For all the radical views that he expressed during his campaign, Trump’s foreign policy till now has followed the conventional path.
MICHEAL FLYNN lasted 25 days as President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor (NSA) before resigning in mid-February, making his tenure the shortest in NSA history. His ouster comes, as a growing cloud of scandal envelopes the White House over its reported ties to the Kremlin. The former three-star general left after a series of stories were published in the media of United States of America (USA) outlining his communications with Russia’s ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and as his story changed as to what those conversations entailed. But if Trump thought that Flynn’s departure would close the topic, he was wrong. The US intelligence seems to have collected phone records and intercepted calls showing that people surrounding Trump had been in touch with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. In response, Trump has been hitting back at US intelligence, blaming them for leaking government information. Never before in the history of the US have the nation’s Presidency and its intelligence services been in such a state of war, as it is now. The institutional fabric of the US national security decision-making is fraying, and it is not clear how it can end without both sides losing in the process. But the world is not waiting for Trump to put his house in order.
The Flynn scandal erupted just when North Korea decided to test the Trump administration by test firing a nuclear-capable missile into the Sea of Japan. Despite Trump’s tweeted bravado about getting tough with Pyongyang, the reaction from the White House was less aggressive than some expected. North Korea’s neighbours have increasingly shown openness to engagement with Pyongyang after the Obama administration’s attempts at isolation failed to produce a change in the country’s behaviour, and Trump himself hinted at a willingness to meet directly with Kim Jong Un during the presidential campaign. There are now signs that the Trump administration could be open to diplomatic talks with the North.
This change is not an isolated one. On a whole host of foreign policy issues, the Trump administration is taking positions which can be considered quite mainstream in the American policy world. After Trump’s victory in November, there were concerns in some quarters that he would throw out the mostly bipartisan approach that has shaped American foreign policy for the last 70 years. This perception was based on Trump’s friendliness to Russia, his scepticism of traditional American alliances like members of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and his truly extreme views on Islam. Some initial suggestions from the Trump team confirmed to many that a radical reorientation of American foreign policy might be in the offing. As President-elect, Trump spoke directly with Taiwan’s president, which no US president had ever done, challenging the longstanding “One China” policy commitment of the US.
There were suggestions that the Trump administration would roll back the Iran deal and move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on a priority basis. The Trump team was also signalling that the new dispensation would eliminate sanctions imposed by the Obama administration as punishment for Russia’s hack of the US election.
But after more than a month in office, the Trump administration seems not to have changed much on the external front. The Iran deal remains intact; Trump has conveyed to his Chinese counterpart that the One China policy too remains in place; the Jerusalem embassy move has been abandoned, and Russian sanctions have not been touched so far.
The White House is signalling a different approach to Russia than the one candidate Trump offered during the 2016 campaign. Not only have the Russian sanctions not been touched so far, but now the Trump administration also “expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in Ukraine and return Crimea”. This position is consistent with a statement from Trump’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley saying that American sanctions from Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory would stay in place until Moscow hands it over. During his campaign, Trump suggested that Russia did not have a presence in Ukraine.
Though Trump had mocked the 2015 six-nation nuclear deal with Iran as one of history’s dumbest, he has so far refrained from reneging on it. The Trump administration has reportedly given assurances to the European Union that it is committed to the Iranian nuclear deal.
There has also been growing anxiety among NATO member states over President Trump’s commitment to the Atlantic alliance. Trump has repeatedly expressed scepticism about NATO, saying the alliance was a drain on the US because many of its members do not live up to targets to spend two per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence. While the new Secretary of Defence James Mattis has told members of NATO that they need to increase their defence budgets, his message has been tempered with attempts to soothe frazzled nerves about whether NATO has a future in Trump’s foreign policy. Mattis has already been to Asia in February for talks with Japan and South Korea, two of America’s closest allies, to underscore the importance of Asia in Trump’s foreign policy matrix. Trump’s pronouncements about the need for allies to pull their weight have led to some concerns in the region about his administration’s priorities. In Asia, Mattis tried to address the North Korean threat, China’s moves in the South China Sea and calm jittery allies unsure over Trump’s campaign pledges to pull US troops out of overseas bases in the region.
Mattis did not ask Tokyo to cough up more to pay for protection from the US, as Trump had suggested during the campaign. The most significant statement of his was a reiteration of the US defence commitment to backing Japan in its dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands—islands which China has claimed as its sovereign territory and called it Diaoyo. Much like his predecessor, Mattis too reaffirmed that the uninhabited islands, which have large gas reserves in their territorial waters, are covered by the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America. Though he took on China by suggesting that it “shredded the trust of nations in the region” with the island-building and by using political pressure on states in the region, he refrained from calling for an increase in American military presence in the region.
In South Korea, Mattis addressed the controversy over the joint decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) battery in response to North Korean ballistic missile development. He had already reaffirmed American commitment to the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system to defend against North Korean ballistic missiles despite recent pressure from China to cancel the deployment. In a veiled reference to China’s concerns that THAAD radar could be used to look into Chinese territory, Mattis said, “There’s no other nation that needs to be concerned about THAAD other than North Korea.” He, however, warned that if Pyongyang used nuclear weapons against the US or its allies, it “would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.”
Overall, Trump has nowhere been as radical in his foreign policy so far as many of his critics had suggested. These are still early days, and it is possible that many of Trump’s contrarian ideas might come to pass. But the broader institutional and structural constraints have a way of imposing themselves on an individual’s preferences in a democratic framework like the US. As Trump’s focus turns to India and South Asia in the coming months, it is this reality that should give pause to both the optimists and pessimists in the Indian policy landscape. Trump might not be able to dramatically alter American policy vis-a-vis China and Pakistan, but in all likelihood, he will be able to follow Obama’s trajectory on the India-US relationship. And that’s not a bad place for India to be in.