Donald Trump′s presidency: Taking stock and looking ahead | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 30.12.2017
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Donald Trump's presidency: Taking stock and looking ahead

As a political novice proud of his unpredictability, Trump took office with predictions for his term all over the map. Nearly a year on, DW's Michael Knigge asked three former officials for a review and a forecast.

How did Donald Trump do in 2017?

Not as badly as expected: For an incoming US president who during his election campaign had repeatedly been likened to various autocratic rulers from the past and present, Donald Trump's first year in office may be described as a relative success.

"I'd say it's bad, but not as bad as we feared a year ago," said Joseph Nye, the eminent Harvard University political scientist who coined the term "soft power." "Most people who drew exaggerated fears last January that this was Italy in 1922 or Germany in 1933 were completely wrong. The American institutional framework was stronger than that."

While not having descended into fascism may be an admittedly low bar to climb for a president of the United States, those fears did exist and serve not only as the backdrop of Trump taking office in January 2017, but also play a role in how his first 12 months are graded.    

Foreign policy: Kori Schake, who co-edited the book "Warriors and Citizens" with current Defense Secretary James Mattis and worked in senior national security positions in the George W. Bush administration, gives President Trump a C minus on foreign policy for his first year in office.

The reason why she does not fail him, says Schake, currently a distinguished fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is because he appointed some extremely knowledgeable individuals to key positions and has allowed them to persuade him to make some decisions that are at odds with Trump's own reflexes and his campaign pledges.

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As examples she mentions sending additional troops to Afghanistan and finally reaffirming NATO's collective defense Article 5.

"The reason why I don't give him a higher grade than a C- is that he seems not to understand fundamental things about the nature of international relations and how the United States has been successful in establishing the international order and in sustaining it at costs quite low to the American public, actually, and to our allies," Schake says."On all of those things the president himself is unsound."

James Jeffrey, a former deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush, called Donald Trump "the very personification of the populist revolution that has swept through industrialized Western countries in the past decade." 

He criticized Trump for in many ways continuing what he called "Obama's relatively feckless foreign policy" – albeit with the addition of lots of nasty tweets and explosive statements. Jeffrey believes Trump has not done enough to defend the US-led international order against ongoing external attacks, which Jeffrey considers to be Washington's primary foreign policy challenge.

What to expect in 2018

Unpredictability: Donald Trump's first year as president serves as a pretty good indicator for what to expect from him in the future, argue the former national security officials. In a nutshell, it means that international and domestic observers had better brace themselves for more of the same unpredictability that has characterized this administration.

US President Donald Trump (picture alliance/dpa/AP/A. Harnik)

'America first' – but critics say his slogan doesn't quite reflect his foreign policy

"Predicting Trump is very difficult because this is a man who doesn't demonstrate any long-term strategy," says Harvard professor Nye, who also served as assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the National Intelligence Council under former President Bill Clinton. "He might be said to have attention deficit disorder because he jumps from issue to issue and often reverses himself in the course of a day or two."

Domestic policy: Trump will likely continue stoking populist and nationalist sentiments, Jeffrey says, simply "because he believes in it." But while Trump has only scored one major legislative victory –  the GOP-led tax reform – Jeffrey suggests that if the tax cuts lead to an economic upswing it may be enough to ensure that the midterm elections don't go too badly for Trump and his party. Still, because the tax cuts do not take effect until January 2019, it may be too soon to observe an upswing.

Hoover's Kori Schake, meanwhile, is not convinced that Trump's confrontational style won't lead to a reckoning as early as 2018. "What we saw in Virginia and Alabama is the president alienating moderate Republicans and alienating Independents such that it will be extraordinarily difficult to put together winning electoral coalitions," she explains. "I think it is a real time of challenge for me and my fellow conservatives. But we have to win this argument about who we are and we have to win this argument about what our role is in the world."

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Foreign policy: President Trump's "America First" foreign policy will continue to reduce American soft power and hurt international institutions, predicts Nye, even though the president has ultimately not made good on his campaign rhetoric, in which he essentially advocated giving up on alliances such as NATO.  

Schake does not expect a coherent foreign policy strategy to be forthcoming in the second year of the Trump administration, citing the president's penchant for melodrama and uncertainty.

She also says she does not believe that the president has changed or will alter his "America First"-based world view. "I don't think the president has mellowed. In his fundamental views about trade, alliances and immigration, his views have been unchanged since the 1980s and no amount of contrary data shakes his confidence in his conclusions."

The biggest risk: The experts all agree that a military confrontation with North Korea is Trump's biggest foreign policy risk. 

Jeffrey calls it "dramatic" given not only Pyongyang's steadily evolving military capabilities and its aggressive stance, but also the Trump administration's inability to craft a coherent strategy towards the country that goes beyond the repetition of its "mantra" that it won't accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.

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Nye, who has recently returned from a visit to China where, according to his sources, there is a one-in-four chance for some kind of military confrontation with North Korea next year. "That's a very high probability," he says.

"I think we should actually all be quite worried about where the Trump administration is and where it is going," said Schake when asked to name what she considered the biggest foreign policy risk in 2018. "They seem to believe that the North Korean leadership is undeterrable and they seem to believe a preventative war is a better solution than learning to live with a nuclear armed North Korea."

She added that if this view of the Trump administration's assessment of the situation is accurate and remains unchanged "it will drive them to a preventative war that will be enormously costly in human and political terms."

"It is the international challenge I most fear they will get wrong and on which the president has the widest latitude to act without being constrained by the Congress or other institutional forces in American life."

 

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