The making of American power (5): Trump’s foreign policy

This week, I attended the last session of an excellent eight-week evening class at London”s City Literary Institute. The title was “The making of American power: US foreign policy from the Cold War to Trump” and our able lecturer was Jack Gain. Week 8 of the course was about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy over the last two tumultuous years.

One point made was that what Trump has said – in tweets and speeches – and what he has done – in actual events – have not always been the same. So he originally questioned the whole necessity of NATO but subsequently confined himself to calling for each NATO member to spend 2% of its GDP on defence – a call made by Obama and other presidents . He branded the North Korean dictator “rocket man” but has been willing to meet him twice – something no other president has done.

Another point is that, when one looks at the actions rather than the words, Trump has not always been as different as liberals feared or as conservatives hoped, so there has been more continuity in American foreign policy than might be appreciated. After all, Obama was keen for the US to pull back from overseas adventures and unwilling to engage in Syria.

In an interesting article for “Foreign Affairs”, neoconservative Eliot A. Cohen observes:

“What explains this continuity? Part of the reason is that Trump seems to have a short attention span, little understanding of how the federal government works, and a tendency to get distracted by domestic political fights. Insider accounts of the administration should be taken with a grain of salt, but they paint a consistent picture. In an anonymous New York Times op-ed, one insider described being told by a “top official” that “there is literally no telling whether [Trump] might change his mind from one minute to the next.” It is unsurprising that a man who by some accounts gets most of his news from television cannot get a grip on the vast complexity of the U.S. government.

The Times op-ed points to a second, undeniable fact: Trump faces unprecedented opposition from within his own administration. This opposition has only grown as Trump has replaced his initial cadre of advisers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are both more familiar with Washington than their predecessors and more adept at telling the president what he wants to hear. Both hold views of foreign policy that are not wildly distant from those of establishment Republicans; they just take care not to rub them in Trump’s face.”

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