A pattern is emerging in President Trump’s foreign policy: Time after time, he’s doing what he promised to do.
Last week, Trump announced that the United States is formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving its embassy there, even though some of his aides warned that the move could derail peace negotiations.
“I fulfilled my campaign promise,” the president boasted on Twitter. “Others didn’t.”
Before that, Trump refused to certify that Iran is complying with its nuclear deal and renewed his threat to scrap the agreement, despite protests from Britain, France and Germany.
Before that, he pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, despite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recommendation to stay in.
And last weekend, at a campaign-style rally in Florida, Trump renewed his complaint that NATO members aren’t paying their fair share for defense. He questioned whether the United States should defend them in a war with Russia.
“It helps them a hell of a lot more than it helps us, OK?” he said. “So we’ll have a nation that doesn’t pay. Then their nation gets frisky with whoever—Russia. So … we end up in World War III for somebody that doesn’t even pay?”
In Washington, Trump’s aides have tried to polish his rough edges. They have implored him to stick to official texts when he talks about foreign policy. They have assured allies that his positions aren’t as disruptive as they sound. Their message often boils down to: Watch what we do, not what he says.
From time to time, they’ve even succeeded in restraining the president from acting on his initial impulses.
Trump wanted to scrap the Iran deal immediately; instead, he’s agreed to give Congress a chance to impose new sanctions first. (Congress has not complied.)
They persuaded him, after several tries, to reaffirm the U.S. defense commitment to NATO—even though he keeps backsliding.
They persuaded him to give sanctions a chance to nudge North Korea toward halting its nuclear weapons program, even though he says diplomacy is a waste of time.
They convinced him to sign a bill from Congress imposing sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2016 election—even though he still refuses to admit it happened.
But once the president is freed from the constraints of the White House, the old Trump returns: combative, blustery and resentful of the idea that the United States has a special obligation to lead the world.
“My job is not to be president of the world,” he said in Florida. “My job is to be president of the United States of America.”
It’s that “America First” impulse that worries the foreign policy establishment most. They believe Trump is eroding the alliances the United States built after World War II, with a corresponding erosion of American influence.
“I’m scared,” Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of State under President Clinton, said at an Aspen Strategy Group conference this week. “I often called the United States the indispensable nation. We are becoming the dispensable nation. Others are deciding they can do without us.”
“There is a risk,” said Stephen Hadley, a Republican who served as national security advisor under George W. Bush. “The risk is that China, Russia and others will form an alternative international order based on international principles.”
That’s not the only reason Trump’s stubborn fidelity to his campaign promises is chilling. If he sticks to the unalloyed positions he brought to the White House, we’re in for a series of crises: a military showdown with North Korea, if Kim Jong-un continues his nuclear missile program; a break with allies over Iran, if Trump acts on his promise to scrap the nuclear deal; a series of trade wars, beginning with Canada and Mexico if they continue to resist new concessions in NAFTA.
Trump can claim some successes in his first year. The war against Islamic State is coming to a close (although there’s plenty of postwar work to do). He’s pushed NATO countries to increase their defense spending (just not enough to make him happy). He’s on a first-name basis with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Angela Merkel.
But at the age of 71, he hasn’t changed much—and, judging from his speech in Florida, he hasn’t learned much, either.
When he ran for president, he promised, in effect, to destabilize the international order. And he’s delivering.