In his major address at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. (April 27, 2016) as the Republican presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump outlined his “America First” approach to foreign policy. In so doing, he stated his manifesto: “Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really truly signs of strength.”
More than two years into Trump’s tenure at the White House, his foreign policy continues to be subjected to harsh criticism, and is frequently mocked as senseless and impulsive. The term “chaos” appears in many contexts to describe his administration, and the suggestion is often made that there is no “adult in the room.” The prevailing claim is that the administration is pursuing a strategy that weakens and isolates the United States, and is withdrawing from its role as a global leader while at the same time distancing potential allies and partners instead of working with them. Obama administration veterans label Trump’s foreign policy as a “Grand Strategic Train Wreck.”
Nevertheless, it appears that Trump has overcome both internal obstruction and external pressure to deliver a series of achievements: North Korea’s Kim Jong-un hasn’t launched a rocket since Nov. 28, 2017; America’s NATO allies are finally starting to deliver on their obligations to increase defense spending toward the 2-percent-of-GDP target; Mexico has apparently come to terms on long-overdue NAFTA reforms; the United States has stayed out of the Arab world’s interminable wars; and the U.S. embassy in Israel moved to Jerusalem in May 2018 without sparking a Palestinian “intifada” as Trump’s opponents warned it would.
The key to understanding Trump’s achievements is to recognize his embrace of a genuine political approach. This course is encapsulated in a political science theory known as “Supersession,” originally developed by Professor Jeremy Waldron of the New York University School of Law. This theory highlights the principle of “changing circumstances,” rather than “rights-based” and “transitional justice” concepts. In other words, the need to rectify supposed historical injustices is superseded by the needs, claims and desires of a society today. In a nutshell: The policymaker looks forwards, not backwards.
According to Professor Tamar Meisels of Tel Aviv University, writing in her book Territorial Rights, “The basic logic of Waldron’s Supersession argument, regarding the inevitable implications of a change in circumstances to the justice of present day arrangements, seems undeniable. On the whole, the Supersession Thesis is irresistibly convincing.”
Trump’s foreign policy employs the Supersession argument by highlighting the passage of time and changing circumstances as decisive factors. The realities on the ground can be considered guidelines that affect America’s international policy.
For example, Trump’s decision regarding the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as well as the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, could suggest the practical ratification of current circumstances as a result of the passage of time.
The reshaping of American policy towards the Palestinian “refugees,” as manifested in the cutting of financial support to UNRWA by more than $300 million and the reduction of funding to the Palestinian Authority by $200 million, is mainly related to Trump’s conclusion that the inflated refugee problem is based on a false narrative.
A parallel logic could explain Trump’s open antagonism towards international organs such as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) and the ICC (International Criminal Court, to which the United States is not a state party). Trump’s reasoning suggests that he considers these international bodies anachronistic due to their anti-American and anti-Israeli majorities, which are composed of Muslim and third-world countries. Though it is not politically correct to distrust the objectivity of international organizations, Trump has exhibited no hesitation in directly confronting fundamental norms of the world’s order.
Trump’s parameters in foreign policy making could indicate a potential direction vis-à-vis ongoing conflicts, with an emphasis on:
- The “deal of the century.” The upcoming Mideast peace plan is intended to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is probable that the United States will stick to the principle of the passage of time and the changing of circumstances on the ground. This would entail authorizing Israel to implement its sovereignty in major parts of the West Bank that are virtually empty of Palestinian population and denouncing the principle of establishing a Palestinian state on that piece of land.
- The North Korean nuclear arsenal. Because the ambitious goal of denuclearizing Pyongyang seems unrealistic (unless an all-out war is fought), and recognizing the change of circumstances, the probability of a fallback position in this area is high. We might see the modus operandi of a “freezing” mechanism to enable a strict inspection of North Korean nuclear and SSM (surface-to-surface missile) arsenals.
- The conflict in South China Sea. Though official American policy firmly denounces China’s continuous blunt efforts to expand its military deployment in the area, mainly on artificial islands, it appears that Trump’s approach to this conflict is less tough than that of Obama. There may be an emerging American readiness to acknowledge the fait accompli and cultivate an unofficial modus vivendi to avoid undesired military escalation in that part of the world.
American foreign policy under Trump is far from chaotic. It is nonconformist, and a good way off from the misguided political correctness of the Obama administration.
Dr. Raphael G. Bouchnik-Chen is a retired colonel who served as a senior analyst in IDF Military Intelligence.