On January 17, just three days before the inauguration, a reporter for Israel’s largest newspaper approached President-elect Donald Trump at a black-tie event to ask about his promise to break with decades of bipartisan foreign policy and move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
“Of course I remember what I said about Jerusalem,” Trump replied. “You know that I am not a person who breaks promises.”
Except, of course, when he does.
In his first week in office, Trump told Fox News that it was “too early” to talk about moving the embassy to Jerusalem; three months later, there is no sign that it is under serious consideration or will happen soon, if at all. Many Israelis were also taken aback when Trump used a February press conference to publicly ask visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “hold back on [West Bank] settlements” — a comment that could have easily come from President Barack Obama.
The vast gulf between Trump’s words and deeds extends way beyond Israel, and it’s the single most important thing to understand about the way the new president has been approaching the world. From North Korea to China to NATO, Trump has talked about jettisoning the Obama administration’s foreign policy and replacing it with something far more aggressive. And from North Korea to China to NATO, he hasn’t done so.
Instead, Trump has largely kept those policies in place, surprising — and reassuring — many key US allies around the world. And Trump hasn’t just retained the policies themselves; he’s also retained some of the Obama administration officials that had helped craft them. Tom Shannon, a career diplomat who had the number-three post in Obama’s State Department, has kept that post in Trump’s. Brett McGurk was Obama’s special envoy for the anti-ISIS fight; he’s serving in that same role for Trump.
“Trump starts by talking tough about China, North Korea, and NAFTA, but then he starts dialing thing back to pretty much where they were,” said Janine Davidson, who served as under secretary of the Navy during Obama’s second term.
“People who voted for Trump based on what he said he would do won't be happy,” Davidson told me. “People who didn't vote for Trump because he scared them may be cautiously optimistic that he's not changing nearly as much as he said he would.”
There are exceptions, though — most notably in Syria, where Trump ordered a missile strike against a Syrian airfield after the country’s autocratic ruler, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons against his own people. Even there, though, Trump chose the least aggressive of the options he’d received from the Pentagon and has yet to take any further action against Assad.
And then there's North Korea, where the administration has made muscular threats of preemptive strikes but has so far basically maintained Obama’s policy of diplomatic and economic pressure on the rogue, nuclear-armed nation. The confusing rhetoric was on full display yesterday as Trump told Reuters that there was a chance of a “major, major conflict” with Pyongyang just as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was saying the US was committed to a diplomatic solution and was potentially even open to direct talks with North Korea.
Trump spent the campaign warning that a Hillary Clinton presidency would effectively be a third Obama term. Key parts of Obama’s foreign policy are in fact getting a renewed lease on life; the surprising thing is that Trump is the one providing it.
During the campaign, Trump routinely said the 28-nation military alliance was “obsolete” and threatened to pull the US out of it — a move that would effectively gut the organization — unless other countries dramatically raised their defense spending. Earlier this month, by contrast, Trump used a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to bluntly say the exact opposite.
"I said it was obsolete," Trump declared at the White House. "It's no longer obsolete."
Trump, being Trump, followed the statement with a lie — that NATO had begun fighting terrorism since he took office, something the alliance has actually been doing for years — but his renewed commitment to NATO made headlines around the world because it meant that Obama’s policy toward the alliance wasn’t going to be changing anytime soon.
The most startling part of Trump’s campaign rhetoric had to do with Russia and its dictatorial ruler, Vladimir Putin.
Trump repeatedly praised Putin — who has brought the country to one-man rule, cracked down on dissent, arrested political opponents, and killed or exiled journalists — as a strong leader. He refused to condemn Putin’s abysmal human rights record, notably telling then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly that US has “a lot of killers,” too.
Trump also spoke of a new era of warmer relations with Moscow — one that could include the lifting of US sanctions imposed after it invaded Ukraine.
The president’s personal rhetoric about Putin hasn’t changed; he still refuses to say anything bad about the Russian strongman. But his administration’s policy looks a lot different than what Trump had promised.
US troops are still stationed in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, and Trump has explicitly signed off on implementing an Obama vow to deploy 900 new US troops to Poland.
Sanctions on Russia resulting from its invasion of Ukraine remain in place, as do sanctions the Obama administration put in place in response to Russia’s interference in the US election. With the FBI, the House of Representatives, and the Senate all probing Trump’s Russia ties, any administration move to lift the Obama-era measures would be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.
“There is no deviation from the line that existed prior to January 20,” Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO and current president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told my colleague Zack Beauchamp earlier in April.
Forget about Trump making concessions to Moscow; if anything, the US relationship with Russia is worse now than it was during the Obama years because of Putin’s steadfast support for Assad. Moscow harshly criticized the recent US missile strike on Syria and vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling on Syria to cooperate with a probe into the chemical attack.
For her part, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley gave an impassioned speech at the UN in which she held up photos of children killed in the gas attack and asked, "How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”
US intelligence agencies believe Putin interfered in the election to help Trump win. The Russian leader got the president he wanted. He may also be experiencing a serious case of buyer’s remorse.
Trump has spent years attacking China for allegedly manipulating its currency in order to make its exports cheaper, a move that makes American-made goods more expensive in the Chinese market. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to label China a currency manipulator if elected, something Obama had refused to do.
That abruptly changed earlier this month, during an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
“They’re not currency manipulators,” Trump said flatly.
There was a simple reason for the change: Trump wants Beijing to help rein in North Korea. And it’s in Trump’s handling of that mercurial, nuclear-armed regime that the widest gulf between what Trump says about foreign policy and what he does has emerged.
There have been a few moments in recent weeks where a direct US military confrontation with North Korea seemed like a real possibility.
In late March, Tillerson told reporters in South Korea that the Trump administration was prepared to abandon diplomatic efforts to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program, warning that preemptive military action against the reclusive and nuclear-armed regime was “an option.”
In a phrase that immediately ricocheted around the world, Tillerson said that the Obama administration’s “policy of strategic patience has ended.” Tillerson said that Trump didn’t want to get into a shooting war, but that “if North Korea takes actions that threatens South Korean forces or our own forces, then that will be met with an appropriate response.”
On the surface, things have only escalated. The Trump administration has a large US Navy carrier strike group steaming toward the region (yes, the same one that Trump had falsely said was heading there last week). And a US submarine docked in South Korea earlier this week as part of an explicit show of force.
North Korea has responded with threats to sink a US aircraft carrier and destroy American military bases in Japan (though it’s far from clear the country could pull off either one). On Tuesday, it test-fired huge numbers of its artillery pieces (large guns capable of hitting distant targets), including many of the ones capable of striking South Korea. Many observers expect North Korea to conduct a nuclear test — its sixth in the past 11 years — by Trump’s 100th day in office, or shortly thereafter.
Trump, for all of his harsh rhetoric, has for the moment been largely sticking with the Obama administration’s North Korea policy. As my colleague Jennifer Williams noted, Trump has so far taken only the relatively modest steps of beginning the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system to South Korea while pressuring China — North Korea’s most important ally — to put more diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang.
Trump has also talked about slapping new sanctions on North Korea, a tool that Obama used, to little effect, during his own presidency.
The lack of a new approach wasn’t lost on the scores of senators who trekked to the White House Wednesday for a highly-unusual administration briefing on North Korea (the entire Senate had been invited; not all lawmakers attended). Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Oregon Democrat, told CNN that senators “learned nothing you couldn't read in the newspaper.”
That was due in large part to what the administration said, and to what it didn’t. After the session ended, Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats released a joint statement that said, in part, that:
The president’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners.
The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We remain open to negotiations towards that goal. However, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our Allies.
During a Thursday morning session at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a right-leaning think tank, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton, currently the top US diplomat for East Asian policy, was asked whether there were any substantive differences between Trump’s approach to North Korea and Obama’s.
“It’s a matter of timing, priority, urgency, and amount of resources we’re throwing behind the effort,” she said. “It’s the number one security challenge that we’re facing right now according to the administration and the president, so we will be pursuing it in that vein.”
That was it. There was no talk of new tactics, new strategies, or anything that went beyond diplomatic and economic measures. When it comes to a country as heavily armed and unpredictable as North Korea, that type of continuity may be a good thing since the impact of an administration misjudgment could be literally catastrophic.
Good or bad, though, there’s one thing the Trump administration’s North Korea policy — like its foreign policy more generally — does not represent: any kind of real break from Barack Obama’s.