Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Trump's Foreign Policy Reversals


This week, President Trump raised the specter of a military confrontation with North Korea, but of course, the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, talked about the need for direct dialogue. There have been flip-flops on matters elsewhere, in Asia and across the globe, Europe, the Middle East. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, if you're trying to follow U.S. foreign policy, you might sue for whiplash.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Let's start in Asia where Trump once said he would name China as a currency manipulator and even suggested that he might not abide by the One China policy, taking a call from the leader of Taiwan. Then came his meeting in Florida with Chinese President Xi Jinping.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together. I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade. We talked a lot of things, and I said the way you're going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea.

KELEMEN: Also this month, Trump met with NATO's secretary general, sealing his change in approach to the military alliance.


TRUMP: I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete. It's my hope that NATO will take on an increased role in supporting our Iraqi partners in their battle against ISIS.

KELEMEN: Trump had been talking about a more restrained American role in the world, a so-called America First agenda. His decision to strike Syria in response to a sarin gas attack was another surprising turn-about. White House officials say this is a sign that the Trump doctrine is not doctrinaire. The Cato Institute's John Glaser, a Libertarian, has a different perspective.

JOHN GLASER: When he talks about his flexibility, he's harkening back to Richard Nixon's madman theory of international politics, which is that if you can signal to allies and adversaries that maybe you're unpredictable or perhaps even irrational, you can unsettle them and then essentially get your way. But, frankly, that's just an irresponsible way to conduct foreign policy.

KELEMEN: Glaser believes Trump is just learning on the job and that he didn't have very firm views on international affairs before coming to Washington. Add to that the foreign policy establishment - now jokingly referred to here in Washington as the Blob - and Glaser says you can understand how hard it is to make radical changes.

GLASER: If you have to face the Blob and you don't have firm views, you can pretty much expect that the administration will settle in to a very traditional and conventional American foreign policy.

KELEMEN: Some Republicans on Capitol Hill welcome what they view as a more mainstream policy. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin of Maryland, still has his doubts.


BEN CARDIN: We still don't have really a coherent foreign policy being announced by the Trump administration. He doesn't have in place the individuals that we would normally be able to call to Capitol Hill to review what they're doing in different parts of the world. Those positions haven't even been nominated yet, let alone confirmed.

KELEMEN: At the State Department, there's only Secretary Rex Tillerson. A deputy has been nominated but not yet confirmed. And the other Senate-approved positions are being held temporarily by career foreign service officers. Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO, is reorganizing the department and trimming the budget.


REX TILLERSON: We're just about to embark on a department-wide listening mission. I know because I've had a few interactions with people over lunch, some of our folks that are kind of at the 10-to-12-year stage of their career where they're young and energetic, but they've been around long enough to see what works and what doesn't. I look forward to hearing their ideas.

KELEMEN: In an interview with NPR, Tillerson said his mission is to stay focused on security and economic interests. The list of goals was longer in previous administrations. President Obama, for instance, had diplomats and development experts put a big focus on climate change, while the Bush administration talked a lot about democracy promotion. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.