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Trump’s first 100 days: the foreign policy report card

  • Many in Washington feared Trump would sell out to Russia. That never happened.
  • Sanctions against Russia over Ukraine are in place.
  • Syria was hit with 59 Tomahawk missiles.
  • Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
  • To quote Nikki Haley, "There's a new sheriff in town."

    President Donald Trump sits next to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a bilateral meeting with China's President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
    Carlos Barria | Reuters
    President Donald Trump sits next to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a bilateral meeting with China's President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

    At 100 days, President Donald Trump's foreign policy is a work in progress. It is full of dynamic tension between his American nationalist instincts and a newly found sense of responsibility for global security and economic viability. The Trump Doctrine, when it emerges, will be a synthesis of the two.

    Perceptions of Trump's foreign policy are massively politicized. Many in Washington feared a sellout to Russia when it came to Ukraine, Syria — the works. Nothing like that happened. Sanctions against Russia over Ukraine are in place and Syria was hit with 59 Tomahawk missiles after the Assad regime allegedly gassed civilians — while Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Message delivered.

    In Afghanistan, ISIS was hit with the Mother of All Bombs. The Syrian strike and the Afghan bombing were a signal to "Li'l Kim" of North Korea — and to everybody else: "This is not the Obama foreign policy." Or, to quote Nikki Haley, "There's a new sheriff in town."

    Congress and the FBI are investigating Russian hacking and influence operations against the U.S. electoral system and political campaigns, and that's a good thing: The system is working. Or, so one hopes. At least, the more odious figures are out of the picture.

    Importantly, to fix the disastrous Obama Arab Spring Middle East policy, Trump has reached out to the Sunni Arabs: Prince Muhammad bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia emerged beaming from his recent White House meeting. King Abdullah II of Jordan has visited twice, and President al-Sisi of Egypt has been in town to repair frayed ties. Pro-Western authoritarians from the Gulf to Morocco can now sleep better.

    And speaking of repairing important ties, Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, who was grilled and shunned by the Obama administration, seems to be feeling better. Obama's parting shots in the final days of his administration included a nasty speech by Secretary of State John Kerry after the U.S. abstained in a UN Security Council vote on a resolution on settlements that pilloried Israel without even mentioning continued Palestinian terrorism, advocacy of violence, and sabotage of the peace process.

    However, to say that everything has been sweetness and light in the Trump foreign policy shop would be premature. While the meeting with Theresa May, the British prime minister, went smoothly, and our special relationship with the UK was reconfirmed, the talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany were more difficult. Allegedly, Mr. Trump presented her with a $300 billion "bill" for defense and security services rendered. Merkel is facing a tough re-election battle in the fall, and Germany is the leader of the fourth largest economy in the world, and a pivotal NATO member.

    Another often-quoted complaint is the lack of nominations in the State Department and Department of Defense. Both the President and Secretary Rex Tillerson need experienced hands to help steer the ship of state in today's choppy international waters. The future of the TTP and TTIP trade agreements looks grim, and trade renegotiations will be tough.

    On the brighter side, the Trump National Security Council team is outstanding, with Gen. H.R. McMaster getting highest plaudits, Deputy National Security Advisor Nadia Shadlow steering the national security strategy shop, and two experienced women, Lisa Curtis and Fiona Hill, in charge of the crucial South Asia and Russia portfolios, respectively.

    Trump's foreign policy will face tough tests: in the South China Sea, in Eastern Europe from the Baltics to the Black Sea, and in the Middle East. Trump likes to keep his adversaries off balance and his friends guessing. He has strong ideas about American interests, but is also non-ideological and flexible.

    There is much to be done. The National Security Council is going to develop a hierarchy of American interests, starting with the most vital ones: preventing domination of Europe by one power; balancing China's growing power in Asia; fighting radical Islamist terrorism; preventing Iran and North Korea from obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons. In addition, keeping the homeland safe from cyber threats has emerged as a top priority.

    There has been a great deal of consistency and continuity in American foreign policy and security posture since the end of the Cold War. The Trump administration needs to recognize that while reflecting its heartland political roots and recognizing emerging challenges.

    The hollowed-out military needs to be rebuilt, while America's economic health, troubled by issues from mounting debt to crumbling infrastructure, needs to be restored. This a tall order, but it needs to be done the best way possible.

    The show is just beginning. Hold on to your seats.

    The people are waiting — and failure is not an option.

    Commentary by Ariel Cohen, PhD, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a principal at International Market Analysis.

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