100 Days of Trump

With 'reality setting in,' Trump shifts course on some key foreign policies in first 100 days

Key Points

• Trump seen as unpredictable but national security expert says that's not necessarily bad thing.
• More willing to use military option and with less micromanagement than Obama.
• Ratcheted down tough talk on NATO alliance but still pushing burden sharing.
• North Korea nuclear threat led to softening of administration's China policy.

President Donald Trump applauds aboard the pre-commissioned USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier in Newport News, Virginia, March 2, 2017.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

One thing has become abundantly clear after watching President Donald Trump abandon some long-held positions on foreign commitments: he's unpredictable.

"He's a bit more unpredictable than people thought," said Ed Turzanski, an international policy and national security expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia. "It may not be a bad thing for us relative to our adversaries because strategic ambiguity is valuable."

Some have described Trump's "America First" campaign for president as one of a global isolationist, partly because he pushed for reducing America's commitments abroad and even criticized NATO, an alliance he once called "obsolete."

Moreover, as a candidate Trump suggested the U.S. shouldn't be the world's cop. Some suggest he's done just that, however, by ordering the airstrike this month against a Syrian government base as punishment for the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"No campaign vision of what you're going to do ever completely survives the encounter with a world which has a mind of its own," said Walter Russell Mead, a Hudson Institute fellow and foreign policy scholar at Bard College in New York.

The Syrian action was a switch from the nonintervention rhetoric that Trump had touted before he became president. In the past, Trump's twitter messages had strongly advised President Barack Obama against bombing Syria, and even during the campaign Trump said a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for action in Syria.

"We should not be focusing on Syria," Trump told Reuters in October. "You're going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton."

But on Monday, as Trump met at the White House with members of the United Nations Security Council, his message was different.

"Our nation faces serious and growing threats — and many of them stem from problems that have been unaddressed for far too long," he said.

Trump went on to criticize the council for "failing again this month to respond to Syria's use of chemical weapons." He added that the U.N. group "must be prepared to impose additional and stronger sanctions on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs. This is a real threat to the world, whether we want to talk about it or not. People put blindfolds on decades — and now it's time to solve the problem."

On China policy, Trump has backed off his tougher talk against Beijing after seeing the growing threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea. He met earlier this month with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida and there was discussion about having a trade deal linked to cooperation on the North Korea issue.

A year ago Trump slammed China for "its economic assault on American jobs and wealth." And as recently as February, Trump called out Beijing for being "grand champions at manipulation of currency," a charge he also made frequently on the campaign trail.

Trump explained his reversal on China as a currency manipulator in a tweet on April 16: "Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem."

"I think what Trump has decided is that, yes I'm concerned about China and its economic impact but I'm going to put those on the back burner," said David Davenport, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a California-based public policy think tank at Stanford University. "At the moment, it's China's ability to help us isolate North Korea that is more important."

Davenport also believes labeling Trump's switch on some policies a "flip-flop" as some have done is unfair. "It's a little strong and inaccurate. Any president has to deal with some subtleties of timing and playing one priority off against another, and I think that's what we see Trump doing."

As a candidate, Trump expressed scorn for the U.S. engaging in nation building while also pledging to rebuild the U.S. military. Analysts say there's no doubt Trump is moving forward on his plans to increase defense spending and military readiness and will find more support due to the North Korea situation.

Of course there's also the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump blasted during the campaign but has yet to pull out of. That said, the administration has become more critical of Tehran and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just last week said the pact "only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state."

As for foreign commitments, Trump asserted during the campaign that U.S. taxpayers are paying more than they should for protecting the defense of other nations and called for burden-sharing among allies, including NATO countries.

Indeed, Trump suggested in a speech last spring there should be conditions on allies getting U.S. defense: "The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense — and, if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves."

Yet Trump changed his tune on NATO earlier this month after meeting with the alliance's secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg. Speaking after the meeting, Trump said NATO was now "taking care of terror" so it was "no longer obsolete."

"It's just reality setting in," said James Dobbins, who has served in diplomatic or special envoy roles for four presidents (including ambassador to the European Community) and now directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand, a Washington think tank

Dobbins said he never really believed Trump would withdraw from NATO. "He's affirmed something close to the American position on this more quickly than I would have expected and more unequivocally actually," he said.

At the same time, Trump and his Defense secretary, James Mattis, also are still pressing members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to chip in more money for their own defense. The U.S. wants NATO members to devote at least 2 percent of gross domestic product to defense spending, although only a handful of alliance members currently meet the target.

Meantime, Trump is no longer praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose deployment of nuke-ready missiles is raising alarm within NATO. Back in December, Trump had complimented Putin as "very smart" for not rushing to retaliate after the Obama administration issued new sanctions against Russia.

"It's fine to have foreign policy objectives but sometimes national security events just come up unexpectedly and are sort of beyond our control and end up overriding your long-term foreign policy strategies," said Davenport.

As for Trump's dislike for nation building, it could still be tested during his administration as the situation in Afghanistan is still fluid. The administration introduced a new element into the fight in Afghanistan this month when the U.S. military dropped the "mother of all bombs," or MOAB – a massive bomb weighing nearly 22,000 pounds — on a cave complex to eliminate Islamic State fighters.

Experts say the use of the MOAB as well as the U.S. Tomahawk missile firing on a Syrian government air base as punishment for the regime's alleged use of chemical weapons are both examples of how the current president is more willing to use military operations and with less micromanagement. Trump has increased the number of U.S. troops in Syria and made fighting ISIS a top priority.

"He's clearly authorized the military to initiate actions with a little less day-to-day oversight," said Dobbins. "This hasn't changed the rules of engagement. But it has meant they don't have to check with Washington quite as often as commanders previously did [under Obama]."

Then again, Trump was criticized last week when it was learned the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson wasn't heading toward the Korean Peninsula as had been previously indicated. He said in an interview April 12, "We are sending an armada. Very powerful." Then The New York Times reported Tuesday the carrier was actually still far away.

South Korea's Yonhap News Agency on Thursday ran a story with a headline, "Trump's 'armada' gaffe stains his commitment to alliance." It said the disclosure of the carrier heading to the region "added fuel to military tensions on the divided peninsula."

Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, was asked about it last week and insisted there was no intent to mislead. Some reports chalked up the Vinson matter to miscommunication between the military and the White House.