Imagine two U.S. foreign policy analysts plucked from their Washington think tanks and marooned on desert islands, one just before Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy and the other just before the 2016 election itself. After the election, both are told that the Republican candidate won and are asked to predict the new administration’s foreign policy. Whose predictions would have been more accurate?
At times this spring, the second analyst’s forecasts would have been on the money. Having followed the bitter election, he or she would have foretold the nature of the transition and the early weeks of the new administration as a logical continuation of the campaign. The starkly nationalist rhetoric of Trump’s inaugural address; the president’s unpredictable tweets; the departure of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after only 25 days in office; and a whole host of other developments solidified many professionals’ sense that Trump would break dramatically with long-standing traditions and with recent policy. As the months passed, however, the analyst’s predictions would have been increasingly off base as the administration’s foreign policy became more conventional.
Meanwhile, the other desert-island refugee, who would have missed Trump’s surprising ascent and the bizarre campaign that followed, would likely have predicted that no matter who won the GOP nomination and despite any idiosyncrasies that emerged during election season, the realities of governing and of leading in a complex world would ultimately produce a fairly familiar Republican approach to foreign policy. And on balance, this analyst would have been right.
The Trump administration has been in office for less than six months, and most jobs below the cabinet level still remain unfilled, so one must tread carefully when making judgments about its approach or predictions about its future. But it is already clear that this is not a revolutionary administration. The broad lines of its policy fit easily within those of the last few decades.