President Donald Trump sought to hew to an “America First” approach in his first year as commander in chief, urging other countries to similarly look out for their best interests in a bid for collective prosperity.
But even in light of that guiding principle, critics, including former top U.S. diplomats, have seen little consistency and much contradiction in the talk, tweets and actions that make up Trump’s foreign policy.
“Donald Trump did not invent a world in disarray, but he has contributed to it,” Richard Haass, a State Department official under President George W. Bush, said in a Council on Foreign Relations podcast. “The bottom line would be that the United States has added a degree of uncertainty, of unreliability.”
Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, in a tweet called Trump “erratic.”
But Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s secretary of state, told Fox News that Trump’s unpredictability can be an asset, adding, “You want, however, to watch your rhetoric.”
The president’s defenders say the mark of his foreign policy has been strength, resolve, and finally leading from the front.
The debilitating blow U.S. and coalition forces dealt to Islamic State-held territories has shown “that American leadership is back, that there will be no more apology tours,” Sebastian Gorka, former strategist and deputy assistant to Trump, told Newsday.
War with North Korea thus far has been contained to words.
Trump’s rhetoric has careened from bellicose to diplomatic.
In September, he said in a United Nations address that, if forced to defend itself and its allies, the United States “will have no choice but to totally destroy” Kim Jong Un’s rogue regime.
Then, two weeks ago in a Wall Street Journal interview, Trump touted the prospects of a “very good relationship” with Kim.
This, despite taunting Kim in tweets as “Little Rocket Man” and “short and fat” and boasting of having a “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear button than Kim’s.
The president also undercut his secretary of state, tweeting that Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” on exploring possible talks with North Korea.
Tillerson has had to find the balance among backing up his boss, reassuring the American public and allies on the Korean Peninsula, and trying to bring Pyongyang to the table.
Trump last week offered perhaps his harshest words yet on Russia in the context of North Korea.
“Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” Trump told Reuters. Then adding that China had limited supplies to North Korea when Russia had not, he said, “What China is helping us with, Russia is denting.”
Trump had resisted criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and has called investigations into links between his 2016 campaign and Kremlin cyberattacks a “witch hunt.”
Tillerson is working with a shrinking U.S. diplomatic corps that critics have called a gutting. He has offered buyouts and early-retirement incentives.
Sixty percent of the department’s top-ranking career officials have left with the number of new applications reduced by half, according to a McClatchy report that cited American Foreign Service Association data.
The U.S. ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, stepped down late last month, saying he could not serve under Trump.
The hiring freeze, proposed budget cuts and reorganization efforts are “putting our nation’s ability to carry out diplomacy at risk,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) wrote in a letter last month to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
Tillerson, in a year-end op-ed in The New York Times, described the changes as a “redesign” to “address root problems that lead to inefficiencies and frustrations.”
The United States and its allies have beaten back the Islamic State, destroying the extremist group’s physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The president has characterized an Islamic State in retreat as one of the most underreported Trump victory stories of the year.
Gorka told Newsday the Trump administration exerted a “will to win” where President Barack Obama did not.
“We went from a death of a thousand cuts and a strategy of attrition to a strategy of annihilation,” Gorka said. “An organization that had become the most powerful jihadi threat group since the dissolution of the original caliphate in 1924 is now on the run.”
In that instance and others, “America First” came to mean protecting the homeland rather than isolationism.
In April, Trump ordered a missile strike on Syria in retaliation for the deadly chemical attack by President Bashar Assad on his own people.
In August, Trump kept with past policy by announcing he would reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the war in Afghanistan because “hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum” for terror groups.
Last month, he reversed decades of U.S. policy by acting on what past presidents had only promised to do: He formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were part of the chorus of Western and Arab allies who saw Trump’s Jerusalem decision as a threat to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Trump’s relationship with allies in the West has been bumpy, in part because he has shunned long-standing multilateral arrangements he sees as detrimental to U.S. interests.
He pressured NATO members to contribute more funds toward their collective security. He announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. And amid repeated condemnation of the Iran denuclearization deal, he recently extended a waiver of sanctions against Iran but gave Congress and Europe 120 days to make improvements.
Trump has criticized European allies directly. In May, he tweeted: “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S.”
Merkel around the same time told fellow Europeans: “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over.”
While Trump has yet to act on several campaign threats he made to trade agreements, he formally pulled the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership just after taking office.
The TPP, involving allies such as Japan and Australia, was to serve as a counterbalance to economically ascendant China, which he repeatedly lambasted on the campaign trail.
Trump reopened the North American Free Trade Agreement to negotiations but hasn’t made changes.
Mexico, a party to that deal, was a primary target of Trump’s ire on the campaign trail. The country also was to be the one Trump wanted to foot the bill for the border wall, but it has refused.
Still, Trump tweeted last week: “The Wall will be paid for, directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico, which has a ridiculous $71 billion dollar trade surplus with the U.S.”
In a similar vein, Trump hasn’t acted on the harsh campaign language he used against China. He hasn’t brand Beijing as a currency manipulator or impose tariffs or other penalties.
The president has said that as long as China keeps pressure on North Korea, the United States will delay action on trade, noted Bonnie S. Glaser, senior adviser for China at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
But the prospects of a trade war aside, the administration’s strategy reports show it recognizes China as a threat on the national security and defense fronts, she said.
“The trade frictions could easily spill over into other issues and lead to a much more adversarial relationship,” Glaser said.