the size of the armed forces.
For instance, contrary to Trump’s professed appetite for fewer foreign entanglements during the campaign and perceptions that he would look to wind down overseas US commitments, we saw a cruise missile strike against a Syrian airfield and a publicised use in Afghanistan of the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US military’s arsenal.
Neither use of force appeared to be particularly couched in strategy. In Syria, Trump inverted the logic that led to so much criticism of Barack Obama’s “red line”. Without having issued any red lines himself, Trump attacked anyway. The administration’s understanding of deterrence was further drawn into question amid a long drawn-out public affairs crisis this month about the status and location of a carrier strike group in Asia Pacific, which was wrongly presumed to be steaming to waters off the Korean peninsula.
Outside matters of hard power, Trump has modified the practice of US diplomacy in subtle but important ways. For instance, with regard to China, Trump has repeatedly noted that Beijing may be able to win concessions on trade enforcement and other economic matters by cooperating with Washington on North Korea.
Shortly after Trump expressed optimism about Chinese cooperation on North Korea, he decided to stop pressing the issue of listing China as a currency manipulator (an earlier campaign pledge, even if it does not comport with the reality of Chinese foreign exchange practices today).
Linking US economic and strategic interests so directly is a sharp departure from precedent. In China’s case, the implication of Trump’s approach is that Beijing may be able to buy its way out of bad behaviour elsewhere.
For example, would the Trump administration conceivably turn a blind eye to Chinese provocations in the South China Sea in exchange for favourable market access for US car manufacturers in China? The administration does not appear to have fully contended with the fact that this approach cuts both ways.
As Trump’s first 100 days come to a close, it is clear that if “America first” lives, it is in the realm of the administration’s international economic policy. For instance, Trump made waves by keeping to his campaign pledge to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A fully fledged trade war has yet to break out, but the final days of April have been uncomfortably coloured with a surprising degree of animosity towards Canada over its softwood lumber export practices and protection for domestic dairy farmers.
Meanwhile, China agreed to a 100-day plan to address its trade surplus with the United States and the administration continues to eye the possibility of an agreement with Japan on trade, something that US Vice-President Mike Pence sought to explore during his trip to Tokyo.
Somewhat curiously, the administration has also shown a surprising degree of openness to the resumption of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks between the US and the European Union, albeit in a non-committal way. The bottom line on trade remains ambiguous in policy, if not in presentation.
Finally, an observation that merits mention is the administration’s surprising degree of attention to Asia. Defence Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Pence have all completed major trips to the region, demonstrating that even if the Obama-era “rebalance” doesn’t live on, the United States has to treat Asia as a priority.
This spate of high-level attention serves to underline that Asia, no matter what individual US presidents may want, merits mandatory attention at the highest levels of the US strategic agenda (Trump’s personal interest in the North Korean problem has also driven this engagement).
In the end, 100 days in, we are no closer to neatly placing Trump into an ideological box on foreign policy.
Certainly, his actions have diverged with the vision he laid out in his inaugural address and his impulse to act abroad appears to be borne of wild instinct rather than considered strategy. For the former reality TV star president, rather than ‘America first,’ the real driver of foreign policy decision-making may instead be “ratings” first.
Ankit Panda is a senior editor at The Diplomat where he writes on international security, diplomacy and economics in the Asia-Pacific region