Trump Administration Foreign Policy at a Crossroads

Some promising developments, but Obama’s shadow remains.

Barack Obama subordinated America’s national interests to his notion of global citizenship under the umbrella of strengthened multilateral organizations and international norms. He also believed that American power needed to be contained. 

President Trump’s stated approach to virtually all issues relating to foreign policy is to put American national security and economic interests first. It explains his budget priorities, which would add billions of dollars for defense and border security, while cutting back on programs at the State Department undergirding so-called “soft diplomacy.” President Trump also views such global issues as trade, immigration, climate change and participation in multilateral institutions through the prism of “America first.” Thus, his budget blueprint would reduce U.S. funding contributions to the United Nations and multilateral development banks, while ceasing payments altogether to the United Nations’ climate change programs. It projects more reliance on America’s “hard power.”

However, aspirations are one thing. Implementation is another thing altogether. While it is far too early to grade the president’s performance in reaching his stated foreign policy goals, certain trends are emerging that raise concerns. 

As Lee Smith wrote in Tablet on March 15th, “Trump’s tough-as-nails ‘America first’ foreign policy is starting to look like Obama Lite—the exact same policies, implemented by the exact same people.”

To be sure, President Trump has met roadblocks along the way, which have hindered his progress in fulfilling his “America first” campaign promises. Most notably, Senate Democrats have obstructed President Trump’s ability to fill key foreign policy positions in his administration, allowing Obama holdovers to continue exerting undue influence on U.S. foreign policy.  However, some of the ”Obama Lite” syndrome is self-inflicted.

For example, even with respect to Israel, the Trump administration decided to keep one of Israel’s fiercest critics from the Obama administration, Yael Lempert. She had served on the National Security Council under Obama, and has been asked to stay on at least for the time being.  Michael Ratney, a confidante of John Kerry and former U.S. consul to Jerusalem, will be leading the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio at the Trump State Department. He was reportedly involved, while serving as Jerusalem consul, in supporting the attempt to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s 2015 election. 

The Trump administration is stepping up the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, with more direct involvement of American troops. However, the strategic approach so far is on the same trajectory as the Obama administration’s strategy. Any victories in Iraq or Syria over ISIS are likely to be short-lived in terms of U.S. interests as along as the U.S. continues to rely on the help of Iranian backed Shia militia, which was the case during the Obama administration. According to Lee Smith, this Iranian tilt in the fight against ISIS could well continue because the Trump team has selected as its U.S. envoy for countering ISIS the same man who performed that function for the Obama administration, Brett McGurk. McGurk was “the point man” for Obama’s pro-Iran policy. He was President Obama’s lead negotiator in the hostage for ransom swap with Iran, which Donald Trump denounced at the time.

Lee Smith also reported that former National Iranian American Council staffer Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who served in the Obama administration as National Security Council director for Iran, is now on the Trump State Department’s policy-planning staff. She is in charge of the Iran portfolio. She was a strong advocate for the nuclear deal.  Chris Backemeyer, currently the deputy assistant secretary for Iranian affairs under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is yet another Obama holdover who had lobbied hard for the nuclear deal with Iran. 

It is no wonder that, despite President Trump’s and his senior officials’ sharp rhetoric against the Iranian regime, nothing has materially changed with respect to Iran from the Obama days. Iran has continued to fire more ballistic missiles, fund terrorists and badger U.S. naval ships in international waters. Yet the nuclear deal that President Trump has called “disastrous” remains intact, with all of its financial goodies bestowed on Iran.  Incredibly, the Trump administration is continuing the Obama administration’s green light for Boeing to sell potentially dual-use airplanes to Iran

There are some bright spots.  For example, President Trump’s choice to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, put the UN on notice as soon as she arrived at UN headquarters for her first meeting with UN Secretary General António Guterres.  “You’re going to see a change in the way we do business,” Ambassador Haley told reporters. She added that the U.S. would “have the backs of our allies and make sure our allies have our back as well. For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names; we will make points to respond to that accordingly.”

One ally whose back the Trump administration is protecting at the UN is Israel – a clear departure from the Obama administration, which refused to block a blatantly anti-Israel Security Council resolution passed last December. Ambassador Haley has repeatedly criticized the anti-Israel bias that has filled the chambers of the UN for too long. And she has already notched a couple of concrete victories. She stopped in its tracks the UN Secretary General’s plan to appoint a former Palestinian prime minister to a senior level UN position as the UN envoy to Libya. Ambassador Haley said in response to news of the proposed appointment, which she strongly opposed, “The United States does not currently recognize a Palestinian state or support the signal this appointment would send within the United Nations… Going forward the United States will act, not just talk, in support of our allies.”  

And just last week, after Ambassador Haley strongly objected to a disgraceful report issued by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) labeling Israel “an apartheid regime,” Secretary General Guterres disassociated his office from the report and directed that it be removed from the UN’s official website. Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of ESCWA, Rima Khalaf, promptly resigned. Ambassador Haley responded: “When someone issues a false and defamatory report in the name of the UN, it is appropriate that the person resign.”

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether, outside of the UN, the tense relationship with Israel that characterized the Obama era will remain because of the influence exerted by Obama holdovers such as Yael Lempert and Michael Ratney.

President Trump’s stances on immigration and trade, which are sharply at odds with the policies of the previous administration, are having some positive impact. The illegal border crossings at the U.S.-Mexican border have dropped considerably since President Trump took office. However, Obama-appointed activist judges have placed holds on successive executive orders temporarily suspending the entry to the United States of refugees and of persons from designated terrorist-prone countries who do not have green cards or previously issued visas. 

Canada and Mexico have expressed willingness to renegotiate NAFTA. At a meeting of the finance ministers of the Group of 20 nations (G-20) on Saturday, they dropped from this year’s communique a pledge they made last year to “avoid all forms of protectionism.” The communique also omitted any mention of climate change.

President Trump has confirmed his support for NATO, which he had previously criticized, but is pressing for its European members to shoulder more of the financial burden. When President Trump met with Obama’s close buddy German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, they discussed Germany’s insufficient contribution to NATO’s budget as well as trade. Chancellor Merkel has not heard such frank talk from a U.S. president in some time. She confirmed Germany’s intention to pay the agreed upon two percent of Germany’s GDP towards funding NATO. In a departure from her customary defense of globalism, she said at her joint news conference with President Trump, “I speak with the President of the United States, who stands up for, as is right, American interests.” 

Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” which rested largely on the success of the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty (TPP), is in limbo as a result of President Trump’s abandonment of TPP. Instead of one all-encompassing multilateral treaty, the Trump administration is planning to seek more bilateral trading agreements. President Trump’s meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month set a positive tone.

Relations with China are also in flux. Significant differences remain regarding trade, North Korea and China’s build-up in the South China Sea, which will no doubt be subjects discussed next month when President Trump and President Xi Jinping meet. Regarding North Korea in particular, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled a tougher U.S. approach in advance of his visit to China, which did not rule out the use of military force. He said the Obama era of “strategic patience” was over. How much of this is just rhetoric remains to be seen. 

Despite such departures from Obama’s foreign policy priorities, the former Obama administration continues to cast a long shadow. President Trump’s foreign policy is at a major crossroads. If the president truly wants to put America first and achieve his stated objectives, he must first purge his administration of all Obama holdovers wherever they may be lurking.