You can do a lot in 100 days: Begin an exercise program, lose a few pounds and train your puppy. But what can you intuit and learn about a president’s foreign policy in that short span of time, particularly one as mercurial as Donald Trump? Actually, quite a bit.
The mother of all points of departure for unpacking the “Trump 100” is an intriguing paradox: a president who was deemed to be unconventional and unpredictable has become, well, quite predictable, at least on the substance of U.S. foreign policy. We may not yet know what an “America first” foreign policy actually means, but we certainly have begun to learn what it isn’t.
In abandoning almost every foreign policy campaign pledge, President Trump has hewed preternaturally closely to the policies of his Democratic predecessor and the Republican establishment, even while his unsettling personal style, impulsiveness and bracing tweets gives those centrist actions a still impermanent and unpredictable cast. Should this stroke of good fortune continue—and who can be certain that it will?—a pretty conventional bipartisan foreign policy could emerge, one that might help the nation navigate a cruel and unforgiving world.
Then again, we’re only three months in. It is still unclear whether—to paraphrase Yeats—this move to the center will hold and be converted into actual policies that are both functional and sustainable. It is Donald Trump after all.
So let’s take a look at the key takeaways of Trump’s foreign policy at 100 days. In the ever-changing landscape of Trumpland, will they still be relevant and applicable a year from now?
1. Campaigning isn’t governing.
All presidents disappoint. The natural gap between what candidates promise on the campaign trail and what they deliver while in office is always sizeable. But never in our collective experience of 50-plus years working at the State Department under Republican and Democratic administrations have we seen such a huge gap. Part of the problem is that Trump had no foreign policy resume or experience, and his campaign advisers were either unable or unwilling to educate him. So he promised much that he couldn’t possibly deliver.
The other obvious cause for his leap into unorthodoxy was Trump’s need to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Barack Obama. This obsessive quest to present himself as the un-Obama propelled him into a series of presidential-elect firsts: publicly criticizing—and even working against—Obama’s abstention at the U.N. on Israeli settlements; setting up an unprecedented call with the president of Taiwan; a bizarre and very public bromance with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin; and his campaign team’s still-unexplained contacts with Russia. Indeed, before he even put his hand on the Bible, Trump seemed to be offering America the promise of a wild and unruly foreign policy adventure ride never experienced before.
But in head-spinning fashion, his thunderbolts from what seemed like a galaxy far far away have given way to the realities of what it takes to do foreign policy on Planet Earth. Whether you attribute the change to the influence of cooler heads like Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster or to Trump’s own rare moment of public introspection—when he revealed that China’s leader had schooled him on the complexities of North Korea—it has been a topsy-turvy ride.
Just consider Trump’s catalogue of flip-flops. Moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem within 24 hours of the inauguration? Nope. NATO is obsolete? Not anymore. Maybe it’s time to scrap the ‘One China’ policy? Just kidding. China’s a currency manipulator; no, it isn’t. Can’t stand the Export-Import bank; now (after a meeting with the head of Boeing) I like it. Maybe Japan and South Korea need nukes to defend themselves; never said it. I can strike a deal with Putin; now we’re at odds over Syria. The Iran nuclear deal needs to be renegotiated or abrogated; well actually, Iran is complying. I’ll tear up NAFTA; on second thought, maybe that’s not such a good idea. On and on it goes.
Are these whiplash-inducing shifts temporary moments of clarity susceptible to late-night mood swings or early-morning tweets, or are they more enduring trend lines in an ever upward presidential learning curve? We’re hoping for—but not betting our mortgages—on the latter.
2. Trump wants to project toughness.
Obama was no pacifist. He surged troops in Afghanistan, exponentially expanded the drone war and special operations in Africa and the Middle East, decapitated al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and committed the U.S. military in the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Still, his unwillingness to use force to end Syria’s civil war and topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the failure to stabilize and reconstruct Libya after getting rid of its dictator, Muammar al-Qadhafi; his rush for the exits in Iraq; and his administration’s failure to anticipate the rise of ISIS left him open to charges of weakness and the abdication of American responsibility and leadership.
As a candidate, Trump talked tough about eradicating ISIS, but like Obama spoke forcefully against spending trillions on putting the Iraqi and Syrian Humpty Dumpties back together again. Indeed, at the time of Obama’s “red line” fiasco in August 2013, Trump was warning Obama to “stay the hell out of Syria.” Later, as a candidate, he consistently questioned the need to bring down the Assad regime when the primary enemy wasn’t Assad but ISIS.
Barely three months into his administration, Trump, in response to the Assad’s regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, ordered a Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian airfield. In a single highly evocative and symbolic act, Trump set out to create the impression that he was profoundly different and would continue to be different than his predecessor.
Days later, the U.S. military dropped the mother of all distractions bomb on ISIS in Afghanistan—a move that was widely interpreted, probably wrongly, as declaring there was a new sheriff in town ready to get tough with the bad guys. When the president and senior officials subsequently engaged in a weekend war of words with North Korea and claimed (falsely, it turned out) that the U.S. was moving part of a carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula, nervous American allies in South Korea and Japan thought we were on the verge of another Korean war. Despite the bizarre carrier screwup, Trump has received consistently high marks for his response to the Syrian chemical weapons attack and his willingness to give more authority to his military commanders in battle zones. A new image has taken hold of a strong and decisive leader who isn’t afraid to use force to protect U.S. interests and to project a more muscular American leadership.
Still, the question at the end of Trump’s 100 days is very much an open one: Do these actions represent changes in tactics or strategy? Are they one-offs—situational responses without any follow-on actions, or the leading edge in new strategies that will now consistently marry force and diplomacy in the service of clear goals? Will there be another surge in Afghanistan? Has a decision been made to use force in Syria to bring Assad, Iran and Russia to the negotiating table? And now that the Trump administration has abandoned Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” toward Kim Jong Un, do its tough words suggest a willingness use military force against North Korea? It is hard to discern yet any well-defined, coherent and clearly articulated policy on any of these issues.
In short, is the new muscle-flexing a headline or a more enduring trend line? We’re betting on the latter now that the glass ceiling against military action, especially in Syria, has been shattered to such acclaim, particularly for a president who wants to be respected and loved and who fashions himself a tough guy. But we worry that there’s more drift than direction in the administration’s emerging approaches toward Syria and North Korea—and that too much faith is being placed in the use of force to solve what are essentially political problems.
3. Trump’s foreign policy process is deeply dysfunctional.
There have been times during the past 100 days when the administration looked like the gang who couldn’t shoot straight. Of course, all administrations suffer from infighting and turf wars, and new administrations always take some time to get their sea legs. But in the six administrations in which we worked, we have never seen a national security decision making process as dysfunctional as this one. What makes it so?
First, there is the president’s heavy-handed and uncoordinated intervention in the policy making process. His off-hours twitter storms have left allies and friends uncertain and confused about U.S. policies and intentions. Being unpredictable can sometimes create leverage in a transaction, but when taken to an extreme, as has happened, it can also damage American credibility, leadership and influence.
Second, there is the cacophony of voices—or in some cases no voices at all. On a number of issues, notably U.S. policy toward Syria, Israeli-Palestinian peace and North Korea, the president and his foreign policy team are not using the same set of talking points—as when U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley declared that peace in Syria would require Assad’s departure while Tillerson stated that Assad’s fate was up to the Syrian people to decide. The mixed signals sow further confusion and doubt about who’s speaking for the administration on foreign policy. The failure so far of Tillerson and the State Department to effectively articulate and explain U.S. foreign policy is a particular problem, leaving foreign governments guessing about American plans.
Third, effective policy coordination and execution has been MIA largely because almost none of the key policy positions at State or Defense has been filled. Without officials at the deputy, under secretary, assistant secretary, and deputy assistant secretary levels offering ideas, issuing strategic direction and policy guidance, the bureaucracy is left rudderless and U.S. embassies are left without instructions or guidance to explain American policy to the host government.
Fourth, all administrations like to centralize control over sensitive foreign policy issues in the White House, but this typically occurs within a structured interagency decision-making process; ideas bubble up through the bureaucracy in the form of papers, meetings and more meetings. We have seen no evidence that such a process is in place on most issues; instead, there is an ad hoc and improvisational quality to many of Trump’s decisions. More importantly, the portfolios for many important foreign policy issues, such as China, Mexico and Middle East peace, have been handed to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, a foreign policy neophyte overloaded with responsibilities that no mortal can manage and lacking the government experience to work the system to see his preferences enacted.
Kelly, Mattis, McMaster and Tillerson have had a modicum of success lately in bringing a semblance of order to an unruly process. But the administration still does not have the right people in the right positions and with the right process to consistently produce, articulate and implement coherent and sustainable policies.
Over time, this situation may improve as the president begins to understand that people, process and experience matter, and that you can’t have an effective foreign policy without them. But we’re betting the current dysfunction isn’t going to disappear quickly. This will not be a linear process—there will be more zigs and zags because all too often Trump will continue to be Trump—impulsive, pugilistic and volatile.
4. Is our president learning?
For a while, it seemed the president had no learning curve. But in the last two weeks, with reasonably good handling of America’s strike in Syria and his summit President Xi Jinping of China, the president hopefully has absorbed some valuable lessons.
First, other countries have vital national interests that are not for sale. Second, leaders of countries cannot be as easily outmaneuvered, bullied or browbeaten into submission as contractors and real estate investors. Third, the world, and especially the Middle East, is one messy place and trying to clean it up is expensive and risky, as the president seems to understand in his decision not to send U.S. troops to Libya to help restore order. Fourth, America’s options for resolving its most pressing national security challenges are constrained by domestic politics and regional realities, and there are limits on American influence. And finally, despite his penchant for promising so much winning the nation will tire of it, there are no “solutions” to the foreign policy problems America confronts, only outcomes and problems to be managed.
Clearly, the president has benefited from on-the-job learning. His tweets have been less frequent and troublesome; he is listening to more advisers with foreign policy and national security experience; he is delegating more authority to other members of his national security team; and his own rhetoric has become less bellicose and blustery. However, just when you think that greater knowledge and experience have started to trump instincts and emotions, the president and his team reverted to form with their inconsistent and confusing messaging and execution of U.S. policy toward North Korea.
So is Trump learning enough? At 100 days, the real question—one that nobody and perhaps especially the president can answer—is whether he can get out of his own way, particularly if he finds himself in an urgent foreign policy crisis. The true test of who he is, what he’s learned, the caliber of his advisers and whether his administration can protect the nation in perilous times will become evident only then. We’d love to believe. But we’re not holding our breath.