As we transition into a new year, it is important to be able to properly read and respond to President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. The criticism that his foreign policy is inconsistent and lacking principles is exaggerated and not entirely true. Although he has policies that build on existing foreign policy principles, such as the continued deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan, the resumption of U.S. military bases in Poland and continued sanctions with regard to the North Korean nuclear issue, he also has instituted new policies, such as moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, withdrawing from the Pacific Rim Economic Partnership Agreement (also known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership), prohibiting people from certain Muslim countries from entering the U.S. and the construction of U.S.- Mexican border barriers. The United States has also announced plans to withdraw its 2,600 troops from Syria that are fighting the Islamic State, and he is considering withdrawing half of the 14,000 U.S. troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan as well, which is an unexpected shift in U.S. foreign policy.
Though Trump’s foreign policy seems chaotic at first glance, it is in fact based on a very consistent principle. Recognizing that the United States no longer wields the power to control international order, he is maximizing the competitiveness and security of the country through competition and cooperation with regional powers such as China, Russia, Japan and the European Union. He has a realistic view that the source of U.S. national power is not reckless international intervention, but rather that it involves maintaining the balance of power and securing negotiation leverage.
We should not focus on the various slogans and tricky policy shifts President Trump puts forward and instead pay more attention to the underlying signals and direction of his policies – the liberalization of U.S. foreign policy and leverage of negotiation, the restoration of mutual alliances, the restoration of U.S. economic power and the maintenance of U.S. dominance over the energy sector. Trump’s U.S. National Security Strategy declaration in December 2017 to “put the safety, interests, and well-being of our citizens first,” aka “America First,” was one way of declaring this direction. If a year ago, U.S. forces were needed in Syria and Afghanistan given the international situation, now U.S. troops need to withdraw in order to secure negotiation leverage for sanctioning Iran and improving relations with Turkey. After this past Christmas, President Trump doubled down on his position that “America shouldn't be doing the fighting for every nation on earth. Not being reimbursed in many cases, if at all. If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price and sometimes that's also a monetary price, so we're not the suckers of the world. We're no longer the suckers, folks, and people aren't looking at us as suckers." By negotiating the adjustment of defense costs, he is maximizing the U.S. ability to leverage such negotiation in order to secure reciprocity with allies.
In this way, Trump's foreign policy can be called “principled realism.” It has a dual meaning in that the principle of foreign policy must be realistic, and the principle must be to follow realism.
It seems that the Obama administration put U.S. security and energy import lines in danger by signing a multinuclear deal with Iran in July 2015, ignoring the facts and following principles. By directly negotiating with the Iranian absolutist state, the United States gave up protecting its own interests and delegated authority to the multilateral system centered on the United Nations Security Council. Therefore, this time around, facing another absolutist nation, North Korea, Trump is trying to protect U.S. interests and maximize bargaining power by moving away from the United Nations sanctions and maintaining bilateral negotiations and sanctions until the end. That is also the way to maximize U.S. negotiation leverage in trade with China, which is a sponsor of North Korea, and to maximize sharing defense expenses in South Korea. As President Trump has promised, “The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship.” In President Trump's world, the government is not an institution that sets reality, but rather an institution that responds to reality by reflecting it in policy.
In 2019, we have to deal roughly with Trumpism. It’s essential to securing negotiation leverage in advance with the United States instead of exposing our cards with rigid ideological diplomacy.