For all the tumult that has defined President Donald Trump’s domestic policy, his foreign policy is relatively stable.
There are some notable differences, but what went on before is pretty much what is going on now—a surprise given the expectations.
Trump promised to disengage from burdensome commitments to other countries, shifting the risks and costs of the security of allies away from the United States.
He promised to enact policies that promote US national interests, which he defined as US economic security… not global security.
But the reality seems to be different.
Trump Is Pursuing the Long-Standing Policies of Washington
Tests to Trump’s campaign pledges came early. In most cases, Trump's response has been to keep prior policies.
In Syria, the Bashar Assad regime released sarin gas on a village. Trump regarded the attack as morally unacceptable, so he ordered the US military to attack a Syrian air base.
President Barack Obama shied away from doing even this when his famous red line was crossed. But Trump—in a situation where US interests (narrowly understood) were not involved—responded.
And then there is North Korea, a country that is not a nuclear threat to the US. Rather, it is a threat to Japan and South Korea.
During the campaign, Trump said Japan ought to develop its own nuclear weapons. In other words, he said that North Korea was a Japanese and South Korean problem, not a US problem.
But when it seemed that North Korea was close to deliverable nuclear weapons, Trump acted. This has been the definition of US policy on North Korea for several administrations.
And it is a vital policy in Washington’s relationship with Beijing. Trump has said that the US would make trade concessions to China if China helped the US on the North Korea issue.
This is a long-standing strategy that Washington has pursued. In fact, there has generally been more continuity than disruption in US-China relations.
The US has not shifted its stance on Russia either.
The expected warming in US-Russia relations has not happened. Washington has neither abandoned its sanctions policies nor backed off its commitment to the Ukrainians.
US deployments in Eastern Europe have continued. Larger air bases are being built in Romania, and troop rotations in the Baltics and Poland are underway.
Meanwhile, the US relationship with NATO remains intact. Trump campaigned on the notion that NATO should be redefined, but he has since reaffirmed US commitment to NATO.
Trump Is a Hostage to History
The countries that hope or fear that the US may soon change its course will have to wait a little longer.
This is the reality of foreign policy.
In spite of the wishes of presidents, the United States is part of the global system economically, militarily, and politically. Sudden moves—outside of rhetoric—are impossible.
The structure of the system forces nations to move slowly. Economic relations are extremely complex and are thus resistant to change. Each move has painful outcomes.
The international posture of the US is even harder to change than its healthcare system. It is a posture that has been sinking its roots into the global system since World War II.
Altering this can be difficult if not impossible without harming US interests.
In the end, presidents are confined by reality. And the reality is that the United States, which accounts for a quarter of the world’s economy and is the largest military power, is deeply integrated with the rest of the world.
Disengagement may be desirable, but it may not be viable, at least not in the short run.
A hundred or so days is an absurdly short period of time to assess long-term policy. But the fact is that Trump’s foreign policy has been careful and conventional.
Aside from major wars like World War II, history moves slowly, and presidents are hostages to history.
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