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Reviewing Trump’s 2017 Foreign Policy Record

The first year of the Trump administration saw much more than the continuity in U.S. foreign policy that many of us expected. Trump’s candidacy and then his election were greeted with alarm by almost everyone in the foreign policy establishment, with an overwhelming consensus that he stood for a so-called “isolationist” withdrawal from international affairs. This interpretation was a serious misreading of Trump’s rhetoric and led to the usual knee-jerk reflex to define anything that differed from post-Cold War foreign policy as an outright rejection of all international engagement. As Trump’s policies have shown, he is open to a kind of international engagement, but it is one that is heavily militarized and defined by zero-sum contests with adversaries and allies alike.

Trump is not interested in disentangling the United States from foreign conflicts. Instead, he continues and expands them, as well as stoking new crises that could erupt into conflict. Trump is easily persuaded to accept conventional foreign policy positions so long as they are the more aggressive alternatives available. When he does break from consensus views, he does so in a unilateral and nationalist fashion that repudiates diplomatic compromises, rejects the legacy of his predecessor, and panders to some of his core constituencies at home.

As 2018 begins, America is now even more deeply involved in the multiple wars that Trump inherited from Obama. There are a growing number of U.S. forces in Syria, more American soldiers have been sent to Afghanistan to continue our longest war, and U.S. backing for the Saudi-led war on Yemen has ratcheted up as well. In each case, Trump has signed off on increased U.S. involvement. There is evidence that the number of Americans fighting in Afghanistan will increase in the coming year, and U.S. forces operating in Syria are set to remain there indefinitely. U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition is even greater than it was under Obama, and there is no sign that it will be reduced anytime soon. Unfortunately, the one thing Trump refuses to abandon are the wars that Obama bequeathed to him.

Tensions with Iran and North Korea have both increased over the last year, and in both cases the Trump administration is to blame. Between the travel ban, the decertification of the nuclear deal, bombing Syrian government forces in the spring, belligerent speeches at the U.N. and elsewhere, and an overall regional policy defined by unremitting hostility towards Iran, Trump has mishandled relations with Tehran about as badly as a new president can. If he next reneges on U.S. commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump will risk creating a new crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. If the nuclear deal does fall apart, the risk of war with Iran would significantly increase.

Considering how poorly Trump has managed issues related to Iran, it is remarkable that his handling of a much more sensitive and potentially explosive situation in the Korean Peninsula has been even worse. For most of the last year, Trump has answered North Korean provocations with bellicose rhetoric and reckless threats, and repeatedly dismissed the possibility of entering into talks with Pyongyang to reduce tensions. He and his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, have been talking down the possibility of deterring North Korea and instead insisting on an impossible goal of denuclearization. Senior members of the Trump administration bizarrely seem to believe they can take military action against North Korea without it escalating into a major war. On this issue, the one where Trump most needs to be reined in by his advisors, it appears he’s instead being egged on by them. There is a much greater chance of war with North Korea today than there has been in decades. The current administration has helped bring this about, and alarmingly it doesn’t seem to have sunk in with members of Congress or the public.

As we look ahead to 2018, the picture is not at all encouraging for those interested in peace and restraint. The danger that the U.S. may foolishly plunge into at least one new avoidable war is greater than it has been perhaps since the period leading up to the Iraq invasion in 2002. It will be up to members of Congress and the public to keep the administration from committing such a monumental blunder.

Daniel Larison is a senior writer at The American Conservative. Follow his blog and at Twitter @DanielLarison [1].

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Reviewing Trump’s 2017 Foreign Policy Record"

#1 Comment By milsaps On January 3, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

None of us who voted for him did so because we wanted him to start new wars.

We didn’t want any new wars for Israel or Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, and we didn’t want new wars against Russia, China, or North Korea.

We wanted him to crush ISIS and then bring our troops home to protect our own borders. Instead he’s digging in to the Middle East and letting illegal and legal immigrants flood into America.

The way he’s going, he could be worse than Clinton, Bush II, and Obama COMBINED. And I think we may have made a terrible mistake.

#2 Comment By Christian Chuba On January 3, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

All fair points.
1. N. Korea – In one year has developed a miniaturized, two stage, thermonuclear weapon and an ICBM. Why are his supporters so deliriously happy? Just talk tough and people in the U.S. will always applaud.

2. Iran is quite serious. We are replicating the pre-Iraq war scenario, assume they are developing WMD, eliminate transparency protocols, tunnel vision, …

3. Afghanistan, not just expense and potential for more U.S. lives but that country will likely deteriorate because of our continued presence.

4. We are forcing Russia and China to unite against us. If they didn’t know before, we announced it, ‘we are going to contain and prevent both of you from getting stronger economically as well as militarily’.

Oddly enough, we have a chance to avoid conflict with 1 and 2 based on those countries being able to handle us. Iran is much stronger than Iraq and may be able to deter us.

#3 Comment By Youknowho On January 3, 2018 @ 2:07 pm

If you want to know what 2018 will be like, check this


Yes, it will go from incredibly bad to much worse.

We might have done better if we had voted for Moe Howard for President.

#4 Comment By mbernius On January 3, 2018 @ 2:17 pm


Serious question — what in Trump’s history or his campaign made you think he was going to behave differently when he entered office.

This is truly a serious question. Because this is what most of us who voted against him expected (honestly, it might be worse).

It’s worth noting that Daniel Larison and others pretty much predicted this was what more or less what was going to happen.

#5 Comment By Fred Bowman On January 3, 2018 @ 2:42 pm

And I thought HRC would have been reckless in her Foreign Policy. Trump has really done a 180 in what many of us hope he would have done in regards to Anerica’s Foreign Policy.

#6 Comment By vern montpetit On January 3, 2018 @ 2:51 pm

Well I didn’t vote for him, but I did think that pulling out of conflicts all over the world that had nothing to do with us was going to be a good move.

But he seems to be going into the opposite direction. Unfortunate. By this measure, he is no more different than any previous president.

#7 Comment By collin On January 3, 2018 @ 3:09 pm

In a lot ways, Trump was more ‘dovish’ than originally thought a year ago. Thoughts:

1) Trump really has little political will for a large scale war much like he did little for other legislation. Frankly, he wants little military victories to hailed as great leadership.
2) Conservative pundits and MSM don’t obessess on not being a strong leader unlike all those Fox News pundits calling Obama a Pussy.
3) However, he is increasing military war everywhere over Obama’s levels so we will continue to have these battles. He is probably following Mattis advise 90% at this point.
4) He really does not work with his diplomats or SOS at all. He has no patience or even tact.

5) So far we are lucky that most other nations ignore his tweeting but it still could create huge consequences.

#8 Comment By peter On January 3, 2018 @ 4:35 pm

I believe that we should look at facts.

The talk of the president was tough – undiplomatic, or worse. Like a CEO talking to subordinates!

However, the actions were not as tough.
The list of real actions is short:
– bombing Syrian airbases for alleged chemical weapons use
– moral support to the Saudis for their war in Yemen
– decision to move the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Iran and North Korea: very tough talk, undiplomatic.

Previous administrations were talking diplomatically while bombing and droning.

#9 Comment By Donald On January 3, 2018 @ 5:00 pm


I voted for Clinton as lesser evil and agree with you. I will be interested in milsaps response. That said, at times Trump did say things that sounded as though he opposed our idiotic interventions in the Middle East. I didn’t take it seriously because he also said some wildly irresponsible things, but I guess I could understand someone hoping he meant the noninterventionist remarks. Wishful thinking is pretty common in politics. I know some antiwar types who were enthusiastic Clinton voters as opposed to unenthusiastic lesser evil voters like me. Given her record, they were fooling themselves too. Perhaps not quite as much.

#10 Comment By Michael Kenny On January 4, 2018 @ 11:53 am

Disentangling the United States from foreign conflicts. The problem is that many such conflicts were created by the US in the first place and what Mr Larison means by “disentangling” is leaving in the lurch countries that the US got into a mess and who assumed that the US would stand by them. (He rather disingenuously avoids mentioning Putin, but we get the message!)The “problem” with that, from Trump’s point of view, is that it undermines US global hegemony, which, in its turn, makes it impossible to “make America great again”. American “greatness” rests on global economic hegemony (essentailly, the dollar as world reserve currence). Economic hegemony rests on US military power and the perceived readiness to use it to ward off challengers. Capitulation to any challenger = no more economic hegemony. No more economic hegemony = Soviet-style implosion. Even a good president would have trouble squaring that circle. It is certainly way beyond Trump’s capacities.

#11 Comment By Dieter Heymann On January 5, 2018 @ 9:19 am

The expectation that a businessman with commercial ties and interests all over the globe would become an ‘isolationist’ shows how dumb and gullible the believers in that myth were. It was a convenient and very clever Trumpian political ruse for the campaign to get the doubting but gullible to support him and nothing else.
Now that the gullible have been shown to be the deceived they have but one excuse: “the deep state”. Sorry but you are still dumb and gullible and Trump masterly plays you for the marionettes that you are.

#12 Comment By Wizard On January 5, 2018 @ 10:48 am

One of the very few things I liked about candidate Trump was the suggestion that he wouldn’t lead the US into more “stupid wars”. So, naturally that’s where President Trump did a quick one-eighty. Meanwhile, he’s still pushing most of his proposals that I thought were stupid and counterproductive. Sigh, I expected so little, and yet he still managed to disappoint me.

#13 Comment By PAX On January 10, 2018 @ 9:45 am

Most thought Trump would be more like Ike, Kennedy, and Ford. Concerned about America before any other country. When we evaluate Trump’s policy as “abysmal” that is when held against the benchmark of these president. Not against the majority of presidents who put Israel before the U.S. This began with LBJ when he refused to let the fighters from the 7th Fleet splash the Israeli planes assaulting the U.S. The song goes on and on. Trump is possibly more a “51 state” president for Israel as any. He signaled that when he made Jared Kushner his brain in chief and chief peace negotiator. But if you are Mr. Netanyahu there is no way he sees Trump’s foreign policies as “abysmal.” BTW – we are going giving grace to Saudi Arabia now because it so pleases Israel’s policy makers and local cheerleaders at this time.

#14 Comment By PAX On January 10, 2018 @ 9:47 am

PS I meant to say “Assaulting the USS Liberty.” How can the US ever gloss over this incident?