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Now that Donald Trump has been president of the United States for a year, I’m struck by how stable U.S. foreign policy has been. Things remain unchanged, for the most part, or are following the path they were when he was elected. His behavior has been extremely disruptive, of course, and the fact that he is disliked around the world creates the impression that U.S. behavior is altogether different. But it isn’t.

Consider U.S. relations with NATO. Trump raised the question of whether NATO was obsolete. The way he raised the question was no doubt abrasive, but considering the alliance is now 65 years old, it’s not a preposterous question to ask. And yet the answer is the same. The U.S. position has not changed. The U.S. is still a full member, and Trump has pledged to honor Article 5, which commits the United States to come to the defense of any member.

U.S. policy toward Russia, for all the vitriol that surrounds it, is remarkably similar to the policies in place before Trump’s election. The United States levied additional sanctions on Russia, which agrees with the U.S. that bilateral relations are the worst they’ve been in decades. (Notably, the sanctions were initiated by Congress but unopposed by Trump.) U.S. interests in Ukraine are largely the same – the promise to send anti-tank missiles to Kiev poses only a modest challenge to Moscow – as are U.S. commitments to the Baltics and Central and Eastern Europe, where troop deployments, rotations and exercises continue to take place.

U.S. relations with China are not so different either. The North Korea issue notwithstanding, Washington continues to demand that China change its export and currency policy. In keeping with prior administrations, Trump’s has achieved nothing substantial in this regard, but the perennial face-off with Beijing on economic matters continues unabated. Likewise, in the South China Sea, both countries continue to provoke each other, as evidenced by the deployment of a U.S. destroyer last week, but the game of gestures that has gone on for years goes on.

Then there is NAFTA, which is in the process of being renegotiated. Mexico, Canada and the United States have all declared, at various points, that an agreement is impossible. This is a normal tactic in these kinds of talks. The agreement may collapse. New terms may be negotiated. The negotiations may never end. But NAFTA is still the framework by which North America economic relations are built.

In the Middle East, the policies of the Trump administration – no major commitments – are in keeping with the policies of previous administrations. The Islamic State has been disrupted (but not destroyed) but Trump’s was not the first administration to decide to fight the group. The United States did relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but it was a purely symbolic gesture that changes little on the ground, and incidentally was mandated by Congress years ago.

The only major difference in Trump foreign policy concerns North Korea. The crisis itself predates Trump by decades. It stems from a policy that held that the U.S. would not allow North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons. Nuclear development surged under the Obama administration and continues under Trump. Like Obama, Trump has declined to go to war, opting instead to find alternate ways to resolve the crisis.

Trump’s rhetoric on the matter has been incongruous with the aggressiveness of his actions. A more tactful translation of his language might have read: “North Korea’s development of an intercontinental ballistic missile able to strike the United States will be viewed in the gravest terms by the United States, and will be met with an appropriate response.” The fact remains that he has pursued a very cautious policy toward North Korea.

This points to something too many observers tend to forget: Over matters of foreign policy for all nations, they take rhetoric a little too seriously. What shapes U.S. policy in Korea has far more to do with the quality of intelligence on nuclear facilities and the placement of artillery along the Demilitarized Zone. What shapes U.S. policy on China has to do more with the supply chain running from China to the United States – and the costs of disrupting that supply chain. A president who ignores recommendations from the military and intelligence organs – and screws up – will have to reckon with a hostile public. A president who severs supply chains – and hurts the bottom line of American business – will have to reckon with a hostile business community. These constraints beget caution.

Trump’s rhetoric is designed to animate his support base. His actions are designed to maintain the status quo. Reasonable people can disagree on whether the status quo is what any president should aspire to. But whatever the expectations for Trump’s foreign policy may have been, the reality is that it has changed very little. It’s a timely reminder that rhetoric and reality are different things.

This article originally appeared on and is republished with permission.


4 Comments on "Foreign Affairs a Year After Trump"

  1. Good article, nice to see something non hysterical about Trump.

    I find the furore over every inanity uttered by Trump to be childish at best, but then I am increasingly feeling like a person out of his own time. When you look at the record of George W Bush, and the comparatively muted criticism he received from the US press, you do wonder why we now see the smallest of things involving Trump lead to a media meltdown.

    Imagine if Trump were to preside over a doubling in the national debt. What if he entangles the USA in two lengthy military deployments, which not only destabilise the region in which they occur but cost the lives of many US servicemen. Imagine if he ignores a major natural disaster in his own country, if a major terrorist attack occurs while he is in office, if unemployment increases by 60%. All of these things happened during George W Bush’s time in office. In addition, Bush wouldn’t back the Kyoto agreement, much like Trump with Paris, and US relations with both Germany and France became very strained due to the Iraq war.

    If Trump gets anywhere near Bush’s record, the outrage it would promote amongst the press corps in Washington would be off the scale. Our media has changed, and not for the better, increasingly I just turn off.

    • I agree absolutely that there’s too much hysteria around Trump. Every rumour is credited with the status of fact and, for example, the Wolff book gets off far too lightly for what reads, at times, like the worst kind of Roger Stone hit-piece. That said, Trump is his own worst enemy and continues to do things that are simply extraordinary from a sitting president. His megalomania (no other word for his continued belief that he’s the greatest president) gets in the way of seeing what he’s actually achieved. It’s also to the credit of the media that they do praise him when he does something impressive. That televised bipartisan meeting, a couple of weeks ago, was very widely praised and rightly so. That version of Trump was the Trump many of us believed he’d become once he got into office. There is, though, a fundamental weakness about him. If he could actually stick by what he truly believes, we might actually begin to know what kind of president he can be. As it is, he’s sleepwalking (or, more likely, being led) towards annihilation in the mid-terms. The only thing in his favour is that the Democrats are pretty useless.

      • Oh Trump is absolutely his own worst enemy. I think many of us who were prepared to wait and see on his presidency were taken aback when he spent his first few weeks alienating every group he would require to help him pass his program. A shame for the people who voted for him, as had he shown any diplomatic skill, or restraint even, he would have had a pretty good chance of delivering a large chunk of what he had promised.

        I’m not sure I’d go so far a megalomania, but he certainly has self made man syndrome (I know he inherited but to all intents and purposes his path has been the same). He has never been forced to compromise or to work as part of a team, he has alway been the one giving the orders while others jumped in attendance. He has that same contempt for rules and red tape that is a signature of such people and that almost ridiculous level of self belief they have. The nasty flip side to that self belief is the certainty that all other are wrong. There are many Donald Trumps in this world, mainly operating at a smaller scale, but not many seek office. That is why so many lower league football clubs often become living soap opera’s, most of them are run by mini Donald Trumps. I’ll never forget George Reynolds and his hescalators!!.

        • There are, indeed, many mini Donald Trumps. I’ve worked for some of them. There is, however, only one Donald Trump and I really do think that ‘megalomania’ is the correct term. It’s the poison in this presidency; there is every mistake and dumb move he makes. Just this morning, it’s reported that he asked McCabe who he voted for, mirroring what he asked Comey when he demanded his loyalty. It’s there in every statement he makes claiming to have done more in his first year than any other president (not just a provable lie but a statement of such staggering delusion that is should make us question his sanity). It’s now at the point where there’s very little to say about the politics of this presidency. Everything is really about the psychology of the Commander-in-Chief.

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