Donald Trump: Foreign Affairs
With his inaugural address, Trump underscored that his foreign policy would be defined by “America First,” a campaign slogan that to critics conjured the discredited 1930s opposition to intervening against fascism and, more generally, the US retreat from its long-standing global leadership. But to many Americans who were weary of years of military action and US interventions abroad, Trump’s message was a welcome one. Many felt that globalization had put American workers behind international interests, and they supported what they saw as Trump’s defense of their livelihoods.
However, there were contradictions to his positions. Even as he assailed foreign aid to defend allies, including in NATO, and lambasted the cost of projects like the F-35 jet fighter, Trump also called for increased military spending and for an offensive to obliterate ISIS and other “radical Islamist terrorist” groups, in alliance with Russia. The inconsistency common in Trump’s foreign policy positions was dramatically illustrated by his first major military action in early April 2017. Just days after his secretary of state, United Nations ambassador, and press secretary all said that the United States must accept the reality that Bashar al-Assad would remain as leader of Syria, Trump ordered cruise missile strikes against a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack and warned more actions against Assad’s government could be coming.
During the presidential campaign, Trump vowed to break or renegotiate a range of international pacts, and on his first Monday in office he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with 11 Pacific Rim allies, which President Obama negotiated as a bulwark against a rising China. Other agreements he opposed include the landmark Paris agreement on climate change, the multination agreement with Iran to prevent its construction of nuclear weaponry, and the two-decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. He also expressed support for torture of terrorists, despite federal and international law against it.
Trump called for a tougher stance against China, in keeping with his protectionist trade stance. He also wanted high punitive tariffs on imports from China, Mexico, and other nations he deemed unfair traders. He emphasized a closer alliance with Israel. To that end, he moved quickly to embrace Israel’s hard-right prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Obama had a fraught relationship. He also supported the expansion of Israeli settlements in disputed territories and the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. The last two steps would be contrary to years of presidential policy and international consensus, and it was widely said that they would be barriers to Middle East peace. Soon after taking office, Trump seemed to retreat some on both issues; he said seeking an accord between Israelis and Palestinians was a priority (and one that son-in-law Jared Kushner would help secure, despite his lack of diplomatic experience).
A defining aspect of the Trump presidency promised to be his affinity for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whose relations with the United States and Western allies were strained by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, support for pro-Moscow separatists in the Ukraine, and alleged war crimes in Syria to prop up its leader, Bashar al-Assad. Yet senior Senate Republicans did not share Trump’s pro-Russian bent, and they sent that message as they considered confirmation of his national security team, including Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, who as head of ExxonMobil opposed international sanctions against Russia; Defense Secretary James N. Mattis; and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. Besides Tillerson, Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, also was criticized for his pro-Putin history, but he did not require Senate confirmation. However, Flynn was forced to resign in February 2017 after he admitted to misleading Vice President Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador before Trump assumed office.
Trump initially did little to draw closer to Putin or to Russia generally, as leaks and news reports continued to fan the controversy over Russia’s election meddling and whether the Trump campaign in any way colluded with Moscow to embarrass the Democrats. The FBI and both the House and Senate intelligence committees confirmed that they were investigating Russia’s actions and whether Trump associates were complicit.