When President Trump took office on January 20, his supporters hoped he’d keep his campaign promises to get tough with China on trade and push it to deal more forcefully with North Korea; renegotiate or pull out of NAFTA; withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal; and dismantle the Iran nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, critics in the US and around the world hoped that those same campaign promises would prove to be hollow threats.
Trump’s first year in office has given both sides reason to cheer — and reasons to worry about what may happen in the year to come.
Take trade. One of Trump's first actions in office was to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a mammoth free trade deal that had been painstakingly negotiated with 11 other countries. But while Trump has reopened negotiations over the future of NAFTA, he hasn’t taken the US out of the pact. And though he continues to talk tough on China, he hasn’t imposed tariffs or limited US trade with the country.
Then there’s the Iran nuclear deal. Trump overruled some of his top advisers this fall and chose to decertify the deal to Congress, saying the agreement wasn’t in the national security interests of the US. That was a blow to the deal, but Trump didn’t impose sanctions on Iran that would have actually killed the pact.
Of course, he could change his mind on any of these things at a moment’s notice. The nuclear standoff with North Korea continues to escalate, and war is a real possibility. Advisers who counsel restraint, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, are likely to be fired and replaced with far more hawkish officials. Trump has few, if any, fixed beliefs, which means his foreign policy is likely to lurch from extreme to extreme.
And Trump has already done real and perhaps lasting damage to America’s standing in the world. He’s insulted the leaders of key US allies like Britain and Germany, leading the German foreign minister to say Trump’s policies are breaking down longstanding US-Europe ties. At the same time, he’s cozied up to authoritarian leaders like President Xi Jinping of China and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, abandoning longstanding US concerns about human rights along the way.
So far, Trump has mostly spoken loudly and carried a small stick. Below is the Vox foreign team’s comprehensive guide to the five biggest things that we thought would happen under the Trump administration in 2017, but didn’t — and five that did.
5 big things that Trump didn’t do
1) Start a war with North Korea
Trump started the year by tweeting that he wouldn’t let North Korea get a missile that could hit the United States. But one year later, North Korea now has that capability, and has also tested its most powerful nuclear bomb to date.
Those developments sparked some tough talk from both Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” against Pyongyang and Kim said he would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.”
Between North Korea’s new weapons and the belligerent rhetoric, some experts and lawmakers are now warning that war with North Korea is becoming a real possibility. “We are far closer to actual conflict over North Korea than the American people realize,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), told my colleague Zack Beauchamp earlier in December.
But luckily, neither country attacked the other this year — and that’s obviously good news. After all, one war game convened by the Atlantic magazine back in 2005 predicted that a North Korean attack would kill 100,000 people in Seoul in just the first few days. So let’s be thankful that the only war with North Korea in 2017 was one of words.
2) Dissolve the Iran deal
On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to “dismantle” the Iran nuclear deal, which he described as “catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole of the Middle East.”
But as president, Trump hasn’t done that. The central provisions of the Iran deal — the relaxation of US and international sanctions on Iran in exchange for strict, verifiable restrictions on that country’s nuclear program — all remain intact and in operation.
That’s not to say the deal is in tip-top shape. In October, Trump “decertified” the deal under US law, which amounts to a formal declaration that the agreement is not in US national security interests. That undermined trust in America’s intentions and raised concerns about the Trump administration’s willingness to abide by the deal in the future.
And yet, the deal itself has survived that decertification, at least for now. The only practical upshot of decertifying the deal was to give Congress the ability to quickly reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Yet Congress chose not to do that — meaning that a Republican majority in Congress refused to torpedo the Iran deal when they had a golden chance. Trump also faced several deadlines that gave him legal powers to unilaterally reimpose some sanctions, and he chose not to.
Both Trump and Congressional Republicans regularly attack the deal, but both are unwilling to actually follow through. So for now, the deal survives — wounded, but still alive.
3) Pull the US out of NAFTA
On the campaign trail and throughout this year, Trump threatened to withdraw the US from the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) if he couldn’t get Mexico and Canada, the other two parties to the deal, to agree to “some very big changes” that would gives the US more of an advantage.
That’s kept many in Washington on edge because withdrawing from the agreement would result in new trade barriers between the US, Canada, and Mexico for the first time in 23 years and slow down the more than $1 trillion in trade the countries do with each other every year.
But Trump has yet to torpedo NAFTA despite Canada and Mexico pushing back fiercely against the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the agreement. And now the timeline for settling on a new agreement has been extended through 2018.
The prospect of a satisfying compromise for all parties seems distant at this moment, and that could spell doom for NAFTA. But for now, the agreement still stands.
4) Start a trade war with China
During the campaign, Trump promised to avenge China’s “rape” of the US economy, put heavy tariffs on China’s exports to the US, and blacklist the country for using unfair tactics to artificially hold down the value of its currency. And upon taking office, he filled his administration with China hawks like Peter Navarro, a Harvard-educated economist who is actually afraid of buying pajamas made in China because he thinks they could catch on fire.
Analysts predicted that if Trump delivered on these promises, Washington and Beijing would almost certainly enter into a trade war.
But none of that has happened. Trump hasn’t issued any big new tariffs on China. He’s reversed his position on China’s currency manipulation, explicitly stating “They’re not currency manipulators.” And his less-hawkish advisers have successfully advocated against taking any other kind of drastic actions against China.
In fact, Trump has not only avoided provoking Beijing — he’s gotten along swimmingly with the Chinese president.
That said, Trump could unveil some harsh measures against China in the coming months over the way it forces US companies to share technological secrets to enter China’s market — and experts say things could get nasty very quickly.
5) Weaken America’s global military presence
Trump campaigned on a platform of “America First” that promised the US military wouldn’t venture further out into the world in search of monsters to destroy.
But instead, the US didn’t shy away from using its military power abroad, and Trump gave the military “total authorization” to conduct operations around the world with little civilian oversight.
Among other things, the military attacked Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria multiple times, threatening to drag the US further into that country’s civil war. The US-led coalition against ISIS defeated the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria thanks in part to an increased air campaign, but killed thousands of innocent civilians in the process. Trump increased America’s troop presence in Afghanistan, and the US now has its largest military presence in Somalia since 1993.
On top of that, the military has more than 44,000 troops around the world that the Pentagon claims it can’t even track.
This increased global military presence has imposed some high-profile costs on the administration — and the military service members themselves. Newsweek reports that “more U.S. troops have died in war zones this year than in 2016, according to government data.”
Among them was Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, a US Navy SEAL, who was killed during a raid in Yemen. Four US Special Forces members died during a secretive assignment in Niger that some members of Congress didn’t know about. And there was even the mysterious death of an Army Green Beret in a separate incident in Niger. (The soldier may have been killed by two Navy SEALs.)
So rather than the smaller US military footprint abroad Trump promised, it’s arguably now more involved in countries around the world than before Trump entered the White House. And it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon.
5 big things that Trump actually achieved
1) Pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal
Trump immediately fulfilled one of his biggest campaign promises when he pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) just three days into his presidency.
The pact was supposed to create seamless trade among 12 Pacific Rim countries whose combined GDP in 2015 was $27.4 trillion (37 percent of the world’s GDP). It was the largest deal of its kind in history.
Under the TPP, which excluded China, the US would also have been able to check the rise of China’s economic influence throughout Asia by forming tighter trade relations with many of China’s neighbors.
But Trump argued that the US would be better off pursuing bilateral deals with the individual countries involved rather than being part of the TPP, so he pulled the US out.
While early on it looked like Trump’s withdrawal might be a death knell for the TPP, it wasn’t. The 11 remaining nations have decided that the deal is too valuable to scrap, even without the US. And China is now creating its own China-centric regional trade pact.
2) Withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord
In a dramatic speech in the White House Rose Garden, the president announced on June 1 that he would be pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord.
“As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country,” Trump said.
The keyword there is “non-binding.” The deal itself, which was drafted and signed by 195 countries (including the US) in 2015, is an aspirational, non-binding document that aims to stop global temperatures from rising more than 2°C by the year 2100.
As Vox’s Brian Resnick wrote at the time, “Paris was designed to entice voluntary action and provide a framework for accelerating those actions. Trump just voluntarily left something that would have cost nothing (besides a broken campaign promise), nor subjected the US to any legal action, to stay in.”
“Trump says he wants to renegotiate a better deal for the United States, and then would consider reentering the agreement,” Resnick added. “But what’s a better deal than ‘non-binding’?”
3) Cozy up to autocrats and insult democratic leaders
Trump has developed a “great relationship” with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte — a man who launched a bloody war on drugs that has killed more than 7,000 people, brags about personally executing criminals, and has compared himself to Hitler.
Trump hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi — who took power in a coup in 2013 and killed more than 800 protesters in a single day — at the White House.
Trump exchanges friendly phone calls with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He’s also bragged about his “great chemistry” with Chinese President Xi Jinping and expressed admiration for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
These incidents would be striking on their own — no other sitting US president has so openly expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders. But combined with Trump’s penchant for alienating the democratic leaders of close US allies, this trend is downright scary.
Wielding his favorite weapon — a tweet — Trump has attacked UK Prime Minister Theresa May and called London Mayor Sadiq Khan “pathetic.” He’s strained relations with Australia and Germany, sharply criticized Canada’s trade policies, and antagonized Mexico with frequent talk of the border wall.
Most recently, when Trump presented his new National Security Strategy on December 18, he gave a speech emphasizing his “America First” doctrine and called out his “wealthy allies” for not paying off debts. As Germany’s foreign minister put it, “even after Trump leaves the White House, relations with the US will never be the same.”
The same might be said for many countries’ relations with the US — including some of the most repressive ones in the world.
4) Destroy public faith in the US intelligence community
Trump’s attack on the US intelligence community started even before he took office. On January 11, he compared US intelligence agencies to Nazis, because he believed the intelligence community had leaked lies about him to the press to try to ruin his reputation.
It didn’t get much better after Inauguration Day. On January 21, Trump’s first full day as president, he gave a politically-charged speech in front of the CIA’s Memorial Wall — a marble wall featuring 117 stars representing CIA employees killed in the line of duty that is considered almost sacred ground by many in the agency — where, among other things, he boasted about the size of his inauguration crowd.
Trump has also pushed back against the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the election. And though his CIA director Mike Pompeo officially stands by their conclusion, he has occasionally lied to the public about its findings, apparently to please his boss.
Trump fired FBI director James Comey in May in part to try to make the FBI’s investigation into whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the presidential election — an investigation that Comey led at the time and that Trump calls a “witch hunt” — to go away.
And there’s now a growing campaign by Trump and some of his conservative allies to discredit the special counsel investigation that started after Trump fired Comey. That’s led some, including members of Congress, to criticize special counsel Robert Mueller and other top law enforcement officials like Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in public, further adding to the erosion of trust in the US intelligence community.
That’s not good for their morale, and it could potentially harm US national security in the future.
5) Do lasting damage to the State Department
Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has gutted America’s diplomatic corps over the last year. More than half of the department’s top-ranking career diplomats have left, and new applications to join the foreign service have drastically fallen. As of early December, only ten of the top 44 politically appointed posts in the agency have been filled.
And Tillerson isn’t stopping there: He’s offering a $25,000 buyout as part of a plan to push out 2,000 more career staffers by next October.
Part of this is Trump’s fault — the president is typically expected to sign off on political appointees, and his “America First” foreign policy runs counter to the values of much of State’s professional diplomatic corps. But part of the blame falls on Tillerson, too, who has limited contact with his staff, imposed a hiring freeze, and dismantled parts of State’s hierarchy (including the office responsible for tracking war crimes).
The end result is a profoundly weakened America, one less capable of working out negotiated solutions to crises like the North Korea nuclear standoff. The US military can do many things when it comes to foreign policy, but it can’t fill in for diplomats. Without a functioning State Department, foreign diplomats have no one to talk to about the administration’s policies.
Elizabeth Saunders, a professor at George Washington University who studies US foreign policy, compares the US under Tillerson’s emaciated State Department to a person who doesn’t have health insurance. “Your life is probably fine — up until the point you get sick,” she told me. And given crises in places as diverse as North Korea, Israel, and Venezuela, the world is at least starting to develop a cough.