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At One-year Mark, Trump Foreign Policy Seen as Conventional

  • VOA News

President Donald Trump applauds after delivering a speech, laying out a national security strategy, in Washington, Dec. 18, 2017.

International opinion polls indicate that one year into Donald Trump’s presidency, America’s standing in the world is at a low point. But notwithstanding his tweets and rhetoric, analysts say, Trump’s foreign policy has turned out to be mostly conventional.

“Despite all the bombast that has made life more anxious and unsettled than it perhaps needs to be, the actual Trump administration policy has not deviated that much from many mainstream views of other presidents,” concluded Michael O’Hanlon, director of research and foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

America’s image as a world leader is weaker than it was under Trump’s two predecessors, according to a new Gallup report. Median approval of U.S. leadership was measured at a historic low of 30 percent.

But O’Hanlon said the perception that Trump has turned U.S. foreign policy on its head is more wrong than right. He describes the downturn in America’s international reputation as “limited and reversible.”

“I make a distinction between popularity and credibility. I think [Trump’s] popularity has suffered substantially, but I think the credibility of America as a steadfast ally is actually still pretty good in most places,” O’Hanlon said in a VOA interview.

White House officials argue that Trump can count a lot of foreign policy successes in his first year, including the defeat of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (following the strategy of his predecessor, Barack Obama), winning China’s help in isolating the nuclear-armed North Korean regime, and persuading NATO allies to pick up a larger share of the common defense budget, to name a few.

In a well-received national security speech last month, he laid out a strategy reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” policy. He emphasized his “America First” theme, pledging to rejuvenate the country’s economic and military power.

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping attend a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 9, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping attend a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 9, 2017.

“Our strategy is to advance American influence in the world,” Trump said. “This begins with building up our wealth and power at home. America will lead again. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone but we will champion the values without apology.”

On the other hand, Trump has publicly repudiated or reversed several of Obama’s most internationally acclaimed policies, from the Paris climate accord to the nuclear deal with Iran to relations with Israel.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the North American Climate Summit in Chicago, Illinois, Dec. 5, 2017.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the North American Climate Summit in Chicago, Illinois, Dec. 5, 2017.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Trump had cast himself as “the anti-Obama.”

“Where Obama was widely viewed as one of America’s most Europe-friendly presidents, Trump has projected disdain for traditional allies in Western Europe,” Satloff told VOA.

“Whereas Obama was widely viewed as distant from America’s traditional allies in the Middle East, Trump has embraced those decades-old relationships, from Riyadh to Jerusalem. And whereas Obama was willing to pay a high price to achieve a nuclear deal with longtime adversary Iran, Trump is willing to pay a high price to extract America from the nuclear deal with Iran,” Satloff said.

A fair bit of the international discomfort with Trump can be traced to his Twitter blasts, where he sometimes seems to undercut or override administration policy and the work of America’s overseas diplomats. He has taunted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling him “Little Rocket Man” and ridiculing Kim’s boast of having a “nuclear button,” which critics charge has unnecessarily ratcheted up the risk of nuclear war.

O'Hanlon said he doubted Trump’s Twitter habit had done irreversible harm, but with the exception of North Korea, he said it had at times undercut his administration's foreign policy.

“If he could point to a lot of good results out of the tweets, you would live with them,” O'Hanlon said. “But the only place where there’s any hope of seeing real progress because of the tweets is North Korea, and even there we could just as easily see it as increasing the risk of war.”

Satloff noted that while Trump and Obama have seemingly opposite views on policy, they share a strong belief that they are right. “The two presidents do have something in common — supreme confidence that they know best, not the professional foreign policy experts they each derided,” Satloff said. “Only time will tell who was right.”

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