Donald Trump’s election left both Americans and foreigners wondering where he would take U.S. foreign policy. Now, after his address to Congress this week, the Washington “establishment” is probably breathing a little easier. Trump angrily ran against the establishment but has already begun to bend to its ways. On the campaign trail, candidates talk like poachers but in office turn into gamekeepers.

Trump’s campaign promises seemed contradictory: neo-isolationism along with a defense buildup, resentment of anything foreign but world leadership. He vowed to tear up NAFTA and the Iran nuclear deal as foolish giveaways. He told allies to start paying their fair share for defense — now, he claims, the money is “pouring in” — implying a weakening of U.S. commitments. Trump casually proposed major tariffs on Mexico and China, protectionism that could unleash retaliation and global recession. He had tough words for most countries but not for Russia, whose president he admired as a “strong leader.”

In office, Trump’s mainstream secretaries and advisors “walked back” some of his statements to calm worried allies, and he did not stop them. After a few weeks, guided by cooler heads, his policies sounded not much different from his predecessors’. Little read in foreign and international affairs, Trump learned painfully that the world does not conform to or obey his wishes, that he could neither totally control the world nor totally withdraw from it.

A litmus test of Trump’s willingness to listen to foreign-policy professionals was his vow to immediately move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, which Congress voted to do in 1995. Presidents of both parties — on the advice of officials in State, the Agency, and Defense — ever since stalled; they feared massive wrath in the Islamic world. Every month that Trump does not move the embassy indicates that the establishment got to him and still preserves overall continuity in U.S. foreign policy.

Trump’s problem — common among American presidents — was to suppose that international politics works more or less like domestic politics and business, which operate inside a sovereign entity, incentivized by deals and enforced by courts. International relations uses a different rule book, or, more precisely, no rule book. Trump’s tactics, enunciated in his 1987 “Art of the Deal,” bounced off Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping could not be bullied or fired, as Trump did on his long-running TV show, “The Apprentice.” Practicing that led to angry phone calls with the leaders of Australia and Mexico.



Trump’s chief targets were foreign — immigrants, competition, trade pacts, and alliances — an “America First” theme that resonated with many Americans. The first America First was a short-lived 1940-1941 isolationist opposition to entering World War II that ended with Pearl Harbor.

Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and big increase in defense spending make many worry that Trump, thin-skinned and quick to anger, will jump into another war with little thought. After the U.S. non-victories in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Trump roused supporters with the promise that we would soon again be winners. The Middle East is the likeliest area to test Trump’s assertion. Sunni-Shia wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen could coalesce into a region-wide showdown led, respectively, by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Will we enter such a war?

Some see Trump as part of an anti-globalization backlash that is sweeping over many countries. Britons voted to depart the European Union (which Trump supported). Parties opposed to the EU and immigration grow throughout Europe and win substantial shares of the vote. The great political divide of the day, argue observers, is now between globalizers and nationalists. Centrist Immanuel Macron’s victory on the second round of French elections could indicate that the nationalist wave has passed. Trump may have scared French voters into rejecting Marine Le Pen and her National Front.

Now it turns out that NATO is not “obsolete” but vital, implying a toughening toward Russia and skepticism about a deal with Putin. Was that ever possible? Trump extrapolated his expertise in real-estate deals onto international relations, but in IR, the stakes are bigger, and you can’t sue an opponent. Dollar incentives predict most U.S. domestic business deals, whereas history and geography predict most foreign IR actions. 

Putin never offered anything substantial for a deal. Russia has been invaded from every direction, forming its obsession with security. Americans, long dominant on their continent, can’t appreciate this. Putin is doing what the tsars and Stalin did: build a security belt around Russia. 

No Russian ruler will give up the Sevastapol naval base in Crimea, which Russia wrested from the Turks in 1783. The tsars sought a Russian force in the Middle East since the 19th century, the root of the Crimean War (1853-1856). Putin has revived this in Syria. Trump, for all his deal-making ability, cannot talk a former KGB colonel into forgetting Russia’s history and geography. Welcome to the world, Mr. President.