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How Trump tried to redefine America’s role in the world in 2017

From the moment President Donald Trump took the oath of office, he has aimed to shake the world stage and change the U.S. role abroad. Hari Sreenivasan looks back at the year in Trump foreign policy with Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations and Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Candidate Donald Trump pledged to make America great again, and the theme is central to President Trump’s foreign policy.

    To discuss how he’s doing, we’re joined by Elliott Abrams. He is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and previously served in the State Department and on the National Security Council staffs during the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. And Gideon Rose is the editor of the journal “Foreign Affairs” and served on the national security staff during the Clinton administration.

    But, first, a look back at key foreign policy moments over the Trump administration’s first year.

  • President Donald Trump:

    From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    From the moment he took the oath of office, President Trump aimed to shake the world stage and redefine the U.S. role abroad.

  • President Donald Trump:

    For many decades, we have enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry. We have defended other nation’s borders, while refusing to defend our own.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    He vowed to extricate the U.S. from wasteful foreign wars, renegotiate global trade and climate deals, and take a tougher stance on security and immigration.

    But an escalating confrontation with North Korea at times overshadowed that agenda. Sixteen missiles soared from the North in test launches during 2017. Some apparently had the range to reach the U.S. East Coast.

    The new president issued dire warnings.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They will be met with fire and fury, like the world has never seen.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The U.N. imposed more sanctions. Kim Jong-un answered with more missiles and nuclear tests, and the war of words grew ever hotter.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    He likewise kept pushing to kill the Iran nuclear deal negotiated under President Obama.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In October, Mr. Trump refused to certify Iran’s compliance, despite U.N. findings to the contrary. It was left to Congress to enact new sanctions, essentially leaving the Iran deal in place for now.

    The president acted more swiftly his first day in office in withdrawing from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. But publicly, at least, there was scant progress on striking new trade deals. The same was true on climate.

    In June, the president pulled the U.S. out of the Paris accord to curb greenhouse gases.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Nearly 200 other countries who signed the accord have thus far refused to renegotiate. President Trump pressed for better results on defense spending, after he chastised NATO leaders at a May summit for not shouldering more of the burden.

  • President Donald Trump:

    NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A month later, the allies promised to boost defense spending.

    On another front, Mr. Trump, who once called Afghanistan a huge waste, ramped up the U.S. military presence there. In August, he announced he’s deploying more troops, and he rejected timetables for withdrawal, but insisted he wasn’t writing a blank check.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The president also claimed credit for a major success story against terror in the Middle East. Local forces, backed by U.S. and coalition planes and troops, drove the Islamic State out of its caliphate in Iraq and parts of Syria.

    Syrian forces, with Russian air support, waged a separate campaign. It all came at a huge cost. Many residents of Mosul and Raqqa returned to find nothing but rubble, and civilian casualties ran into the thousands.

    In Yemen, the U.S. backed a Saudi-led coalition’s air assault on Iranian-backed rebels. The fighting killed thousands and plunged millions more into starvation and a cholera epidemic. But President Trump threw his full support behind the Saudis during a May trip to Riyadh.

  • President Donald Trump:

    A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     Mr. Trump again went against international concerns in recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announcing plans to move the U.S. Embassy there.

    Meanwhile, the world watched the Trump administration’s effort to crack down on immigration. Days after his inauguration, he banned travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and halted the arrival of all refugees for three months, before the Supreme Court allowed a third incarnation to take effect, pending an ultimate decision.

    Through it all, the president was dogged by, and emphatically dismissed, the ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in last year’s election and allegations of collusion with the Trump campaign.

  • President Donald Trump:

    What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    He also sought to build closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But late in the year, a new national security document branded both Russia and China as threats.

    Gideon, let me start with you.

    How has our standing in the world changed this year?

  • Gideon Rose:

     Nobody can actually believe what’s going on.

    The fact is that, although there have been a lot of foreign policy events and discussions over the year and a lot of detailed progress in various areas and crises, the real story is the election of Donald Trump meant that, to the rest of the world, the United States is sort of threatening to walk off the team and take its ball with it.

    And nobody really knows whether that’s going to happen, because the president’s tweets and desire to take himself out of the alliance and under — overturn American foreign policy hasn’t really been backed up by the actions of the U.S. government, but he also is undermining those actions and sort of stalling things.

    So, in the end, it’s a little bit like Obamacare. Trump has tried to overturn American foreign policy, but he found that he couldn’t do it, so instead is sort of not funding it and harping around and nibbling around the edges, trying to undermine it in place.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Elliott, there was a recent pew poll that said our favorability rating has kind of dipped from 64 to 49 percent since the election, and 74 percent of the world has no confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing.

  • Elliott Abrams:

    Well, that’s a bad thing, but I think, if you look at what the president has actually done, he is doing the right thing, particularly now as the year ends.

    We see the enforcement of the Magnitsky Act against Putin. We see the decision to give lethal weapons to Ukraine, something the previous administration failed to do. We see the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which I think is the right thing to do.

    We see the U.N. Security Council passing its third unanimous resolution and toughest yet against North Korea. So, I think there is actually a lot of progress in the policy.

    I think the president is learning on the job, and I think he’s taking advice from his advisers.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Gideon, let’s start unpacking what Elliott just said kind of region by region.

    Let’s start with North Korea. It’s a bit of a nuclear powder keg, and it’s almost as if the president knew we were going to have this conversation about him today. Just earlier this afternoon, he sent out on Twitter a video of Bill Clinton from 23 years ago talking about North Korea and the framework and disarmament.

    And then, in that same tweet, there was Donald Trump 18 years ago talking to Tim Russert, talking about that the time for action was then.

    Does he have a point when he says, listen, all of the presidents and all of the policies from then until now have not worked in preventing the situation where Kim Jong-un actually has a nuclear weapon and has now the technology to deliver that as an American city?

  • Gideon Rose:

    I agree with Elliott that there’s been a lot of continuity in actual American foreign policy.

    But I wouldn’t attribute that to the president, and I certainly wouldn’t say that Trump has learned on the job or done anything different, because this is no evidence that I have seen that the president actually understands the details of any policy issue on the agenda or is actually seriously concerned to advance American interests or global interests, as opposed to his personal interests or those of his particularly cronies.

    With something like North Korea, you have an interesting dynamic going on, in which ongoing progress in the North Korean weapons programs has triggered a backlash by the United States and others around North Korea. We have gotten better sanctions.

    This actually is all set up now, possibly, if you had a real State Department and a real administration, for a deal the next year that wouldn’t go for, let’s say, denuclearization, which is not going to happen, because they have been nuclear for 10 years. What you can have is a freeze that would essentially would stop them from going any further, in return for our not badgering them further on other kinds of things, and some kind of deal like that.

    But now that you have played the bad cop, you have to have the good cop convert it into a negotiated settlement. And the problem is, this administration is all bad cop and no good cop.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Elliott Abrams, what about the rhetoric that the president uses? Is that helpful?

    In the case of Kim Jong-un, he’s called him a madman repeatedly. He’s called him little rocket man. He said that he wouldn’t call him short and fat.

    But, at the same time, I think, maybe even more importantly, he has publicly admonished his secretary of state for — quote — “wasting his time trying to negotiate with little rocket man.”

  • Elliott Abrams:

    Well, some of it is unhelpful. Some of it should be said only behind closed doors.

    Some of it, I think, is a mistake and leads some foreign governments to wonder, in the case of the secretary, you know, should we be dealing with Secretary Tillerson, is he on his way out, does he have the president’s confidence? That’s never a good situation.

    I saw that with Secretary Haig when I was in the Reagan administration. Usually, it doesn’t last more than a year or so. And it’s not a good situation for the president, for the secretary, or for the country.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Gideon Rose…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Gideon Rose:

    But, Elliott, with all due…

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Go ahead.

  • Gideon Rose:

    With all due respect to Elliott, I think the rest of the world is not bound by the political correctness that the American media has increasingly displayed.

    They look at Trump saying, who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes? And they say, hey, we will believe our own eyes. You say that Nigerians live in huts and Haitians have AIDS and Mexicans are rapists. You don’t understand the alliance. You don’t even seem to have any notion of the liberal international order or partnership.

    They’re hoping the president doesn’t have any control over American foreign policy, and that the people around him, like Kelly and Mattis and McMaster, are the ones — and Tillerson — are the ones controlling things.

  • Elliott Abrams:

    If you look at what the president has said, not in tweets, in speeches, his speech in Seoul, Korea, was a terrific speech that was very popular left, right and center in Korea. His speech in Warsaw, I thought, was really quite a good speech.

    His policy in Europe, his policy toward NATO now is actually working in getting NATO members to move up their defense spending toward the 2 percent mark. So I think this kind of indictment just doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Gideon, how about the relationship that the administration is having with, say, China? Are our interests being served better?

  • Gideon Rose:

    Well, it all depends on how you define interests.

    The United States has based its policies over the last several years on not just short-term interest, but long-term interests that happen for a stable international system in which people can trade, in which the future is secure.

    And the biggest problem right now is nobody is certain about what direction American foreign policy is taking. And so the short-term tactical moves, there really is no American strategy. And, frankly, the national security strategy that just came out is a little bit of a hodgepodge.

    And with all due respect to Elliott, if you listen to what he said, he said, don’t listen to the tweets, look at the speeches.

    I have been taught by people like Elliott Abrams over the decades when looking at Middle Eastern leaders, you don’t look at the big public speeches they give to the world at large. You look to what they say to their own people and what they actually do.

    Here, we have a weird situation in which the actual American foreign policy has been largely continuous, but the president’s tweets at the top and then their indications on the side are giving everybody an uncertain feeling, and nobody knows what’s happening.

  • Elliott Abrams:

    In my travels in the Middle East, I find that that’s not right.

    I find that we have better relations with both the Arab governments and the Israelis than we did in the Obama administration. So the notion that, you know, all over the world people have less respect for the president, the presidency, the country is just an overstatement. I just don’t find that to be true.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Elliott, one of the conservative critiques in the past has been that the Americans have been leading from behind.

    And something Gideon said in the very beginning, he said, well, what if this attitude is, we’re going to take our ball and go away, right?

    When the United States pulls away from something like TPP or the Paris climate accords, strategically, doesn’t that give China an advantage and say, hey, you know what, we’re going to fill that gap, we’re going to have an alliance in Asia, we’re going to go ahead and provide solar panels to the whole world and become the economic engine of a green industrial revolution?

  • Elliott Abrams:

    Well, it can in some cases.

    I mean, TPP, as you remember, Hillary Clinton said she would have pulled out as well. On the climate question, that’s a different one, I think, that relates to the judgment of many people in the administration, not just the president, about the American economy.

    I think what the president has said that’s really critically important is, we can’t lead the way we want to lead, we cannot spend the money we need to spend on defense, which is required to lead, if we can’t build up the American economy.

    The basis of our military strength is our economic strength. And the focus on that, I think, should reassure allies around the world. China is producing a potential alliance for us of just about every country around China, because they’re afraid of what Chinese leadership might mean.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, any final thoughts?

  • Gideon Rose:

    This past year has been like a movie trailer for the movie “The Post-American World.”

    We have seen a one-year preview of what a post-American world would look like. And everybody is kind of saying, is this going to be the new reality, or are we going to snap back to something more? It will be interesting to see what happens.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Gideon Rose, Elliott Abrams, thank you both.

  • Elliott Abrams:

    Thank you.

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