America First. It is the core of Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda. He began his first year in office on January 20th, 2017 with his inaugural address where his foreign policy announcements centered on U.S. trade deficits, refocusing burden sharing within alliances, and promising to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism. He pushed his “America First” agenda by proclaiming, “it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” This week is the one-year anniversary of Trump becoming President. He has spent much of his first year undoing foreign policy agreements President Obama had made and going forward with his own campaign promises.
That January he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership which included 12 nations. The partnership agreement had been championed by President Obama, though Trump had labeled it during the campaign a “disaster.” Economic analysis showed the trade deal would have contributed positively to U.S. economic growth and could have enhanced American influence in Asia. Those analytic arguments did not gain any traction in the White House.
In June, more Obama-era agreements came under the knife. Trump announced America would withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement designed to reduce global carbon emissions. Under Trump, the U.S. would become the only country not included in the agreement leaving many critical of his wisdom. Shortly thereafter, Trump announced he was undoing Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, at least in part. Trump reinstated Cuban travel and trade restrictions and by September the U.S. embassy staff in Havana had been reduced.
In September, Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and urged Congress to pass new legislation to replace the program. In January of 2018, just days before the end of Trump’s official first year in office, he was in negotiations with legislators to pass new legislation to replace DACA and to keep the issue from causing a government shutdown. When the subject turned to immigration from countries like Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations Trump asked legislators in the Oval Office, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He then suggested America bring in more people from countries like Norway instead. His words have upset many.
When President Trump was not undoing Obama’s foreign policy work, he was going forward with his other campaign pledges. One of the most controversial of Trump policies in his first year was signing an executive order initiating a travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries. American courts quickly rejected the ban as unconstitutional and Trump has made several attempts to amend the original executive order. Judicial resistance was met at every step of the way. It was not just in America that the Muslim ban raised problems, it was highly criticized abroad. During the campaign, when he announced his intention to ban Muslims, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put out a message against Trump’s statement making clear “the state of Israel respects all religions.” By the end of 2017 the most recent version of the ban had been ruled against yet again by a court of appeals.
Another campaign promise Trump began to work on was striking out at NAFTA. During the 2016 campaign Trump said, “NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.” He made that statement despite statistics showing that since NAFTA was first agreed upon overall trade among the United States, Canada, and Mexico grew from $290 billion in 1993 to $1.1 trillion in 2016. Trump said on the campaign trail if the U.S. can’t renegotiate NAFTA, it would pull out of the agreement entirely. Certainly his words were pretty heavy language, but by the time President Trump began to act on the promise, his language had softened and instead he pushed to just “modernize” the NAFTA agreement.
Over the course of his first year in office, Trump traveled abroad on several occasions. He visited Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, Italy, Vatican City, Belgium, and Italy on his first overseas voyage. In Belgium he addressed the heads of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and called for each of them to “finally contribute their fair share.” Trump had run afoul of NATO partners during his campaign by suggesting he would not necessarily come to the defense of NATO members he felt were not doing enough for the alliance. His speech to NATO heads did not address that issue, however it allowed leaders to assess Trump as President for the first time in person. During the summer he visited Poland, Germany, and France. And then in the Fall he traveled to Asia where he visited Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Trump’s focus in Asia after pulling out of TPP has been primarily on North Korea. North Korea has continued its nuclear testing and illicit missile launches and Trump as usual was not short of words to share with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In August, Trump said North Korea would be met with “fire and fury” if it continued its saber rattling. It was the opening salvo in a war of words between the two leaders. Trump on occasions called Kim Jong Un fat and short, coined him as the “rocket man,” and later got into a nuclear “whose is bigger” nuclear button debate. Despite his ill-advised words, Trump has had some success in confronting North Korea. After his visit to China, China, North Korea’s biggest backer and ally, agreed to enforce tougher UN sanctions and cut its export of petroleum to the hermit kingdom. And in January North Korea agreed to hold talks with South Korea on relieving tensions on the peninsula—a move South Korean President Moon-Jae credited Trump as making a “huge” contribution to making the talks possible.
The Middle East also was a focus of Trump’s first year in office. He had heavily criticized the Iran Nuclear deal that was negotiated under President Obama, and had threatened to pull out of the deal entirely. However, at the end of his first year, Trump has kept the deal intact, but still threatens to pull out of it if Congress and European allies do not fix “flaws” in the deal. As 2018 began, Iran found itself the focus of the largest anti-government demonstration since the 2009 Green Movement. The protests have led to dozens of people being killed and hundreds being arrested. Trump made sure not to repeat Obama’s waffling nature during the Green Movement and came down clearly on the side of the protesters and tweeted that it was “TIME FOR CHANGE.”
The most controversial decision President Trump has made in his first year in the Middle East was his recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December. The move triggered instant international backlash and protests. Trump was hoping that his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would help stimulate peace talks, however, that appears very unlikely. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he will no longer participate in peace talks that are moderated by the United States. Since Trump’s announcement there has been renewed violence between Palestinians and Israelis with dozens of people killed.
Syria and Qatar also required Trump’s time. When Bashar al-Assad was found to have used, once again, chemical weapons in attacks in its ongoing civil war, Trump responded with military force. His response was a limited cruise missile attack on the regime controlled Shayrat Air Base where it is believed the chemical attacks were launched from. Trump also sponsored further sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, however, Russia blocked any measure.
Qatar received very confusing diplomacy from the Trump administration in June when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with the country. Trump initially seemed to welcome the move as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis worked to reinforce America’s relationship with Qatar, which is also home to CENTCOM’s forward operating headquarters.
When it comes to America’s longest war, the war in Afghanistan, in August President Trump announced a new counterterrorism-focused approach with a larger military presence in the country. However, he did not give any time tables. His first tweet of 2018 put Pakistan on notice that America was pulling its military and security funding until Pakistan stops protecting and aiding the Taliban and Haqqani Network. The total sum being cut to Pakistan could be as high as $1.3 billion. It remains to be seen if the cut to funding will help Pakistan become more compliant with U.S. strategy.
And then there is the foreign policy elephant in the room, and that is Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia. Trump finally got to meet Vladimir Putin as president for the first time during the July G20 summit in Germany. That encounter was notable because Trump has been accused of colluding with Russia during his 2016 campaign, which is being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Mueller’s investigation has led to the arrests of four Trump aids, including his one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort and the president’s one-time National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn. The investigation promises to continue throughout 2018 and this will not be the last we will read of the story.
How did Donald Trump do in his first year as president? The historical narrative that is starting to take shape of Trump’s presidency is one of a man who was ill-prepared and not necessarily serious about winning the presidency. His foreign policy seems to reflect that narrative as he has demonstrated on several occasions a serious lack of preparedness and judgement. The decisions where this was most evident were his decisions on recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital outside of negotiations, and his war of words in what is an incredibly tense period with North Korea. Granted, his handling of the latter has shown some success, but his words were incredibly dangerous and still remain so.
It is Trump’s own words that cause the international community much worry. World leaders find it very difficult to take Trump at his word. He often says one thing, and then says something contradictory a short time later, mostly via Twitter. When his staff speaks on his behalf to world leaders, he often undercuts their words with his such as he has done on several occasions with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. This has effected Donald Trump’s credibility and have made him unpredictable.
Trump has in the past stated, “I don’t want people to know exactly what I’m doing—or thinking. I like being unpredictable. It keeps them off balance.” He sees being unpredictable as an asset, but that is an extremely dangerous game to play in foreign policy where one wrong misinterpretation could trigger war—or in the case of North Korea, nuclear war. The importance of being clear in intentions and actions on the international stage is absolutely paramount.
Trump has for the most part gone through with implementing many of his foreign policy campaign promises as part of his “America First” program. But much of that is undoing many of the promises his predecessors have made. In the case of the TPP, the Paris Agreement, and Cuba, he is undoing America’s previous commitments. This effects America’s credibility around the world. It also makes Trump’s first year as America’s President a bad year for America’s credibility abroad