The Period of Strong Trump and US Foreign Policy Prospects

Major personnel changes have taken place in the Trump administration’s foreign policy and foreign economic bloc over the past weeks. Rex Tillerson was dismissed from his post as Secretary of State, and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo (pending Senate approval, which shouldn’t be a problem) was nominated to this position. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was replaced by hawkish and controversial neocon John Bolton, who served as Deputy State Secretary and US Ambassador to the UN during the George W. Bush administration. Finally, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn resigned in early March and was replaced by Larry Kudlow, a conservative economic commentator and television personality, and a proponent of the mercantilist economic policy.

This cabinet reshuffle is indicative of major changes in the domestic political landscape in the United States and the fact that the Trump administration is entering a new period: a period of strong Trump. The period where the incumbent president was under siege by the traditional establishment – both Democratic and Republican – and was forced to adapt his foreign policy, is coming to an end. Trump realized that his domestic political positions had become stronger and started a counter-attack. This strengthening is due to three interrelated factors.

First, the US economy is growing steadily and dynamically, especially as compared to the Obama presidency, which mostly focused on recovering from the "great recession," and in contrast to growth rates in other developed economies. The tax reform – one of Trump's top economic priorities – has already taken place and brought visible results in the form of accelerated growth, investment inflows and new job creation. Therefore, it is being increasingly supported not only by the Republicans, but the taxpayers in general as well. Combined with a course on deregulation, a more rigid mercantilist policy, stagnation in the EU and a slowdown in China, it will ensure a massive inflow of capital into the United States over several years and help create new jobs.

Second, no evidence of "collusion" between Moscow and the Trump team has been found during the 12-month investigation into Russia's "interference" in the 2016 election conducted by the FBI, Congress and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Over time, a consensus formed in the United States (primarily among the Republicans, but also on a broader scale), that Russia’s "interference" did take place (in the form of social media activities and hacking the Democratic Party servers), but was carried out without any coordination with the Trump campaign and did not affect the election results. Hence, Donald Trump is a legitimate president.

Third, and most importantly, Trump has strengthened and continues to strengthen his positions among the Republican voters over the past year. A recent poll by CNN shows that 86 percent of the Republicans and 41 percent of independent voters support Trump's activities as president, and this support continues to grow. Even though the liberal media ridicule Trump's unending tweets, the tweets actually work and allow the president to continue to enjoy voters’ support despite the hostile media and traditional elites. The overwhelming majority of the Republicans support his America First slogans, a tougher approach to US allies, protectionist measures against China, the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico and others. Even though Trump's national ranking remains low (42 percent), he is lagging behind such popular presidents as Reagan and Obama at the beginning of their second year in office by only 4 percent. However, even this is not the most important thing. Trump realizes that the Democratic voters will not vote for him under any circumstances. Therefore, his goal is to consolidate the Republican and some of the nonpartisan voters around himself. And he has been quite successful in this regard.

As a result, something happened in early 2018 that was inconceivable just a year before: the Republican Party, which initially considered Trump a populist outsider, began to unite around him. A number of leading Republican politicians openly admit that the voters’ support largely depends on whether they are against Trump or for him. [1] The fact that Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Republican Senator Bob Corker got closer to Trump recently, and the senator’s supporters also sided with Trump, is a telltale sign. [2] Given the upcoming midterm congressional elections in November, this means that the attitude towards Trump will determine whether a particular representative of the Republican Party will get elected. As a result, it will continue to consolidate around the figure of the president. Once an outsider, Donald Trump is now the Republican leader. His impeachment is no longer an option. On the contrary, the likelihood of his re-election to the second presidential term in 2020 has improved. It is almost certain that Trump will be nominated presidential candidate by the Republican Party.

In terms of foreign policy, the strengthening of Trump and the related cabinet reshuffle mean that the restrictions on the part of the traditional establishment within the administration will weaken, and it will become less diverse in terms of its foreign policy and foreign economic preferences and philosophy both horizontally – between the key officials – and between them and President Trump. Trump’s role in US foreign policy will increase, and the administration's senior officials will act as his team, and not as institutional barriers.

All dismissed senior officials or the ones who quit of their own accord disagreed with Trump on foreign policy and foreign economic issues that were of principal importance to him, and tried in every way to impart continuity and traditionalism to the US politics, thus preventing the realization of the president’s instincts and impulses – both destructive and simply dangerous. H.R. McMaster was imposed on Trump by the deep state after the forced resignation of his first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The new appointees generally share Trump's priorities such as preference for unilateral actions, reliance on military force and readiness to threaten its use to achieve tactical goals, tougher attitude towards allies and opponents, greater protectionism in trade and even greater hostility towards Iran and the DPRK.

Thus a member of the extremely conservative and libertarian Tea Party movement Michael Pompeo is, first of all, close to Trump in spirit. Notably, this movement started in 2009 as a protest against Obama's healthcare reform, the policy of raising taxes and, in general, the previous administration’s focus on strengthening the role of the state and its redistributive function in the American economy, and then joined the Republican Party as its most conservative wing. In this regard, Pompeo fully supports Trump’s priorities such as tax reform and tighter migration legislation, and – in foreign economic policy – a more mercantilist course, the revision of bilateral and multilateral (NAFTA) agreements so that they bring a greater relative benefit to the United States than its partners. In foreign policy, Pompeo, like Trump, advocates a tough unilateral course, including withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran and the possibility of using military force against the DPRK. Since then, the Tea Party has been promoting a tough but neo-isolationist foreign policy right from the outset. Pompeo is personally close to Trump in his initial attempt to limit direct US involvement in the problems and regions which are not considered vitally important from the point of view of US national interests in their narrower meaning.

Neocon Bolton is part of a group that is entirely different from Pompeo’s Tea Party, and their views on certain foreign policy matters are diametrically opposite. Bolton is the proponent of US imperial policy, expanding US global military involvement and spreading democracy, including through intervention and occupation, and believes that America's historical mission is to transform the entire world in accordance with its values ​​and interests, while relying on military domination. Bolton was one of the most zealous supporters of the US invasion of Iraq and its occupation, the strategy of "modernization and democratization" of the Greater Middle East, the first stage of which was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and was in general one of the main figures behind the imperial foreign policy in the George W. Bush administration during his first presidential term along with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby and other neo-conservatives in the Bush-Cheney team. In this regard, he is different both from Pompeo and Trump, who seek to strengthen the economic and military power of the United States, but do not support further expansion of the US empire to the detriment of this power.

And yet, when it comes to foreign policy, most of Bolton's beliefs are fully in line with the preferences of Trump and Pompeo. This includes his commitment to building up military power and his readiness to use or threaten its use in a dialogue with the opponents, preference for unilateral actions, a greater license to actions and minimizing external restrictions on US foreign, economic and military policies, negative attitude to arms control, skepticism about multilateral structures and international organizations unless they serve as convenient instruments and puppets in the hands of the United States, offensive and tough policies with regard to global rivals and regional US enemies, and more aggressive policies towards Iran and North Korea. Back when he was a member of the Bush administration, Bolton advocated military strikes against Iran, and during the Obama administration he excoriated his administration for its "soft" approach to Tehran and especially for the JCPOA. Like most neocons, he fully supports Israel, including in matters of illegal settlements on the Palestinian territories and Jerusalem, and, accordingly, Trump's recent decision to recognize it as the capital of the Jewish state. Bolton also repeatedly argued that a military strike against the DPRK was acceptable.

Moreover, with the exception of the spread of democracy, Bolton's neo-conservatism is fully compliant with the foreign policy strategy that crystallized in the Trump administration over the past year: the "illiberal hegemony" strategy. [3]

In accordance with it, the US is reducing the liberal component of its foreign policy (foreign aid, multilateralism, commitment to spreading the market economy, free trade and democracy, and work on strengthening the "liberal international order" in general), but in no way drops and even builds up the hegemonic component (restoring global military superiority and hegemony, strengthening global military involvement, greater deterrence of opponents and rivals on the global and regional levels). With his arrival in the White House, the US commitment to this strategy will only get stronger.

Finally, given the evolution of US foreign policy over the past year, even Bolton's ideological obsession may come in handy. Its key element is the decision of the Trump administration to significantly ratchet up the policy of deterrence of Russia and China, to achieve a new global disengagement, where, on the one side of the barricades, there would be the United States, its allies and partners, and on the other side Russia, China and regional players hostile to America, and to tailor a proper ideological component to fit these goals. This narrative was first clearly outlined in the US National Security Strategy adopted in late 2017 and has since been reflected in its rhetoric and policies in all key regions of the world, beginning with the Pacific. Bolton, undoubtedly, shares this narrative, and with his arrival a new ideology behind US foreign policy – not the spread of democracy as was under Bush or even Obama but the ideological justification for containing Russia and China – will most likely increase.

Strengthening Trump's political positions and his greater role in US foreign policy, and forming a group of like-minded people around him in no way mean that the White House will return to the course that Trump wanted to pursue at the time of his inauguration.

It is highly unlikely that with Bolton and Pompeo, as well as Defense Secretary James Mattis, who enjoys the support of both Trump and the traditional establishment, the White House will abandon the illiberal hegemonistic foreign policy and begin to pursue a more restrictive neo-isolationist course that Donald Trump talked about initially. Apparently, over the past year, the president came to the conclusion that dismantling the American system of alliances and narrowing global and regional security commitments are incompatible with the general task of restoring America’s greatness and will, on the contrary, lend more strength to its rivals. The new National Security Adviser will further convince Trump that he is right. The policy of reviving the shaken US hegemony in the defense sphere and increased deterrence of the opponents, including through military presence in key regions and conflict zones, which began under the weak Trump, will continue and even be stepped up under the strong Trump.

However, now President Trump can afford more discretion in the methods used to restrain rivals and resolve problems similar to Iran and North Korea, namely, combining the carrot and the stick. As we know from Trump's The Art of the Deal, he prefers the method recommended by Niccolo Machiavelli, which Richard Nixon used extensively. Back then, this method was called the Madman Theory. In accordance with it, a subject actively creates an impression with the opponent that he does not have any internal "brakes" at all, is unpredictable, irrational, and is ready to go to the end in defending his interests, putting everything at stake for the sake of a seemingly minor issue. It is assumed that in this case the opponent gets confused and frightened and prefers to achieve a bargain with the "madman," since a tactical concession is less painful than the guaranteed destruction, albeit mutual.

With regard to North Korea and Iran, Trump seems to be leaning towards this model of behavior and to persuade these and all other countries that he is ready to go to the end – to withdraw from the JCPOA for Iran, to deliver powerful military strikes on Iran and the DPRK despite the disastrous fallout for these regions, and thereby achieve profitable "deals," such as to begin to denuclearize North Korea and revise its agreement with Iran. The appointment of John Bolton certainly deepens the impression that the world is dealing with a "madman" as personified by Washington. The sharply increased North Korean diplomatic activity in the wake of the cabinet reshuffle in Washington only strengthens Trump's conviction that this strategy is working.

Judging by everything, the US policy towards Russia will follow the same course under the strong Trump, and his inviting Vladimir Putin to visit the White House should not be seen as him being ready to improve relations. Over the past year, Trump had the chance to be convinced (and people like Mattis, Bolton and Pompeo never doubted it before) that Russia's ability to help him in "making America great again" is, to put it mildly, not too strong, and that it will continue to fight the US attempts to restore its global military hegemony and balance them both at the global level and in the key regions of the world. The likelihood that Russia will abandon its partnership with China and join the US efforts to contain and encircle it is negligible. The Russian theme is unlikely to disappear from American domestic politics until the rotation of the elites that is currently underway in the United States is completed. This will take years. Until then, the anti-Russia consensus in Washington will be preserved: for Trump, Mattis, Bolton and Pompeo, it is a global rival and a challenge to the US hegemony, whereas for the Democrats it represents a challenge to the “liberal order” and democracy around the world.

Now that he has strengthened his positions, Trump will have more opportunities to start serious dialogue with Russia on issues that, if left without discussion, may lead to a war between these countries. They include cybersecurity, international strategic stability and new ways of ensuring it, as well as rules in the military sphere. This should be used to make the current non-rule-based Russia-US confrontation more manageable.

With the strong Tramp, weaker checks on the part of the establishment and greater unanimity in the team, US foreign policy is likely to become even more unilateral, impulsive, militaristic and aggressive with regard to its opponents, such as China, Russia, Iran, DPRK and Venezuela, to name a few. The policy of deterring Russia and China will be combined with the Madman Theory with regard to Iran and the DPRK. However, the ability of the United States to conduct a dialogue will be greater than under the weak and besieged Trump.



[3] Barry R. Posen. The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony. Foreign Affairs, March/April 2018.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.