The nuts and bolts may shift, but the approach is likely to stay the same.
If President Donald Trump wins another term in office on Nov. 3, there’s little reason to expect a new approach to foreign policy. Indeed, current and former officials say, there’s little reason to expect new policy proposals at all, at least initially.
That’s because, with two weeks to go before election day, Trump administration officials are far more focused on the required transition planning — and cementing as many of the president’s key priorities as possible before inauguration in January.
Withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan have been accelerated in recent months. A flurry of negotiations with Russia over a replacement for an expiring arms control agreement have yielded uneven results, even as negotiators privately acknowledge that Moscow has an incentive to wait out the results of the election before committing. Meanwhile, responding to an ongoing series of day-to-day crises — some of them the result of the president’s own tweets — has also kept officials busy in the waning months of Trump’s first administration.
And if Trump should continue on in office? The 2017 National Security Strategy is expected to remain the broad frame for administration policy, even if the president himself often appears to ignore its precepts. Getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan will remain a focus, as will White House efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Gulf nations — part of the Trump strategy for countering Iranian influence in the region. In the Pentagon, officials are braced for, at best, a flattening budget no matter who wins.
Asked specifically about the president’s pitch to voters for foreign policy in a second term, campaign press aide Ken Farnaso cited “bold, decisive action to keep multinational organizations accountable [and] level the international economic playing field” and said that Trump will “continue the fight to keep Americans first in his second term.”
None of that is necessarily unusual, said Arnold Punaro, a retired two-star Marine general and consultant with deep ties in the Pentagon. “Unless there’s some external event driving it, most administrations feel like they’re on the right course. You don’t see many incumbents running for reelection talking about, ‘Well, I want to change what I’ve been doing for the last three-and-a-half years.’ You’re most fine-tuning policies that your administration put in place.”
Yet second terms are often when presidents turn their focus from domestic affairs to the globe — in part because Capitol Hill is often less pliant to a second-term president’s agenda, so presidents seek accomplishments in an arena where Congress has less authority to intervene. President Ronald Reagan, for example, had his breakthrough with Mikhail Gorbachev during his second term. President George W. Bush’s foreign policy approach in his second term was widely seen as more successful — even if critics thought he was cleaning up his own mistakes from his first term. In March 2012, President Barack Obama famously told outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” to negotiate on contentious issues after the November election. And Obama inked his signature nuclear deal with Iran during his second term.
“I think Trump’s very consistent. If he’s reelected, I think you’re going to continue to see protectionism and return to Fortress America when it comes to his approach to foreign policy,” Punaro said. “He’s not going to dramatically change his approach.”
A second Trump administration may continue to leave international institutions, as it did the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2018 and the World Health Organization earlier this year, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien suggested at an Aspen Institute event earlier this month. Trump also withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accords during his first term.
The administration is “not going to stay in international organizations that are corrupt or that are totally controlled by the Chinese if we can’t reform them,” O’Brien said. “We’re going to try and reform them first. We’re not going to stay involved in the Human Rights Council or the WHO where they’re fully corrupt.”
Trump has been far more welcoming of Russia than others in his administration and, early on, a member of the National Security Council acknowledged that the president was considering sanctions relief for the Putin regime. Is a rapprochement in the cards for a second term?
“It entirely depends on whether Russia is willing to stop doing stupid shit,” said a former senior Trump administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I think [Trump] is trying to be a positive messenger. [The Putin regime is] not walking through an open door.”
Diplomats are worried that Trump may seek to leave NATO in a second term, a move he has reportedly considered. This would constitute a devastating blow to the alliance and, critics say, would be a profound relief to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some onlookers see Trump’s plan to move troops from Germany as a harbinger of a future U.S. withdrawal from NATO. The former senior official denied this, and said that the administration is trying to help European allies better ward off Russia. This person pointed to the decision to shift to rotational basing in Poland, which is geographically closer to Russia than is Germany, as evidence that Trump is tougher on Moscow than his critics say.
“You can’t have it both ways; you can’t say that the President is soft on Russia and then put forces in Poland,” the former official said.
Overall, the former official said, the foreign-policy guideposts of a second Trump term would remain the 2017 National Security Strategy, which frames China and Russia as strategic competitors and the United States’ gravest threats. Multiple current and former officials concurred.
Trump has repeatedly turned to economic tools as his preferred lever of foreign policy, imposing sanctions on thousands more foreign individuals than either of his predecessors. (Obama also used sanctions far more heavily than Bush, and analysts say that it has generally become a preferred tool irrespective of party.) Trump also launched an ill-fated trade war with China during his first term. That approach, too, the former senior official said, is likely to remain if the real estate mogul-turned-president remains in office.
“I don’t see the idea of economic security as national security, I don’t see that changing,” the person said.
A second Trump term could also force some parties back to the negotiating table that have been waiting to see if they would get a more accommodating dialogue partner in Joe Biden. On North Korea, the former official expressed optimism that the regime would embrace the idea of “denuclearization” in exchange for sanctions relief. But the Trump administration has long used the term to mean something that North Korea has little interest in. In any case, the regime has thus far made no moves in that direction and, in fact, recently staged a provocative display of new ICBM missile technology.
A second Trump term would likely also mean a renewed push for a three-way nuclear agreement between China, Russia, and the United States — a proposal that many analysts say is unrealistic. U.S. negotiators hope they will have more luck with the idea when they are not racing the clock against the November election.
On China, the administration is also holding steady. It is continuing to push to “near-shore and reshore” manufacturing, particularly for things like drugs and telecom equipment vital to infrastructure, and to establish new supply lines for rare-earth materials, O’Brien said at the Aspen event.
The United States is also pursuing a military “pivot” to Asia to counter China, O’Brien said, unironically borrowing a term that many scholars use to refer to a similar Obama administration effort that is largely seen as a failure. That means the administration would work to revitalize alliances with treaty partners in the Indo-Pacific region, O’Brien said — something defense officials have publicly pursued throughout Trump’s first term, even as Trump continues to threaten to pull troops from South Korea if they don’t contribute more to their cost. It also means a larger Navy.
“If we rebuild the Navy they way the president has set out to do, and if we get a 355-ship Navy, and we really do have a pivot to the Pacific, and we start pulling some of our troops out of places like Afghanistan and Iraq and start putting them in places like Hawaii, Guam, the Aleutian [Islands] and Palau and American Samoa and the second island chain — those are all things we can do I think to deter the Chinese from believing that they can overwhelm us,” O’Brien said, describing the conventional wisdom of the National Security Strategy.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently unveiled a proposal to build the Navy up to 500 manned and unmanned ships, drawing widespread skepticism about its feasibility. No financial details have been released, and the White House hasn’t signed off on it.The former official wouldn’t speculate about the administration’s appetite for that specific proposal but pointed to military spending as one of the key distinguishing features between a Trump second term and a Biden presidency.
“The Biden administration is going to be under tremendous pressure to dramatically cut the defense budget [whereas] the president can’t stop talking about rebuilding the Pentagon,” that person said.
Critics argue that Trump’s overall approach to foreign policy has been erratic — in part because while his broader administration is committed to carrying out the National Security Strategy, Trump himself has no interest in committing to a coherent strategy.
"The trouble is, there has been no overarching strategy in the Trump administration," former National Security Advisor John Bolton told NPR in October. "So that the series of decisions that have been made really have not followed a pattern that leads us over a sustained period of time to a stronger position internationally.”
Statements from officials at the Defense and State Departments — and even Trump’s own national security advisor — at times suggest those officials are serving a different president than the one who currently sits in the Oval Office. While senior officials insist they are following the letter of the National Security Strategy, they are often undermined by the president’s apologism for adversaries like Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, his refusal to publicly call out Chinese genocide, his seemingly spontanous announcements about troop reductions in the Middle East, his swipes at NATO and allies, and more.
That too, critics believe, is unlikely to change.
“You have to look at both. You have to always look at both,” said the former senior administration official, referring to both the words of Donald Trump and the — perhaps contradictory seeming — substance of stated administration policy.