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Is Trump's Foreign Policy Evolving?

President Trump waits to greet Denmark's Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen outside the West Wing of the White House on March 30. Trump's approach to foreign policy has changed since he has taken office.
Brendan Smialowski AFP/Getty Images
President Trump waits to greet Denmark's Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen outside the West Wing of the White House on March 30. Trump's approach to foreign policy has changed since he has taken office.

President Trump came into office promising big disruptive changes in the way America defined its role in the world. American foreign policy would no longer be aspirational — it would be transactional. "What's in it for us?" would guide the new "America First" approach. Human rights? Downgraded. America as an idea, a beacon of freedom to tired, huddled masses? Been there, done that. Promoting democratic values as a way to strengthen America's own economic and national security? Nope. Trump just didn't see the connection. But as the new president is finding out, things happen. Chemical weapons are used. Missiles are fired. And the world's greatest superpower has to respond.

Here are some examples of how Trump's approach to the world is changing.

1. Syria


The president said Wednesday the horrific images of children killed in a suspected chemical weapons attack had a big impact on him. "It crossed a lot of lines with me," Trump said, adding, "when you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal." For years Trump had argued that Syria wasn't our fight. He repeatedly criticized Obama — not just for drawing a red line and then erasing it — but for considering intervening in Syria at all.

Recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that Assad's removal was no longer U.S. policy.

But Wednesday Trump said, "My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much." And in a huge shift for a president whose tendency has been to blame his predecessor for everything, he acknowledged that Syria is now his "responsibility."

So, what would Trump do differently? That's still not entirely clear. Tillerson said Thursday that "it would seem" there is no role for Syrian President Bashar Assad to govern his country moving forward, and that efforts are "underway" to build a coalition to remove him.

Trump's own remarks on Thursday didn't shed much more light. Asked if Assad should step down, Trump said, "I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity, and he's there, and I guess he's running things, so I guess something should happen." Trump said the attack "shouldn't be allowed to happen," but he refused to comment on specific responses. "I don't want to say what I'm going to be doing," he said.


On Syria, his rhetoric has shifted, but his policy is still TBD.

But as Thursday, NPR's Tom Bowman reports that the administration is looking at a variety of options, ranging from economic to diplomatic to military in order to respond to this week's chemical attack in Syria. Trump was also slated to meet with his top national security officials Thursday at Mar-a-Lago, according to Bowman.

2. China

The president meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week.

Trump attacked China relentlessly during the campaign. But since he's been in the White House he's been acting more like his predecessors.

He promised to declare China a currency manipulator on Day 1. That didn't happen. He promised to slap 45 percent tariffs on Chinese goods. He hasn't. He said he'd only reaffirm the "One China" policy if he got something from China on trade or North Korea in return. But then he reaffirmed the policy without getting any concessions from China. And on Wednesday he acknowledged that he has a responsibility for the North Korea nuclear problem — without repeating his threat from last week that if China didn't solve the North Korea issue, the U.S. would take care of it ourselves, maybe with unilateral military action.

3. Mexico

Trump promised he would renegotiate NAFTA. So far he's proposing only tweaks. And he hasn't found a way yet to force Mexico to pay for the border wall, one of the trademark initiatives of Trump's presidential campaign.

4. The Middle East

The president flirted with dropping the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution. He's since backed off that and has reaffirmed his predecessor's policy on settlements, saying they aren't very helpful. And he hasn't yet moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

5. The European Union

The president once praised Brexit and predicted other countries would follow the United Kingdom. He disparaged the European Union as nothing more than "a vehicle for Germany." But in a recent interview with Financial Times, he agreed the center seemed to be holding in Europe and that the EU was "doing a better job."

6. The National Security Council

This week Steve Bannon, the president's top strategist, was removed from the principals committee of the National Security Council. Bannon, the architect of the president's overarching "America First" policy, was the first political adviser ever to be given a seat on the committee.

Bannon's removal shows that Trump's new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster — a foreign policy professional and one of several establishment figures in the new administration — is taking control. It is another sign that Trump's foreign policy process is getting a little more conventional.

And with this week's comments on Syria, Trump sounded like he'd found himself in the same box that former President Barack Obama did — with all the same frustrations and limitations (and crossed lines!). Trump doesn't like what Assad is doing, but he's apparently not willing yet to get the U.S. involved in a war to remove Assad. Sound familiar?

As of Thursday night, Trump is reported to be considering, among other things, a similar kind of more limited military action that President Obama considered and ended up rejecting in 2013.

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