The Trump administration came into power facing vexing foreign policy challenges ranging from a decaying global order to transnational terrorism. These problems are compounded by the fact that Americans are weary after decades of war in distant corners of the Middle East. To succeed, the administration has to balance competing imperatives: reaffirming alliances, engaging in transactional bargains with other great powers, and relentlessly pushing back on adversaries. Despite all the sound and fury, the Trump team is already demonstrating an ability to master these complex challenges in difficult times.
The Democratic Party resistance is already crying foul that the recent strike on Syria was not instantaneously followed up by a comprehensive strategy to resolve the civil war. There is something unusual about this critique from those who stood by while chemical munitions were repeatedly used under the Obama administration.
The missile attack on Syria has already accomplished one important objective, namely that chemical weapons will not be used again on the Syrian battlefields. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad now knows what his most consequential patrons, Iran and Russia, have told him that such usage could invite further American action. A line of deterrence had been established and an important international norm reclaimed. The Syrian civil war continues, and the administrations needs to craft an international alliance against Assad and work to change the balance of power on the ground, but its first step was an important lesson in the utility of limited use of force.
In some cases, the administration will need to craft bargains with other powers to achieve its immediate security objectives.
The North Korean regime's cruelty and penchant toward atomic weapons is a challenge that has eluded all administrations for more than two decades. Along the way we have seen agreements destined to be violated and variety of talks in a variety of forums. The received wisdom suggests that China is the key to mitigating this issue given its economic ties to the hermetic kingdom.
And yet, the China card has never been successfully played. The Trump administration has judiciously made it clear that it has no intention of getting trapped in desultory talks and it has beefed up the America's naval presence on North Korea's periphery.
The strike on Syria was an unmistakable signal to Pyeongyang. However, the administration has complemented this muscular approach with a subtle offer to China that exchanges trade concessions for pressure on its client. North Korea is a problem that has to be managed until that regime finally collapses. And in its first foray into the Asian politics, the administration demonstrates that it understands the uses of power and diplomacy to achieve practical results.
Despite all the recriminations and investigations, the Trump administration appreciates that Russia is a revisionist power whose land grab in Ukraine is impressible. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has warned Russia that further misdeeds will bring additional penalties. Yet, there is nothing wrong with seeking a pragmatic approach to Russia that recognizes areas of possible cooperation. Russia is critical to revival of the sanctions regime against Iran and it can potentially play a more constructive role in Syria. Again, a transactional relationship with a significant Eurasian power can go a long way toward steadying the international system.
In its short tenure in power, the administration has reaffirmed and revitalized critical American alliances. The White House has signaled its commitment to NATO and recognized the alliance as a cornerstone of U.S. national defense. It is wise to ask NATO partners to contribute more for their protection, as every American president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama has done.
Unlike his predecessor, Trump has worked hard to refurbish U.S. alliances in the Middle East by forging a constructive relationship with Sunni Arab states and Israel. While Obama hectored Israel about its settlements and warned Arab states to share the Middle East with Iran, the Trump team appreciates that the region is plagued by both the Islamic Republic and the Islamic State.
Thus far, the Trump administration resembles its more realist Republican predecessors of the Richard Nixon and George H. W Bush administrations. It is focused on balance-of-power politics, dealing with other great powers on equal footing and building coalitions for specific tasks.
As with them, in due time, it may recognize the importance of a robust human rights policy. America can never be a strictly transactional power and must always complement its pragmatism with hints of idealism. It is a lesson that the master of realpolitik Henry Kissinger learned too late in his tenure, as he spent the latter part of his time in the State Department going around the country giving speeches on values that infuse America's approach to the world. The Trump administration should not wait that long and must focus on developing its own approach to issues of human rights and democracy promotion.
In the coming weeks, there will be much assessment of the Trump administration's first 100 days. The commentariat and the Democratic Party resistance will issue their share of indictments. But a more careful reading reveals that the administration has had a promising start in establishing American power and reversing many of the mistakes of its predecessor.
Now on to the next 100 days.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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