TSG IntelBrief: Evaluating the First 100 Days of National Security Policy
April 28, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• April 29 marks 100 days since the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
• The 100-day snapshot used to assess a new U.S. president’s initiatives and achievements is a difficult metric to apply to national security and foreign policy.
• The U.S. and its many allies around the world face multiple crises that—while currently reaching critical levels—have been decades in the making.
• While public statements regarding withdrawing from or renegotiating treaties may be an unconventional tactic to gain bargaining leverage for trade deals, defense pacts and security strategies are far less transactional in nature.
The customary 100-day snapshot assessment of a new U.S. president’s performance is usually broken down into distinct areas: domestic policy, economics, foreign policy, national security, and so on. The notion that challenges of titanic size and complexity can be meaningfully addressed or confronted in less than four months, however, likely reveals more about the American tendency to view long-term issues through short-term lenses than it reveals about the lasting impact of a president’s upcoming term. Still, the snapshot does reveal how a new administration’s intentions coincide and conflict with reality. This is particularly true in the case of national security and foreign policy. While a snapshot of such a brief time period might provide little in terms of actual achievements given how slow complex matters of international concern move, it does show how such movement is being attempted.
Though President Trump has held changing and contradictory positions on several significant issues—ranging from the specifics of border protection to allegations of NATO’s obsolescence—he has been extremely consistent in two related aspects of national security and public diplomacy. He views defense and security relationships through a transactional and personal mindset; transactional in the sense that security pacts and treaties should be seen more as straight-forward business deals in which costs and benefits are viewed primarily in traditional financial terms; and personal in the sense that the liking of a leader, or at least public pronouncements of individual friendship, produces trust and common interests.
This consistency was clear in an interview with Reuters, in which President Trump talked about China’s potential to help confront the serious tensions between the U.S. and North Korea in personal terms concerning his liking of Chinese President Xi Jinping. President Trump has been open about the marked shift in his public statements and feelings about China; he has gone from accusing the Chinese of currency manipulation and ‘rape’ of the U.S. economy to saying China might get better trade deals if it helps with the North Korean issue. Indeed, Trump has placed less emphasis on common interests in avoiding military conflict on the Korean Peninsula and more on the transactional and personal aspects. It remains to be seen how effective this approach will be; other approaches have failed to decisively deter Pyongyang’s march towards nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
In the same interview with Reuters, President Trump said he believed South Korea should pay for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system that has been deployed to the country and is just now coming online. Under the terms of the previous agreement, Seoul would provide the land and logistical support for the system, while the U.S. would provide the THAAD itself. Trump’s statement—made not just during a period of dangerous tensions but also during a South Korean presidential election campaign—has generated controversy and anger in South Korea, which has by far the most to lose in any conflict with North Korea and which is also one of the most important American allies in the region. President Trump also mentioned renegotiating a trade deal with South Korea in the same interview, again applying a transactional accounting sheet approach to an issue that has costs and benefits that cannot easily be applied to revenue loss and gain columns.
The same approach can be seen in public statements regarding how the U.S. has been ‘taken advantage of’ in its defense agreements with Saudi Arabia and NATO. Such statements often generate a flurry of headlines, but have yet to generate significant or meaningful change—especially in the shortened time span of 100 days. Still, the tendency to approach defense and national security-related matters as transactional trade-like deals has been a consistent theme throughout the Trump administration’s first 100 days. This suggests that such an approach will likely continue, leaving allies and opponents alike to navigate issues in which the rhetoric coming from Washington is subject to daily changes, but the tangible policies coming from Washington move far slower.
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