The Memo

The Memo: Trump puts his stamp on the globe

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President Trump, elected primarily on domestic issues, has surprised critics and detractors alike by putting a big imprint on foreign affairs in his first 16 months in office.

Recent international developments — the president’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the moving of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — are only the latest significant moves.

{mosads}By contrast, Trump’s major achievements at home have been largely limited to the passage of a large tax cut in December and the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court justice more than a year ago.

But in the international arena the list of substantive action is far longer.

Trump has set out to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula with a planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a truly historic event.

He has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and made gains against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Trump also — albeit grudgingly — gave the Pentagon authority to ramp up troop levels in Afghanistan in an August speech.

 Republican strategist Alex Conant, who worked for Trump rival Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) during the 2016 primaries, acknowledged that when it comes to foreign policy: “He has exceeded the expectations of his critics. He is very unorthodox, but that isn’t to say he hasn’t seen some early successes.”

The president’s approach seems to be driven less by any putative Trump doctrine and more by instinct. Few experts are sure of Trump’s exact position on the ideological spectrum when it comes to foreign policy, given his zigzags on issues including North Korea and Syria.

Trump loyalists see this trait as an asset, showing a useful flexibility. Detractors, however, insist that the president’s approach breeds new instabilities. 

Joel Rubin, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State during the Obama administration, said that Trump “really lacks a clear, coherent approach around which adversaries, allies and the agencies — the three As — can orient themselves.”

Rubin cited the example of the recent visit to Washington by French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron’s primary hope as he crossed the Atlantic was that the Iran nuclear deal could somehow be saved.

But he ultimately failed to sway Trump or even get significant concessions, despite having taken significant political risks in making the trip.

“If you are France and Macron, you say, ‘How do we work with this?’ ” said Rubin, who is also a visiting fellow at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Trump, however, clearly thinks that foreign policy figures in both parties are not so wise as they believe themselves to be.

Exhibit A in defense of the president’s unorthodox approach is North Korea. 

When Trump blasted Kim and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea during a speech at the United Nations in September, numerous experts predicted a downward spiral in relations — and feared that war was a real possibility.

Instead, Trump executed an abrupt change of tack in March, agreeing to a meeting with Kim in response to an offer conveyed through South Korea. 

Skeptics note there is no guarantee that anything of substance will emerge from the Trump-Kim summit, set for June 12 in Singapore. 

But the mere fact that it is happening — the first-ever meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president — is a considerable boost for Trump’s approach.

Supporters argue that it is part of a broader picture in which Trump is persistently underestimated.

“He doesn’t articulate and conceptualize things in the way a traditional bureaucrat does,” said James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “There is the showman Trump and the serious Trump. We just see the showman — the tweets and everything else. But you can’t understand the foreign policy just by looking at the surface.”

Carafano argued that the idea of Trump as a chaotic figure was exaggerated.

“This is not a scattershot president. This is not a presidency lurching from fire to fire,” he said. “This is a president going out very deliberately and pursuing policy. [The administration] clearly have a policy direction. They have made all the big policy decisions and now they are just in execution mode.”

Trump has found that executing foreign policy is in some respects easier than domestic policy.

The president’s frequent campaign trail promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, foundered during his first year in office. 

Another huge campaign slogan — building a wall on the southern border — is still a long way from realization, with Congress balking at providing funding.

Amid those frustrations, Trump and Republicans see his foreign policy record as something to tout.

It may be difficult for Trump to reap many electoral benefits from his moves, however.

“Voters primarily care about what impacts them and their families,” said Conant. “Faraway threats that don’t directly involve American lives can be hard to get voters to prioritize.”

There may be political gains to be harvested by incorporating foreign policy achievement into a broader narrative, however. 

As the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem opened on Monday, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, in rare public remarks, stated: “While presidents before him have backed down from their pledge to move the American Embassy once in office, this president delivered. Because when President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it.”

The idea that Trump keeps his promises is repeated often by his allies, even as it is fiercely contested by critics.

But Conant offered a warning, too. 

“The world looks to the United States for predictability and stability. When you look at the world today, few people say it needs more instability. That’s the concern many people have when it comes to foreign policy.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Donald Trump Jared Kushner Marco Rubio
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