THEN-presidential candidate Donald Trump sent a clear message throughout his campaign – one of “America First” and a fiercely isolationist approach to foreign policy, leaving many to understandably predict a turn away from the traditional international interventionism we have grown used to seeing from the United States.
And yet, Trump’s first few months in office have been marked by increasing hostility towards a number of foreign nations and an increase, rather than the promised decrease, in boots on the ground overseas.
In his speech on foreign policy last April, then-candidate Trump lauded the benefits of a “disciplined, deliberate and consistent” foreign policy.
“Our goal is peace and prosperity, not war and destruction,” he said, as transcribed by The New York Times.
“War and aggression will not be my first instinct,” he said. “You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A superpower understands caution and restraint are really truly signs of strength.”
“The world must know we do not go abroad in search of enemies.”
But in his first few months as president, many feel the isolationist and peaceful approach Trump once preached is not being practised.
On Sunday, the president was quoted as promising to “solve” the North Korea crisis with or without China’s assistance. This comes weeks after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued the Trump administration’s starkest warning yet to North Korea, saying while on a visit to Seoul a military response against Pyongyang would be “on the table”.
Trump has also expanded the role of the US military in Africa, giving the Pentagon more authority on Wednesday to conduct airstrikes and send in troops to Somalia.
By declaring certain areas of the country areas “of active hostilities”, Trump has eased restrictions on airstrikes that were put in place to prevent civilian casualties.
The Presidential Policy Guidance rules were implemented by former President Barack Obama in 2013 to govern “strikes away from conventional war zones,” The New York Times reports (via The Independent). It required interagency approval to ensure the target posed a direct threat to the US and an assuredness civilians would not be killed. Under Trump’s amendment, these criteria are no longer a requirement.
A number of news reports have also claimed civilian deaths in both Iraq and Syria, where Trump has sent hundreds of additional troops, have also increased.
According to monitoring group Airwars, US-led coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria may have killed 1,484 civilians in March alone, more than three times the number killed in Obama’s final full month in office.
The picture painted from Trump’s initial budget blueprint also does not conjure a nation concerned with diplomacy over military.
Trump’s desire to increase military spending by US$54 billion, in part paid for with cuts to US foreign aid, signals his lack of interest in diplomacy and soft power, Professor of Government at Bowdoin University, Rebecca Gibbons, argued. This is a notable change in tack from the man who last year declared: “We want to bring peace to the world. Too much destruction out there, too many destructive weapons. The power of weaponry is the single biggest problem we have today in the world.”
Rather than taking a step back from military intervention, Jeremy Kuzmarov, professor of history at the University of Tulsa, feels Trump’s approach towards the military is in fact slightly more aggressive than that of his predecessor, with, for instance, Trump’s intention to allow the US military to conduct covert special operations abroad, previously forbidden during Obama’s presidency.
A big issue for Asia will be Trump’s strategy on the South China Sea dispute.
In the space of just a few years, China’s building and militarisation of artificial islands has put the country in the significant position of becoming the gatekeeper to the South China Sea and has riled neighbouring nations who stake a claim to the territory.
The president is yet to set out a clear policy on the area, but early implications from staff around Trump have shown the administration to be hostile to China’s encroachment on the contested region.
Chief strategist Steve Bannon has in the past stated war between the US and China over the South China Sea is inevitable.
“We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years,” he said in March 2016, as reported by The Guardian. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Bannon is considered by many to be one of the most powerful men in the Trump administration, with a direct line to the president, and is often accused of being one of the biggest influencers in the White House.
In the past, Tillerson has also made sensational threats to block China’s access to the contested islands.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed,” he stated during his confirmation hearing.
The issue is sure to be at the top of the agenda when China’s Premier Xi Jinping and Trump meet for the first time later this week.
Whether Trump takes a confrontational or a diplomatic approach will signal if he plans to stick to his isolationist foreign policy strategy or if he is simply reacting to developments as they happen.
The strategic contradictions that have so far arisen in Trump’s approach will make the implementation of a consistent strategy difficult. The administration will have to determine how to reconcile the president’s various promises and impulses with a coherent and prudent international strategy.