During his campaign, Donald Trump promised he would “shake the rust off America’s foreign policy” in order to “make America respected again.” As he explained it, this meant not only a radical break from the feckless and weak approach of Barack Obama (a president who in Trump’s words “dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies”), but also a break from the failed approach of both parties that had gotten the U.S. into long and wasteful wars, allowed other countries to free-ride on U.S. security guarantees, and let American jobs escape overseas.
On the campaign trail and early in his presidency, Trump appeared dismissive of past foreign policy practice, if he was even aware of it to begin with. He described NATO as obsolete and threatened to pull the U.S. out of it. He said he was going to label China a currency manipulator—whether or not it’s actually manipulating its currency—and suggested he might abandon the long-standing “One China” policy after taking a call from the president of Taiwan. He promised to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, an action that would inflame Palestinian sentiment. He suggested he would bring back the use of torture for terrorism suspects and load up Guantanamo Bay with “bad dudes.” He promised to “dismantle” the Iran nuclear deal. Most famously, he was bizarrely and suspiciously credulous about the conduct and intentions of Vladimir Putin, and there were signals that his administration was planning to lift sanctions applied over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and U.S. election tampering.
Then he did none of those things.
The events of this past week, including the departure of the main ideologue behind Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, Steve Bannon, and Monday night’s announcement of Afghanistan strategy, will probably be remembered as a turning point in the administration’s foreign policy—from norm-breaking to basically normal. But it’s already been clear for some time that the Trump administration’s approach to the world, not counting the commander in chief’s Twitter outbursts and public fits, is surprisingly conventional. The Trump administration has kept many of Obama’s policies in place; and where it has changed them, those changes have gone not in the direction of Bannonite ultranationalism but toward the recommendations of the very bipartisan foreign-policy establishment that Trump was supposed to disrupt. Most of this administration’s decisions and actions don’t differ significantly from what one might expect from any Republican president, or for that matter, from a hawkish Democrat like Hillary Clinton.
For instance: For all that Trump implicitly bashed Obama during his Afghanistan speech, his new open-ended commitment to the conflict is in some sense a continuation of U.S. policy since around 2015, when it became clear that American troops would be remaining in the country indefinitely. And long before Trump came on the scene, Obama had shifted most of the attention in Syria to the war against ISIS. Trump has, in fact, mostly followed the Obama administration’s general ISIS strategy of using drone strikes, special forces raids, and cooperation with local ground forces to chip away at the territory under the group’s control. Trump has also not reinstated the use of torture—at least, not that we know of—and the population of Guantanamo remains unchanged. The embassy in Israel is still in Tel Aviv. And despite kvetching constantly about the 2015 Iran deal, the president has now twice certified that Iran is in compliance with it. For all the talk of “fire and fury,” there’s been little actual movement toward a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. And while military options, as always, are “on the table,” the administration’s approach toward North Korea has mostly involved a mix of tightening sanctions and cajoling China to do more: a strategy that three previous administrations tried with limited effect. As for Russia, the bad publicity surrounding the Russia investigation and recent sanctions passed by Congress have made it difficult for Trump to get too chummy with Putin, no matter how much he might like to.
Even the moves to roll back Obama’s legacy, announced to great fanfare, are less than transformational. The reversal of the “terrible and misguided deal” with Cuba announced in June is only a partial reversal. It will leave open the embassies in Washington and Havana, allows cruises and direct flights between the countries to continue, and keep in place a number of Obama’s measures meant to make doing business in Cuba easier for Americans. Trump made a major show of pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, to the consternation of European allies and some schadenfreude from China, but the U.S. is technically still a party to the agreement and continues to attend global climate summits. As the blog Climate Home recently explained, the treaty doesn’t allow the U.S. to formally announce its withdrawal until late 2019, and it wouldn’t go into effect until the following year, which is right after the next presidential election as it happens. A U.S. diplomatic cable recently leaked to Reuters instructs U.S. diplomats to be coy about whether the administration would be open to re-engaging with the deal. Trump did reverse one Obama policy by reinstating the “Mexico City Policy,” which bars U.S. funding to NGOs that perform or even discuss abortion, but in that case he was following in the path of his Republican predecessors, not breaking precedent.
So if the status quo is mostly holding, why does everything feel so unsettled? Mostly because Trump himself has been startlingly unconventional in how he plays his own role. On Twitter and in public statements, the president attacks foreign leaders, endorses fictional war crimes, and threatens nuclear war with reckless abandon. Somehow-not-yet-purged White House adviser Sebastian Gorka sees Trump’s Twitter feed as an instrument of American power able to cow other governments into doing America’s bidding. But to the extent there’s a thought process behind Trump’s statements, they are plainly aimed more at his domestic supporters.
In the world of Trump’s Twitter feed, ISIS is being defeated because Trump took the gloves off, not because it was already steadily losing territory before he took office; Saudi Arabia is leading a blockade of Qatar because Trump told them to crack down on terrorist financing, not because this is a long-running regional feud that only marginally involved the U.S.; and North Korea backed off its nuclear threats because they know Trump means business, not because raising and then easing nuclear tensions is a shell game the Kim regime has been playing for over 20 years. As the Pentagon made clear after Trump announced a ban on transgender service members last month, it does not consider his tweets to be official orders. Foreign governments are probably—hopefully—realizing that they are not really statements of policy either.
There are some areas where Trump has, or at least has attempted to, take a genuinely new approach. One was the canceling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and the attempted renegotiation of NAFTA, though the final terms of the latter may be less of a dramatic shift than what was previously advertised. Though the courts have watered it down, the proposed travel ban also marks a shift in how America treats foreign visitors and refugees. Trump has also lifted policies meant to protect civilians in the fight against ISIS and al-Qaida, to disastrous results in Iraq and Syria. But the uncomfortable truth is that he’s mostly acting within the expansive powers to wage war that were handed to him by his predecessor.
Obama and his aides often expressed frustration with what Obama’s foreign-policy speechwriter Ben Rhodes called “the blob”—the informal network of prominent think-tankers, journalists, and politicians who, as a New York Times Magazine profile of Rhodes put it, “whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order” and have never met a problem that American power can’t solve. The blob supported the war in Iraq, then turned on the Bush administration when it started to go badly. The blob urged Obama to do more to support the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad. The blob plainly favored Hillary Clinton and was appalled by Trump, whose “America First” vision suggested a purely transactional foreign policy in which the U.S. takes no responsibility for maintaining the postwar liberal world order. But Trump’s habit of stocking his Cabinet with generals who have conservative but comparatively mainstream views has given the blob a beachhead in the White House. Keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely is a total blob move. So was increasing support for the brutal Saudi air campaign in Yemen, and so was Trump’s missile strike against Assad’s military in April. The blob, it seems, is what’s keeping Trump from doing anything drastic—for good and bad.
It’s possible that bigger changes are coming. I’ve worried that as Trump’s domestic agenda falters, he may shift his energies into foreign entanglements, whether that means more aggressive action against Iran or a horrifyingly dangerous “preventive war” against North Korea. And Rex Tillerson’s ongoing reorganization of the State Department, seemingly purposely designed to sideline and scale back the work of career diplomats, is definitely a concerning shift that could have lasting impacts on U.S. diplomacy around the world. But in the absence of leadership, it appears American foreign policy can just kind of run itself for a while. I don’t know how long that can continue before it slips off the rails.