Donald Trump Jr. (R) watches his father Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump leave the stage on the night of the Iowa Caucus.
(photo credit: JIM BOURG / REUTERS)
Henry Kissinger once quipped that “Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy.” It appears increasingly like this aphorism would be more applicable to the recent months of US President Donald Trump’s administration.
“Asians wonder who is more dangerous: President Trump or North Korean leader Kim Jong Un,” pondered USA Today on August 12. Democrat Keith Ellison, who came in second in a race to lead his party in February, said over the weekend that Kim Jong Un was “acting more responsible than this guy [Trump].”
The endless turnover at the White House and the constant tweeting by the US president has led to feelings that chaos in Washington is damaging the ability of the US to conduct foreign policy.
Let’s review some of the turnover: national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned in February; there have been two communications directors; FBI director James Comey was fired in May; press secretary Sean Spicer left in July; and Reince Priebus also packed his bags as White House chief of staff in July, replaced by Department of Homeland Security head John Kelly.
So far in August, there have been no major shake-ups, but the investigation against Russian meddling in the elections is slowly progressing and will require testimony by top Trump officials and aides.
So some six months in, Trump is already facing the chaos Richard Nixon encountered after five years and which Clinton faced six years into his administration. The foreign policy of Clinton and Nixon were deeply affected by problems in the White House and chaos at home.
For Trump, the test now comes from North Korea with its tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles in July. The UN Security Council unanimously backed sanctions on August 5, but the war of words between Washington and Pyongyang has only increased.
Trump has also threatened Venezuela with “a military option” after the country held disputed elections for its constituent assembly. Trump’s threats against North Korea and Venezuela have annoyed China, Mexico, Colombia and Peru; South Korea and Japan are also concerned.
This puts Trump in an awkward place. The more he threatens and doesn’t carry out his threats, the weaker he looks.
In April, when Trump struck Syria’s Bashar Assad, there was a feeling that this unpredictable president might reverse policies of the Obama administration.
In some countries, especially outside of Europe, Trump’s brand of politics was welcomed.
Fifty Muslim-majority countries attended Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia in May.
Although he was criticized for this, speaking to mostly dictators rather than “the people” as Obama had in Cairo, the reality was that, as an expression of American power, the Riyadh summit was a success.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries welcomed a more robust US policy and hoped the administration would turn a blind eye to human rights issues. Similarly, Turkey had welcomed Trump’s ascendancy, as had Russia. China welcomed US Defense Secretary James Mattis’s diplomatic overtures regarding the South China Sea in February.
But there is ample evidence that initial hopes for the Trump administration on foreign policy, especially from authoritarians who think “we can do business with him,” to other countries that thought he might moderate in office, have been dashed in recent months.
Chaos at home means Trump lacks the political capital and united front back home to confront threats.
North Korea and other countries want to test America’s red lines, as they have former administrations.
Assad and others also watch Washington closely. News that the US was shuttering a CIA-backed program to support Syrian rebels may be only symbolic in importance on the ground, but they send a message to Damascus. NATO powers have expressed concern about US commitments, as well.
This adds up to a toxic mix that can threaten US policy. Foreign policy doesn’t turn on a dime, it is like an oil tanker – it moves slowly and cautiously. Foreign countries expect consistency.
That is why some US allies in the Middle East expressed concern over Obama’s Iran deal.
But Obama enjoyed stability at home. There were no leaks, no special prosecutors, no scandals and no “covfefe” tweeting at midnight.
With Trump, countries that thought they might get a new policy are concerned that what they have instead is a chaotic America that is lurching back and forth on policies abroad. Despite having a competent team around him, Trump needs to reassure the world that domestic issues will not affect US policy.