Dimitri K. Simes
With the right mix of hard and soft power coupled withskillful diplomacy, Trump can still achieve major successes.
AFTER A YEAR and a half in office, Donald Trump’s foreign policy appears poised for success, though some major challenges in approach and execution remain. While still a work in progress, the president’s approach already reflects some commendable and much needed changes, genuinely putting America first and making foes and friends alike take American positions more seriously.
America’s international conduct has become noticeably more muscular, relying on a significant increase in the military budget and a demonstrable willingness to use force. This is particularly true in Syria; Trump’s red lines are more credible than Obama’s, and when Trump threatens to use military force, few are ready to gamble that the American president is bluffing.
Indeed, when the president has decided that important U.S. interests are at stake, he has been prepared to go further than his predecessor Barack Obama. Limited but psychologically effective air strikes against Syria, as well as the decision to supply Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles (which Obama avoided due to fears of escalating the conflict there), show that Trump is willing to use military force not only as a last resort, but as a legitimate and essential tool of American foreign policy. This offers the United States an important advantage in dealing with adversaries like Iran and North Korea. As a result, each is less certain that America will give up on its core objectives if it fails to get what it wants through economic and military pressure.
But there is a lot to worry about too. So far, the administration has struggled to complement appropriate pressure with equally creative diplomacy. Moreover, the president and other key players in his administration often act and speaks inconsistently. Notwithstanding a formal National Security Strategy released in December 2017, the administration continues to lack a coherent strategic framework that defines national security priorities. To be more precise, the administration has yet to define American priorities in a serious analytical manner and has acted as if the United States can escape hard choices and the risks of potentially costly unintended consequences.