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Have crises abroad changed President Trump’s view of the world?

April 13, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
What began as a Trump presidency emphasizing retrenchment on the home front has been quickly refocused on the U.S. role abroad. The U.S. response to Syria's use of chemical weapons have raised fresh questions about President Trump’s foreign policy. Judy Woodruff talks to former Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and Adm. James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The last week has seen significant changes in the way the Trump White House views the world. And what began as a presidency emphasizing retrenchment on the home front has been quickly refocused on the U.S. role abroad.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: USA! USA!

JUDY WOODRUFF: He bills himself the America first president, but it’s world affairs that have risen to the top of his agenda lately. Syria’s use of chemical weapons, the U.S. response, and President Trump’s own words have raised fresh questions about his foreign policy.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Right now, the world is a mess. But I think, by the time we finish, I think it’s going to be a lot better place to live.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, on Syria, for one example, there are competing messages. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday the priority remains defeating the Islamic State, and not removing President Bashar al-Assad, despite last week’s poison gas attack.

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. Secretary of Defense: This was a separate issue that arose in the midst of that campaign, the use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons, and we addressed that militarily.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Mr. Trump sounded a harsher note yesterday, calling Assad an animal, and worse.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: That’s a butcher. That’s a butcher.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The issue dominated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tense visit to Moscow yesterday. Tillerson said relations with Russia were at a low point. Mr. Trump agreed, but said he hopes for an eventual thaw.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It’d be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia, and that could happen. And it may not happen. It may be just the opposite.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, the president tweeted: “Things will work out fine between the USA And Russia. At the right time, everyone will come to their senses and there will be lasting peace.”

Another obstacle to that lasting peace is North Korea’s nuclear testing and missile program. The president has dispatched an American aircraft carrier group to the region, and he’s pressing China’s President Xi Jinping to help bring the North to heel.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He’s a terrific person. We spent a lot of time together in Florida. And he’s a very special man. So, we will see how it goes. I think he’s going to try very hard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That vow comes amid reports that Pyongyang may be readying for another nuclear test. And Japan warns the North may now be able to load a missile warhead with nerve gas.

For more on the challenges facing the Trump White House, and its options going forward, we turn to two men with deep military and diplomatic knowledge.

Ambassador William Burns retired from the State Department in 2014, after serving as deputy secretary of state under President Obama. He also was ambassador to Russia and to Jordan over his 33-year diplomatic career. He is now the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And Retired Admiral James Stavridis, he served as NATO supreme allied commander from 2009 to 2013, the first Naval officer to hold that position. After 37 years in the U.S. Navy, he now serves as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

And we welcome both of you to the NewsHour.

Right now, we’re thinking we remember all this analysis during the campaign that this was a president who was going to be reluctant to use U.S. force abroad, to project the United States militarily.

But, Admiral Stavridis, with now this news today of dropping a bomb in Afghanistan, the strike on the airfield in Syria, the threat, in effect, toward North Korea, are we seeing something very different, a president who is very prepared to use military force?

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS, (RET.), Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander: I think, if you look at the personality involved, there’s always been a persona of toughness about Donald Trump, so I’m not shocked or even really surprised at this.

It does fly in the face of some of his campaign rhetoric, Judy, but I do think that the strike in Syria, which I believe is really the one to concentrate on, is a fairly well-thought-out strategic message that says the United States will use force, we intend to be at the table in the Middle East, and I think has hopefully a sobering impact both on China and on North Korea.

The big bomb today is really a tactical move. It is a big bomb, but it is not going the change facts on the ground or send a big signal. It’s the strike in Syria to focus on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Burns, do you see a strategy in all of this right now?

WILLIAM BURNS, Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State: I think every new administration undergoes a lot of changes on first contact with reality.

But I have to admit that the pace and scope of the changes we have seen even in the last few days in the Trump administration really do make your head spin a little bit. And I think the big question is whether or not the tactical shifts, the reactions, the impulses add up to a strategy, in other words, a coherent and disciplined approach to America’s role in the world, which lays emphasis on our alliances, on our ability to mobilize other countries around the world to deal with common problems, that sees them not as millstones, as the Trump campaign rhetoric often held, but as huge assets which set us apart from lonelier major powers, like Russia and China.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But apply that question, Admiral Stavridis, to the situation in Syria, because — what you just referred to.

I mean, on the one hand, you have the administration saying this was just a one-off, it was an attempt to send a signal to President Assad that the U.S. will react if he uses chemical weapons again. On the other hand, you have the president describing President Assad as an animal, as we have heard.

It isn’t entirely clear, I think, to everyone watching what the U.S. approach to Syria is.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: I completely agree, both with your comment and with Ambassador Burns.

I think it is interesting to note that all this occurs with an overlay of the NATO secretary-general coming to Washington and having a — by all accounts, a very good meeting with President Trump, I think, bolstering the point that Ambassador Burns is making is that America is so much better, so much stronger together with our allies, with our friends.

And I hope that, in Syria, NATO can be brought along to be part of a coalition against the Islamic State and perhaps over time against Assad. We will see. But the salient point here is the use of force and the willingness to do so. I agree with Ambassador Burns, we have yet to see a coherent strategy emerge.

Let’s hope that we do, and let’s hope it includes the ideas of allies, partners and friends.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Apply the question, Ambassador Burns, the one you just raised a minute ago, to what we’re seeing in Syria, and connect that to this what appears to be new approach the Russia.

The president sounded very complimentary toward Vladimir Putin again for months and months. Now he is saying Putin is on the wrong side of this major question in Syria.

WILLIAM BURNS: Well, it was an illusion to think that the Trump administration was going to be able to pull off a grand bargain, a total normalization of U.S.-Russia relations, because there’s too much of a disconnect, I think, right now in the way each of us, Putin’s Russia and the United States, sees our role in the world and sees the question of international order.

But I have to admit I’m surprised with the speed with which things have flipped over the course of just the last week or so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does what you’re hearing, Admiral Stavridis, the administration say and do about Russia fit into what you just described a moment ago with regard to NATO and the fact that this does now seem to be a president who is ready to work with NATO?

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: I think it’s a reflection of the fact that there has been a reset. We used to talk a lot about the reset with Russia, which hoped to move us in a positive direction. Here, we see a reset of reality.

Exactly as Ambassador Burns says, it’s a wave of Russian bad behavior washing over. That, Judy, has a very salutary effect on NATO. Its stock goes up as Russia’s stock goes down, precisely because, in order to work with Russia, we have to project strength to Russia.

That means using the NATO alliance as part of that. I would say that we should confront Russia where we must, on Syria, cyber-attacks on the United States, on the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, confront where we must, but cooperate where we can. Let’s find some zones of cooperation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s so much more I want to ask you both about, including China, but I don’t want to let you get away, Ambassador Bill Burns, without asking about just the president’s approach, this unpredictability, this notion that he’s keeping America’s allies and adversaries off-balance.

Is that a strategy, in and of itself?

WILLIAM BURNS: I mean, occasionally, unpredictability can be a useful thing.

But I think you have also got to be careful about, you know, the importance of consistency in American foreign policy. Whether it’s friends or foes, we generally get further in the world when we’re consistent and coherent in how we approach our strategy in the world, because, otherwise, friends begin to doubt our resolve, or sometimes doubt our leadership, and foes are attempted to try the take advantage when they’re not sure the approach the United States is going to take.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Admiral Stavridis, what about that?

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: Agree completely.

And I will simply add to it that, again, we want to be tactically surprising. We don’t want to telegraph our raid or the weapons system we’re going to use or where the next carrier strike group is going to pop up.

But, strategically, we need consistency, we need a plan. And that is yet to be seen from this administration. I do feel that the last few days, we have seen things moving in a better direction. Let’s be hopeful that that kind of strategic consistency evolves, that we keep tactical surprise when we need to. Together, they will help us create a positive foreign policy.

WILLIAM BURNS: And if you want to pursue the kind of strategy that Jim Stavridis was just describing, you have got to be able to sustain the institutions that help you to carry that out.

And when you propose a budget that would essentially gut some of those institutions, reduce by 30 percent, at least in the projection, you know, the State Department’s budget, the budget for foreign assistance, you’re creating a situation in which you’re almost inevitably going to over-rely on the use of force as your tool of first resort, and you’re going to miss opportunities diplomatically, as well as using foreign assistance smartly with regard to key fragile states to try to avoid the kind of conflicts and failures that ultimately drag in the U.S. military, at far greater cost.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of which is worth taking another long look at that.

Ambassador Bill Burns, Admiral James Stavridis, we thank you both very much.

WILLIAM BURNS: Thanks so much.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: Thanks, Judy.

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