In the span of one week, President Donald Trump has completely abandoned nearly half a dozen major pledges on US foreign policy that he made during his campaign.
As the new president is confronted by new and complex policy challenges and infighting among adviser factions within the White House, he’s pulling reversals on a host of pivotal stances that are, on the whole, making his engagement with foreign affairs far more conventional than he once promised. From intervening in the Middle East to locking horns with Russia to defending NATO, Trump is quickly emerging as a leader who is more of Washington than against it.
A great deal of this is likely attributable to Trump’s swift realization that many of the world’s pressing issues are significantly more complicated than he anticipated. Consider how the president recounted his recent discussion with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the issue of how to rein in an increasingly feisty North Korea:
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea. ... But it’s not what you would think.”
Indeed, Mr. President, the world is not a simple place. Let’s trace the journey he’s made in the past whirlwind of a week.
Syrian strikes, Russian war planes and NATO expansions, oh my
Syria: The most consequential U-turn of Trump’s presidency occurred when he ordered the launch of 59 tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air base last Thursday.
For years, Trump counseled former President Barack Obama over Twitter on the perils of striking Assad. And during his run for the presidency, he promised that his only concern in the Middle East was on annihilating ISIS — and expressed disinterest in military interventions against. Making America great again, he argued, required discarding humanitarian agendas and value promotion, and embracing a hard-nosed pursuit of American interests. In the Middle East, he was concerned with taking on Islamist extremism and taking the oil.
That didn’t happen. After reportedly being horrified by the images of civilian suffering and death after Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria last week — and probably desperate to turn the conversation from Washington talk of his wilting agenda and unseemly connections to Russia — Trump pulled the trigger. He sent cruise missiles flying into the night to send a message to Assad over an uncrossable line — and to any other adversaries of the US who might doubt his readiness to use force.
Since then, it’s been hard to determine what this means for his future position on intervening. His administration officials have been incoherent on the issue, varying in their emphasis on how much Trump cares about Assad’s continued grip on power and their hints on what it would take for Trump to strike Assad again.
Most shockingly of all, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Monday that Trump could order more attacks against the Syrian regime if it uses barrel bombs, a policy that would mean the US would have to attack Syria every day, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp notes. The White House later walked back that claim by saying the barrel bombs would have to contain industrial chemicals, but it was just one of many examples of a total lack of clarity on what the administration really considers a red line.
On a big-picture level, Trump’s strike at Syria over chemical weapons was a departure from Obama’s reticence to do so, but it does fit into the broader pattern of aggressive US intervention in the Middle East that’s been the norm for decades. And it certainly extinguished any of his supporters’ hopes that he’d be an isolationist of any kind.
Russia: When Trump fired missiles at the Syrian air base, it wasn’t just an attack on Assad. It was, indirectly, a strike at Russia — Assad’s ally and most powerful protector in the region. And that has helped torpedo Trump’s already beleaguered agenda to warm ties with the Kremlin, which he discussed with great enthusiasm on the campaign trail.
Russian President Vladimir Putin slammed the Syria strike as an act of "aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law." Moscow announced that it would strengthen Syria’s air defense systems and suspended an agreement that allows the US and Russia to coordinate their air operations in Syria so as to prevent accidental midair collisions between their aircraft.
Over the weekend, top administration officials had stern words for Moscow. “The real failure here has been Russia’s failure to live up to its commitments under the chemical weapons agreements that were entered into in 2013, both by the Syrian government and by Russia as the guarantor, to play the role in Syria of securing chemical weapons, destroying the chemical weapons and continuing to monitor that situation,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on ABC’s This Week.
The Trump administration’s extraordinarily tense press conference in Moscow on Wednesday was a vivid illustration of how wide the gulf between the countries has grown. Tillerson and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov slammed each other over the strike and explained why they can’t trust one another.
Russia refused to back off of support for Assad, and Tillerson said sanctions in Russia would remain in place — and more may be on the way in light of Russian meddling in the election. Trump admitted that relations with Russia “may be at an all-time low.” Trump’s hopes of igniting a lasting bromance with Putin are growing dimmer by the day.
NATO: On Wednesday, Trump decided that he thinks more highly of NATO than he’s let on in the past.
On his path to the White House, he repeatedly slammed NATO as “obsolete” and criticized allies for not pulling their weight on defense spending. Then he reversed his position on NATO, based on the either misguided or deliberately false claim that NATO had “changed their policy” due to his criticism.
Later on, he expressed ambivalence about it. Then right before taking office, he decided that the alliance was, in fact, obsolete. And for the last couple of months, his administration has sent confusing, mixed signals on the US’s stance on NATO.
But on Wednesday, during a press conference, the commander in chief clearly declared: “It’s no longer obsolete.”
He argued that this was in part due to the fact that NATO has evolved to fight terrorism — and attributed the evolution to his own criticism. But NATO was already fighting terrorism before Trump became president.
A few days ago, Trump signed off on Montenegro’s entry into NATO, which expands the military alliance’s reach further into the Balkans. It was yet another gesture of Trump’s alignment with the classic Western status quo on NATO and highlighted the increasingly bleak chances of turning things around with Russia, who detests NATO’s expansion.
China: On Wednesday, Trump betrayed one of his biggest campaign promise on China. For years, he fixated on taking China to task for manipulating its currency in order to give its goods an edge over competitors in global markets. He complained about it back in 2013 when he was a private citizen, and on the campaign trail he constantly vowed that he would put an end to it.
Well, that didn’t happen. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Wednesday, President Trump said that he wasn’t going to deem China a currency manipulator.
“They’re not currency manipulators,” he said, explaining that the Treasury Department won’t be blacklisting China in a hotly anticipated Treasury report that comes out this week. The announcement means that the US and China will be dodging a stand-off that might’ve resulted in an exchange of punitive tariffs that could’ve been the opening round of a trade war.
Trump said he changed his mind in part because he believes that being softer on trade will help get Beijing on board with his agenda to get rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. China has more leverage over the increasingly belligerent nation than any other country in the world, and Trump is realizing that diplomacy is about compromising and prioritizing — not just flexing one’s muscles and barking orders at others.
Export-Import Bank: Not as many people are going to get riled up about this one, but Trump on Wednesday also abandoned his earlier position on the US Export-Import Bank. The Ex-Im Bank, as its frequently called, is a government-run bank that helps export US goods overseas with loans to foreign purchasers. In recent years, it has come under fire from small government conservatives. And it currently lacks full lending power due to the fact that it’s been barred from having enough board members to be functional.
Back in 2015, Trump said, “I don’t like it because I don’t think it’s necessary.”
Now, he’s a fan of it. “Instinctively you would say it’s a ridiculous thing, but actually it’s a very good thing and it actually makes money. You know, it actually could make a lot of money," he said in his interview with the Journal.
While the bank earned a lot of criticism from some on the right in the past few years, it’s generally been uncontroversial during its eight decades in existence.
Is there a method to the madness?
It’s hard to answer why these reversals have come about in such a short period of time, primarily because it’s hard to answer almost any question about what motivates Trump or what his ultimate goals are. We’ve known for a long time that he has no experience with public policy. But what’s striking about a lot of these changes is that they are on huge issues that played a meaningful role in why some of his supporters backed him.
His promise to get tough with China excited his base, much of which has been hit by the effect of trade shocks. His interest in backing away from costly interventions in the Middle East tapped into the hopes of the long-neglected anti-interventionist and isolationist elements of the American right, and resonated with communities who have lost lives to seemingly endless occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. His skepticism of NATO buttressed the narrative that the US gets taken advantage of by other nations and that it needs to reassert its self-interest. His affection for Russia in defiance of the Washington status quo helped convince many that he wasn’t interested in playing by the rules, and that teaming up with other nations against radical Islamists trumped concern over shared values.
There’s plenty of time for a change in direction on these issues. But for now, Trump is quickly trending toward the kind of foreign policy that he was convinced was holding the US back from achieving its former glory.