President Donald Trump’s surprise attack against Assad’s Syria for their use of nerve gas astonished the global public as he was reluctant to intervene there. More startlingly, Trump gave a humanistic speech to show sympathy to gas attack victims in Syria, though his Muslim ban presidential orders were repeatedly rejected by the Federal Court. This is regarded as a strong warning against North Korea that defies the nuclear nonproliferation order through consecutive ballistic missile tests. However, it is inappropriate to assume that Trump is shifting away from notorious America First. Also, it is utterly wrong to understand that Trump is more reliable than strategically patient Obama. Trump may demonstrate prompt and steadfast response, but he does not have clear strategies to manage the crises in both Syria and North Korea. Nor does he have some kind of clear visions to make a deal with Russia and China. In any case, the current crisis in Syria and North Korea is a critical test to foresee Trump’s foreign policy.
Let me talk about Syria, first. Shortly after Trump launched a missile attack against the Assad regime, it appeared somewhat he was returning American foreign policy to the normal track from hermit isolationism. It is widely known that Obama’s failure to punish Assad when Syria crossed the redline to use chemical weapons in 2013 has lowered American influence in the Syrian Civil War critically, while augmented Russian and Iranian presence there. Therefore, Robert Kagan urges the Trump administration to act furthermore to help anti-Assad forces, and ultimately, to stop refugee outflux from Syria (“It’ll take more than a missile strike to clean up Obama’s mess in Syria”; Washington Post; April 7, 2017 and “'This is not the end': John McCain warns Trump, torches Rand Paul on Syria missile strikes”; Business Insider; April 7, 2017). However, Trump has not revised his strategy of embracing Assad and Russia to defeat ISIS.
Geopolitically, Syria is just beside the Northern Tier of the Middle East, where Russia and Britain confronted in the 19th century, and the Soviet Union and the United States did during the Cold War era. Currently, Vladimir Putin is exploring a czarist ambition to expand Russian influence in this area, from Turkey, Iran, to Afghanistan. Russia is hollowing NATO’s air defense system by exporting S-400 missiles to Turkey (“Turkey says in talks with Russia on air defense system”; Reuters News; November 18, 2016). Also, Russia helps Taliban uprisings in Afghanistan (“Afghanistan to investigate alleged growing military relations between Taliban and Russia”; International Business Times; December 8, 2016 and “Russia is sending weapons to Taliban, top U.S. general confirms”; Washington Post; April 24, 2017). Nevertheless, Trump’s missile attack was not the Copernican turn of his Syria and Northern Tier policy. As show in his gaffe about the Civil War (“He lacks a sense of American history and its presence with us today.”; National Review Online; May 3, 2017), he is so illiterate in history that he hardly understands the implication of Russian infiltration to the Anglo-American hegemonic frontline in the Middle East. The missile attack was more to demonstrate the power to North Korea than to regain American control in Syria. In addition, his sudden use of MOAB was so unilateral that people in Afghanistan were outraged as they felt themselves experimented for the attack on North Korea (“Why the Big US Bomb Was Dropped on Afghanistan”; VOA News; April 14, 2017). In any case, Trump’s Middle East strategy is not so much more resolute than Obama’s.
Then, I would like to mention North Korea. Seemingly, Trump is overturning Obama’s strategic patience that failed to stop the Kim regime from advancing nuclear bomb and ballistic missile technologies. But in reality, Trump relies on China to settle the dispute. China just wants to keep status quo, and is reluctant to impose long term sanctions (“Trump’s Risky Reliance on China to Handle North Korea”; Diplomat; April 24, 2017). More problematically, Trump’s understanding of security in the Korean Peninsula is extremely questionable. Also, he outraged South Korea on history as he remarked that Korea was a part of China (“South Korea to Trump: We’ve never been part of China”; Hill; April 20, 2017). Here again, he does not understand delicate problems associated with history in East Asia, and more appallingly, he was not ashamed of his ignorance and insensitivity in foreign history and culture. More problematically, Trump bullies South Korea so much on THAAD deployment and trade that National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and Congressman Ed Royce urge him to focus on imposing harder sanctions on North Korea rather than bickering with an ally (“Congress wants Trump to pressure North Korea, rather than U.S. allies”; Washington Post; May 1, 2017). Meanwhile, Japan manages to avoid such conflicts with the Trump administration, though his “racketeering” outraged both American and Japanese experts during the election campaign.
Nevertheless, despite flamboyant words and deeds, Trump’s approach to North Korea is nothing so innovative. The United States waits for them to abandon nuclear weapons, while asking China to pressure furthermore. That is almost the same as Obama’s “strategic patience”. Actually, the catastrophic consequences of the war against North Korea are so obvious that few options are left for the United States, whoever the president is. In a circumstance like this, any conflict with South Korea over the issues like history and THAAD payment, is undesirable. In that case, South Koreans would be tempted to appeasement with an increasingly nuclearized North Korea rather than committing to the alliance with the United States (“Trump’s North Korea policy sounds a lot like Obama’s ‘strategic patience’”; Washington Post; April 29, 2017).
Besides specific aspects in detail, we have to see the inherent problems of Trump diplomacy. Both in Syria and North Korea, relations with Russia and China are critical. The missile attack in Syria does not imply that he has overturned pro-Russian policy. Most noticeably, Trump has not condemned the recent human rights oppression in Russia, though it was supposed that his friendly relation with Putin ended. The Kremlin murdered human rights activists of Nikholai Gorokhov (“Lawyer for Russian Whistleblower’s Family Falls Out of Window”; Wall Street Journal; March 22, 2017) and Denis Veronenkov (“Former Russian politician killed in Ukraine”; World Israel News; March 23, 2017), and arrested Alexei Navalny for leading nationwide anti-corruption protests (“Russian police detain hundreds during anti-corruption protests”; Euronews; 27 March, 2017). Abiding by national norms and criteria, any president, regardless of partisanship, should denounce Russia, and uphold American values against dictatorship.
To the contrary, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outraged the Washington foreign policy establishment, when he said scornfully about the importance of human rights and American values in foreign policy (“Tillerson calls for balancing US security interests, values”; AP News; May 3, 2017). This is startling, but what I expected. The media gave us an impression that Trump was shifting away from Russia shortly after the Syria attack, but as shown in the Comey case, his ties with Russia are inextricable. Trump has every reason to dismiss human rights oppression in Russia. Seemingly, he is shifting to bipartisan mainstream, as tensions between Russia and the West grew over the Baltic and the Black Sea regions. Still, Trump has been facing policy gaps with his national security staff since pro-Russian Michael Flynn was replaced by H. R. McMaster. While Trump sees Russia a strategic partner to manage Middle East terrorism, McMaster values the Western alliance as a former aide to John McCain (“WILL NEW NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER MCMASTER CLASH WITH DONALD TRUMP ON RUSSIA?”; News Week; February 22, 2017). Also, foreign policy cabinet members of the Trump team are unanimously hardliners against Russia.
Meanwhile, James Carafano, Vice President of the Heritage Foundation and ex-foreign policy advisor to Trump during the transition period, says that Trump’s stances to Russia has not changed despite the Syria attack and vocal support for NATO. In his view, Trump just pursues practical deals with Putin (“On Russia, Trump and his top national security aides seem to be at odds”; Washington Post; April 18, 2017). If this is true, it is unclear how Trump will make a deal with Russia over security of Europe and the Middle East, while his own cabinet leaders are critically alert to Putin’s Neo-Eurasianism. Similarly, Trump’s deal-oriented direction on China raises another concern. At the bilateral summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump even said that he would be willing to make a concession on trade conflicts with China, in return for more pressure on North Korea (“On North Korea, Trump signals break with US-China policy”; CNN News; April 18, 2017). Such a deal-oriented policy swing provokes worry among regional allies whether Trump’s America is really committed to the denuclearization of North Korea. Rather, Trump could reach a half way agreement to admit their nuclear status, as far as their missiles do not reach the US mainland. Actually, former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns expresses a dire concern that Trump regards America as a hostage to the world order that she made (“The risks of the Trump administration hollowing out American leadership”; Washington Post; April 19, 2017).
Furthermore, Trump’s continual obsession with anti-establishment and anti-bureaucrat sentiment is a fatal problem. As Kunihiko Miyake, Research Director of the Canon Institute for Global Studies, comments, Trump is still so deeply indulged in campaign mindsets that he has not grown up to think and act presidentially (“Trump has not shed election mode yet. Will the Obama care repeal failure awaken him?”; Sankei Shimbun; March 30, 2017). The media may have lauded when Steve Bannon was removed from the National Security Council, but he still holds the Chief Strategist position in the White House. Also, it is utterly wrong to assume that Bannon’s decline and its consequential boost of the Ivanka Trump-Jared Kushner will lead the Trump administration to go more moderate. Their rise is turning the government increasingly family dominated, and ultimately, making America a Third World kleptocracy. Moreover, their growing influence erodes the authority and credibility of highly educated and trained civil service. If their expertise and dedication are sidelined by a dressmaker girl and a real estate boy, the rule of law and governmental transparency will collapse, which will endanger American democracy. Bannon and the Ivanka-Kushner duo are two sides if the same coin. Therefore, I strongly agree with Anne Applebaum for her resentment (“Ivanka Trump’s White House role is a symbol of democratic decline”; Washington Post; April 27, 2017).
Judging from all the points I mentioned, Trump is neither more resolute nor reliable than Obama. The only hope within the Trump administration is military professionalism of James Mattis and H. R. McMaster, that could drive US foreign policy towards a more mainstream direction. That may contradict with civilian controlled democracy, but there is no other alternative as long as Donald Trump still stays in power.