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Foreign Policy

Change and Continuity in US Foreign Policy

Jan 18 , 2018
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations


To many outsiders, U.S. leaders seem like the world’s leading armed meddlers (and arms merchants), a perception supported by soaring military action and sinking diplomacy under Trump. (Photo: Getty)

In 2017, U.S. foreign policy was gradually unveiled by President Donald Trump. Its guiding principles, approaches to dealing with major powers, and practice of global governance reflects change and continuity under “America First” with Trump’s characteristics.

Not many people expected Trump to propose a comprehensive foreign policy in the early days of his presidency due to his inexperience as a politician and the vacancies in the State Department and Department of Defense.

However, Trump announced “a principled realism” rooted in common values, shared interests and common sense during his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia. After that, H. R. McMaster, the president’s national security advisor, and Gary Cohen, Director of the National Economic Council, jointly-wrote two articles in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to explain “principled realism” and Trump’s thoughts on U.S. foreign policy. Last December, “principled realism” became an official expression in Trump’s first National Security Strategy report.

The NSS report is not only a summary of the achievements of the past year, but also a set of guidelines for U.S. foreign policy. In the report’s introduction, it states clearly that an American First National Security Strategy is “a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology”. Therefore, “America First” is the general principle for the U.S. to adjust its strategy for seeking peace, security, and prosperity. Although the Trump administration put forward five new “strategies”, all of them were hollow - at most tactical adjustments rather than strategic designs.

The Counter-ISIS strategy and the new Afghanistan strategy have merely given bigger roles to the military while retaining strategic ambiguity on the timetable to withdraw troops. The new Iran strategy seems to be Trump delivering on his campaign promise without considering regional consequences. The “maximum pressure” strategy relying on diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions on the DPRK has not achieved its goal of alleviating tensions or forcing the country back to the negotiating table. The brand new Indo-Pacific strategy is old wine in a new bottle, and hard to implement due to lack of an economic pillar, an effective multilateral platform, and the willingness of regional allies and partners to get behind it.

Trump began with a great ambition to change U.S. policy towards other major powers. However, due to the inertia of the relations and establishment resistance in both the U.S. and other major powers, Trump has to accept the “learning curve” and inherit his predecessors’ legacy.

Trump was eager to restart U.S.-Russia relations, but he was constrained by both domestic and international factors, and the restart has basically failed. As the Russia investigation builds momentum, domestic politics have hijacked U.S.-Russia relations and Trump has already become a lame-duck president on Russia unless the investigation can absolve him.

Transatlantic relations basically returned to stability after the initial “Trump shocks” to Europe. There are three new features of Trump’s policy towards America’s allies. First, remain ambivalent on whether to support European integration or not. Second, adjust U.S. policy towards major EU major powers such as stabilizing U.S.-UK relations by promoting bilateral trade agreements and help adding its leverage to negotiate in Brexit, cooperating with France on security issues, and pressuring Germany on issue of trade deficits. Third, force NATO member states to increase military spending and change its focus to counter-terrorism rather than Russia.

The U.S.-China relationship has also got back on the right track after some brief turbulence because of Trump’s hesitation on the one-China principle. The summits and four comprehensive dialogues have played the role of strategic stabilizer in the bilateral relationship. But the bumps ahead shouldn’t be underestimated. The debate on “whether U.S. policy towards China has failed” is coming back and the new round of “China threat” allegations is emerging in the West, including the criticism of China’s “sharp power”, creating grave problems and challenges in the social and cultural fields, an essential part of the bilateral relationship.

The most revolutionary part of Trump’s foreign policy in the past year is his attitude and actions towards global governance, multilateral regimes, institutions and agreements. To name but a few, the Trump administration announced the withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement and UNESCO, and a $285 million cut in the 2018-2019 UN budget. The administration also withdrew from the TPP and forced Canada and Mexico to renegotiate NAFTA.

If we force ourselves to observe or consider U.S. policy through the prism of Obama’s idealism, it would be puzzling and painful. As the White House website said when the NSS report was released, U.S. foreign policy has entered a new era. In this new era, Trump has retreated from multilateralism to egoism centered on realism. What Trump would like to do is to reverse the mainstream of the current world, to redefine the rules of global interactions, and to replace win-win cooperation with zero-sum competition in the spirit of “America First”.



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