Trump foreign policy at 100 days: The downside of unpredictability

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Not quite 100 tumultuous days into his term, President Trump’s foreign policy remains a work in progress — a frequently shifting, unpredictable approach to world affairs that has unsettled rivals, but also sometimes unnerves even close allies who wonder if anyone can speak with authority for the Twitter-reliant commander in chief.

In interviews over the past three weeks, diplomats representing major U.S. allies in Washington, career U.S. foreign policy hands, lawmakers and aides of both parties cautioned against making snap judgments of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy at the traditional 100-day mark. They underlined that the new president faces a steeper learning curve than some of his predecessors as a result of his lack of government experience and a governing style many referred to as “disruption.” They also noted that a large number of pivotal positions at the Pentagon and State Department remain vacant, hindering the regular policymaking process.

At the same time, some embassies in Washington are prepared to send home their own 100-day assessments of how the new president is making the transition from the frequently improvisational rhetoric of his history-making campaign to the job of handling crises, challenges and opportunities on the global stage.

“The whole bias so far of the Trump candidacy and presidency, at least rhetorically, has been a bias towards disruption,” said Richard Haass, a former George W. Bush senior State Department official who has been the president of the Council on Foreign Relations for over a decade. “It’s early, but you can understand why some people would be unnerved,” Haass told Yahoo News by telephone.

During the campaign, Trump promised an “unpredictable” foreign policy that keeps America’s enemies guessing. Earlier this month, in the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack that led him to rain cruise missiles on a Syrian military base, the president explained that he views himself “as a very flexible person” ready to embrace new approaches “if the world changes.”

But sometimes the world doesn’t change, and the president’s language does.

About 10 days before his Feb. 13 talks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House, Trump complained in a meeting with lawmakers about America’s relationship with its second-largest trading partner and repeated his campaign denunciations of the North American Free Trade Agreement as unfair.

“You realize Canada runs a $16 billion surplus with the United States?” Trump declared (incorrectly) at the meeting, according to one participant, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with President Trump in the Oval Office in February. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

But later, with Trudeau at his side in the East Room of the White House, the complaints vanished. “We have a very outstanding trade relationship with Canada,” he declared. Rip up NAFTA? Not the parts having to do with Canada, Trump said. “We’ll be tweaking it; we’ll be doing certain things that are going to benefit both of our countries. It’s a much less severe situation than what’s taken place on the southern border,” he told Trudeau.

A month later, Trump had abandoned the “tweaking,” forcefully complaining at an April 18 rally in Wisconsin about Canada’s “very unfair” treatment of American dairy farmers, then escalating his rhetoric in an appearance in the Oval Office two days later.

“Canada, what they’ve done to our dairy farm workers is a disgrace. It’s a disgrace, “ he said. “We can’t let Canada or anybody else take advantage and do what they did to our workers and to our farmers,” he added, vowing “to get to the negotiating table with Canada very, very quickly.”

Canada’s embassy provided Yahoo News with a lengthy rebuttal from Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland to Trump’s trade complaints, but did not directly address the dramatic shift in tone.

Whether the chaos is a feature or a bug of Trump’s approach to world affairs, it has left some in Washington flummoxed. His shifting moods have sometimes left advisers only able to guess at what he wants. And even though his national security team has drawn praise and remains accessible to lawmakers and allies, it doesn’t always have the final word on policy.

“It’s become a commonplace in diplo circles to joke that this president has handed the security portfolio to the military, and everything else to the economists from Goldman Sachs,” one diplomat for a major U.S. ally said on condition of anonymity. “But the reality is that we, and they [the administration], are trying to figure out what the actual policies are.”

Another diplomat for a different major U.S. ally told Yahoo News that while his country “can’t complain” about access to top Trump advisers — like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster or Vice President Mike Pence, experts on the National Security Council or Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner — they don’t always provide clear answers.

Jared Kushner on a tour of Baghdad, April 3, 2017. (Photo: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/DoD/Handout via Reuters)

“It’s not an access problem. The problem is, on the one hand they don’t tell us anything, on the other they tell us something but add that they don’t necessarily speak for the president, because he has not formally declared where he stands,” the diplomat said. Trump aides have been unable or unwilling to say when to expect the president’s review of the strategy for destroying the so-called Islamic State, for example, or whether the missile strikes from earlier this month were the beginning of a new policy of punishing atrocities with targeted strikes, the diplomat said. “What we hear is, ‘Hmm, no, I really can’t say.’”

Another diplomat, also representing a close Western ally, described this more cautiously as the administration’s “improvisational” approach to some issues. Senior Trump aides are candid about where they think the policy is going, but they are “very clear when the final decision will rest with the president,” that official said.

While some try to dissect Trump’s tweets on foreign affairs, the third diplomat warned against viewing them as policymaking.

“You can follow the tweets, hour by hour, or you can stand back a little bit, and think about what you’re hearing in private discussions to think about the actual direction of the policy,” that official said.

Trump has bought some goodwill from once-skeptical Capitol Hill hawks by promising to boost military spending but unsettled many in Congress by proposing a massive cut in State Department funding. Lawmakers and allies generally had a warm reaction to his missile strike against Syrian forces, seen by some as a long-overdue signal after Barack Obama threatened military action but failed to follow through.

“It was important because it sent a message to the world that the United States is prepared to act if necessary,” Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary and CIA director under Barack Obama, told Yahoo News. “But like everything Trump, there’s a huge amount of unpredictability, because you’re not sure that there’s an underlying strategy that’s been thought out here and that they simply aren’t reacting to crisis when it happens.”

On some other significant issues, Trump has broken — or at least postponed — some major campaign-trail promises. He has largely backed off threats to confront China on trade, notably a pledge to formally accuse Beijing of manipulating its currency to gain an edge for its exports. He has acknowledged in an interview that his confidence that China could easily resolve the growing threat from North Korea was misplaced.

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping with their wives, first lady Melania Trump and Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan, at Mar-a-Lago. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

Trump’s softer tone on China is “the most welcome sign of transition from being outsiders in transition to being insiders who govern,” Haass said.

“To some extent it’s a reflection of the primacy of the urgency of the North Korea issue,” Haass said. “But it’s also a reflection that foreign policy cannot be only about the transformation of the Middle East, it has to be also about stabilization of Asia.”

The uncertainty is much less of a problem on North Korea, where the Trump administration has carried out a formal policy review that the president has signed off, making it easier for diplomats to shrug off policymaking-by-tweet.

And the president has kept at least one major foreign policy promise: He ripped up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which was already dead in Congress.

In the aftermath of dumping TPP, which was designed in part to reassure allies that the United States would not cede Asia to China, the Trump administration has worked hard to reassure allies in the region. Mattis, Tillerson and Pence have all traveled there.

“I think it is fair to say that the best thing about the Trump administration at this point is his national security team,” Panetta told Yahoo News. “They are professional, adults, they seem to understand the challenges and the risks, and fortunately Trump appears to be listening to them and adjusting his positions.”

Trump has also repudiated his campaign trail dismissal of NATO as “obsolete” and questioning the mutual-defense promise at its core. He now endorses the alliance, while pressing fellow members to meet their self-imposed goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.

Where he once predicted better ties with Russia, he now takes a harder line, virtually ruling out lifting economic sanctions over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. His angry denunciations of the Iran nuclear deal haven’t led him to tear up the agreement. He has delayed on his promise to quickly move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would risk a backlash from the Arab world. The United States hasn’t pulled out of the Paris climate agreement he and some of his top aides have denounced — at least not yet.

President Trump with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a news conference at the White House in April. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

At the same time, he has ramped up the U.S. troop presence in Syria ahead of what is expected to be a difficult campaign to roust the Islamic State from it’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa. And White House officials expect him to sign off on the Pentagon’s request for thousands of additional forces in Afghanistan, where America still has roughly 8,400 troops fighting America’s longest war.

Experts note that Trump has given broad freedom to Mattis on military affairs, and that the retired general has been running a broad review of the war on the Islamic State.

But “the president has not given Mattis leeway to decide what our Syria policy will be, or what our China policy will be,” according to Elliott Abrams, who advised Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush on foreign policy and was briefly considered for the No. 2 job at the State Department. “These involve the president, vice president, national security adviser, secretary of state and other senior officials.”

Trump has had a busy-bordering-on-hectic diplomatic schedule during his first months in office. He has formally met with a parade of world leaders and senior officials from Britain, Japan, Canada, Israel, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, Germany, Iraq, Denmark, Egypt, Jordan and Italy, as well as the secretary-general of NATO. His first foreign trip is likely to be a late-May NATO summit in Brussels, followed by a gathering of leaders from the Group of Seven rich democracies in Sicily.

But vacancies at senior levels in the State Department and Pentagon hamper the normal foreign-policy-making process, even hindering some of Trump’s priorities because the people in charge of communicating among agencies aren’t in place, making it hard to forge a consensus. One academic has called it a “neckless government,” where the head and body aren’t connected. (The academic, Paul Light, also used that nickname back in 2009, when Obama had a similar problem.)

President Trump escorts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the White House in February. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

It’s less of a problem at the Pentagon, Abrams explained. “The difference between the Department of State and the Department of Defense is that Tillerson has to appoint all the senior officials, while Mattis has the whole uniformed military in place and ready to work for him on Day 1,” he said.

The arbitrary 100-day mark isn’t an especially good one for gauging foreign policy, only for getting a general sense of a new president. For now, some of his critics see his top national security choices and his shifts from his campaign rhetoric as reasons for optimism — while remaining aware that things could change.

“After 100 days, I have a lot of trust in the national security team,” Panetta said. “But I’m not sure I trust Trump yet.”

Read more from Yahoo News’ coverage of Trump’s first 100 days: