CARAFANO: Five Myths About Trump’s Foreign Policy

James Carafano Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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How should we interpret Donald Trump’s foreign policy? His supporters see it a “putting America first.” His detractors believe he is setting the world on fire.

For a clearer view of what the president is really up to, let’s begin by disposing of some myths that have built up over the last three years. Here are five bad assessments that should be set aside to objectively evaluate where American foreign policy is headed.

Myth #1: In a second term, Trump will be unbound. This dire warning holds that the president is just waiting for the second bite at the presidential apple to unleash his craziest ideas on the world. What makes this notion laughable is the idea that Trump has ever been “bound.”

The reality is that Trump has been the decider-in-chief since Day One of his administration. The so-called “axis of adults” has never constrained him. He has cycled through four very different National Security Advisors; none seems to have distracted the president from his course.  Nor has anyone achieved the status of “Trump whisperer,” someone who guides the president in a particular direction.

All this means is that Trump’s second-term foreign policy would look very much like his first term policy. After all, it would be the same guy calling the shots.

Myth #2. The president doesn’t have a plan. Trump detractors appear to believe he just wakes in the morning, watches Fox News and then decides what to do in the world that day. Nonsense.

The president has had a well thought out plan in place since early in his administration. It’s called the National Security Strategy of 2017 — a document that accurately expresses the goals and aspirations of Trump’s foreign and security policy.

Those goals and aspirations remain unchanged. If you don’t believe me, just ask the advisers in the National Security Council who helped draft it. If anyone really wants to know what guides and animates U.S. foreign policy, all he needs to do is read the document.

Myth #3. Trump is Putin’s puppet. This canard still pops up frequently, especially on the campaign circuit. In reality, Putin absolutely hates every single aspect of U.S. foreign policy.

He hates the sanctions levied against his country and his cronies. He hates that Trump has prodded our NATO allies to beef up their defense spending to make the alliance stronger.

The Syrian civil war gave Putin an opportunity to play around in the Middle East, and he made the most of it in the Obama era. But the current administration hasn’t given Moscow any real chance to run wild. Meanwhile, it has shouldered in between Russia and India.

On the strategic front, Trump has pulled out of the one-sided INF Treaty (which Moscow had violated with impunity for years) and indicated — off and on — that he’d be happy to let New START expire in 2021 unless Moscow agrees to a more equitable replacement.

For Putin, Trump is not a puppet — he’s a problem.

Myth #4. Trump is an isolationist. Trump detractors often conflate “America First” with “America, Alone.” Yet Trump is most definitely not walking away from defending U.S. interests around the world.

That hasn’t stopped his critics from accusing Trump of abandoning (in no particular order) NATO, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and more. Yet, almost certainly, the U.S. will still be in all those places when his presidential term ends.

#Myth 5. Trump will make us an international pariah. No doubt about it, Trump has demonstrated a willingness to extract the U.S. from international pacts — like the Iran Deal and the Paris Climate Accord — that he considered to be ineffectual and contrary to our national interests. For the same reason, he has withdrawn U.S. support from certain international organizations, such as the completely dysfunctional UN Human Rights Council.

The Left may dislike these kinds of actions, but they are pretty much to be expected from virtually any conservative president. When it comes to international organizations, Trump’s record doesn’t look that dissimilar from any of the three previous Republican commanders-in-chief.

As for the charge that Trump will alienate or abandon our allies, the fact is that most of these relationships are in better shape now than when Trump came into office. NATO is demonstrably stronger. The U.S. partnership with India is far tighter, as are our bonds with Australia and the UK. Relations with Japan and South Korea remain strong. The U.S. has forged better ties in Latin America.

Meanwhile, the administration wants to do more in Africa and is looking for new friends in Central Asia. Clearly, the White House is far more interested in building bridges for mutual benefit than it is in burning them.

A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on matters of national security and foreign policy.