'Creative chaos': How Trump's foreign policy flips could undermine the presidency

The most radical thing about U.S. President Donald Trump's dizzying turn toward globalism recently might be how conventional his worldview seems to have become. The worrying bit, foreign policy analysts warn, is that the reversals could undermine the credibility of his office and the country.

'The message to the world is: "Don't pay attention to Donald Trump," ' defence expert says

U.S. President Donald Trump's White House is divided among competing world views. In a campaign speech, Trump spoke last year about the need for the U.S. to become 'more unpredictable.' (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

This week, in policy flip-flops from Donald Trump: NATO is "no longer obsolete." China is "not a currency manipulator." The Export-Import Bank is a "good thing." Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go.

Talk about plot twists.

The most radical thing about the U.S. president's dizzying spin toward globalism over the last few days might be how conventionally interventionist his world view seems to have become. The worrying bit, foreign policy analysts warn, is those reversals could undermine the credibility of his office.

In a foreign policy campaign speech, Trump declared last year: "We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable."

Trump, right, addresses a joint news conference with NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg in the East Room at the White House in Washington on April 12, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Unpredictability may have its advantages when using military force, as shown perhaps by Thursday's dropping of an 11-tonne non-nuclear bomb known as a MOAB (mass ordinance air blast, nicknamed "mother of all bombs") on an ISIS camp in Afghanistan. But surprises don't make for sound foreign policy, says Alex Ward, a U.S. defence and military specialist with the non-partisan Washington think-tank the Atlantic Council.

The president favours a management style of "creative chaos," Ward says, allowing Trump to play the ultimate decider whose foreign policy is "for sale" to whomever best persuades him. His White House is torn between competing perspectives — that of anti-globalist forces like Steve Bannon, Wilbur Ross and Stephen Miller, versus more moderate advisers like his son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka.

But Ward doesn't foresee Trump coming forward to spell out a cohesive vision for the country's place in the world.

That's problematic, he says, given the expectation that the "leader of the free world" is often considered a "validator" guiding allies' decisions abroad.

Fallout could be on the way.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their meeting in Moscow on April 12, 2017.

At the National Press Club on Wednesday, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans urged Australia to unmoor itself from the U.S. to embrace a "less United States, more Asia and more self-reliance" global policy.

This was necessary, he said, because of Trump's temperament.

Still, Ward sees progress. Trump has "abolished a lot of the Candidate Trump rhetoric," he says, which might account for the mixed messaging now as he confronts the potentially world-changing realities of occupying the highest political office in the land.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump recounted how Chinese President Xi Jinping explained the history of North Korea to him. "After listening for 10 minutes, I realized, it's not so easy," Trump told the newspaper about resolving Pyongyang's nuclear challenge.

Following Trump's pressure on China to rein in North Korea for conducting missile tests, Beijing reportedly turned back a fleet of cargo ships carrying coal from the isolated country.

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley delivers remarks on the situation in Syria at the Security Council meeting at the United Nations headquarters on April 7, 2017. (Reuters)

While Trump's ambiguity might be making the world nervous, the world is listening, says Alexandra Vacroux, executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

"People are jumping where they didn't jump before."

She notes that Trump's criticisms of NATO during the election campaign, which fuelled speculation he might withdraw from the military alliance, preceded an announcement by NATO's top diplomat last week that defence spending by member countries rose by $10 billion. Trump had long complained member countries were not ponying up their fair share of two per cent of GDP, the non-binding target set by NATO in 2014.

Vacroux still doubts Trump ever truly believed NATO was "obsolete" or that the U.S. would cut itself loose.

"But you can imagine countries, just to be on the safe side, getting the message that you have to at least put in your two per cent," she says. "Kind of perversely, it actually has strengthened NATO."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with NBC News in this picture provided by SANA on July 14, 2016. (SANA/Reuters)

Her question now is how long Trump can continue to "cry wolf," if that is indeed the tactic.

It seemed especially tricky to tell where Trump's administration stands on pressing foreign matters in a week dominated by the president's paradoxical foreign policy pronouncements.

On his frustrations with North Korean hostilities, Trump pressured China to crack down on the rogue state. If they fail to act, he suggested unilateral action, saying the U.S. might "go it alone" to eliminate the regime's nuclear threat.

But on Wednesday, Trump told reporters that "going it alone means 'going it' with lots of other nations."

At the same news conference, he appeared to change his perspective on NATO: "I said it was obsolete; it's no longer obsolete."

And in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, he reversed his views on China. "They're not currency manipulators," he said, just two months after dubbing the country the "grand champions at manipulation of currency."

'Uncertain and inconsistent'

An erratic approach to global affairs won't win over the international community, says Derek Chollet, a former key adviser on defence policy in the Obama administration now working as an analyst at the nonpartisan German Marshall Fund of the United States, a public policy think-tank in Washington.

"Everybody is understandably confused and wondering what the U.S. is actually going to do."

The concern, Chollet believes, "is we're going to be less reliable" to partners around the world as U.S. policy continues to be viewed as something "uncertain and inconsistent."

Cruise missiles were launched at Syria around the time Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down for a dinner in Palm Beach, Fla., at the beginning of a two-day summit on April 6, 2017. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

"If countries can't trust that the United States is going to stay true to what it says it's going to do," he says, "what are they to think?"

Chollet's former boss faced his own issues on this front. Obama suffered a blow to his credibility in 2013 when he pulled back from using military force against the Assad regime despite saying that a chemical attack would cross a "red line" for him.

Syria has been a challenge for the Trump administration as well.

A week ago, Rex Tillerson, Trump's secretary of state, and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley were saying the ouster of Assad would not be a priority for the administration. But on Wednesday, Trump called Assad a "butcher" and defended his call to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria after a chemical attack in Idlib province that left dozens dead.

The U.S. navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross fires one of the Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea on April 6, 2017. (Robert S. Price/U.S. navy/Reuters)

Tillerson also changed his message, telling Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday that Assad's rule "is coming to an end."

But after Haley ripped into Russia at the UN for defending Syria's use of chemical weapons, Trump toned down his grim talk of "an all-time low" in Russia-U.S. relations. In a tweet Thursday, he assured his followers "things will work out fine" with Moscow and lead to "lasting peace!"

One danger "is that Trump's tweets actually do reflect his policy," Chollet says. The other danger, he adds, is that they don't reflect policy at all, meaning the president's words no longer carry any weight.

"The effect is to undermine the credibility of the American president," Chollet says.

"The message to the world is, 'Don't pay attention to Donald Trump — no matter what he says, it's not going to happen.' There's no upside."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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