100 Days of Trump Foreign Policy: Realpolitik Lite

During his election campaign, Donald Trump attacked the Obama Administration sharply for what he saw as having failed on all accounts in its foreign policy. Trump pointed to the chaotic situation in Libya following US intervention, the power vacuum left by the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, and the failure of Obama to enforce the red line that was drawn regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Moreover, Trump promised to improve relations with Russia and to make the destruction of ISIS a top priority. Just one year ago during a campaign speech, Trump summarized his foreign policy goals as follows:

“Our goal is peace and prosperity, not war and destruction. The best way to achieve those goals is through a disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy. With President Obama and Secretary Clinton we’ve had the exact opposite — a reckless, rudderless and aimless foreign policy, one that has blazed the path of destruction in its wake.” [1]

However, these remarks should be treated with caution given his record as a flip-flopper and as a notorious liar as has been revealed, for instance, by Politico Magazine [2]. Therefore, it is a necessary and useful exercise to review how Trump’s foreign policy has evolved over the past 100 days. Accordingly, this essay reflects on the Trump Administration’s main foreign policy decisions and actions taken since he assumed office.

Trump’s foreign policy is similar to a poker player with fewer chips than everybody else and a pair of 7’s in hand; exploitative and reactionary, looking for opportunities and reacting to the game of the table, definitely bluffing, certainly overconfident. Trump’s foreign policy decisions thus far have been in glaring contrast to his campaign promise of America First and nonintervention. Haphazard and opportunistic policy decisions have characterized the foreign policy making process coming from the White House and will result in the United States constantly being behind its adversary’s foreign policy decisions. The Trump Administration’s foreign policy has thus far been exactly what Trump opposed during his campaign, namely unpredictable and increasingly confrontational. This is underlined by policy decisions taken by the Trump Administration with regard to ISIS, North Korea, Syria, and Russia. Optimists might nevertheless respond to this claim that Trump is still developing and aligning his foreign policy regarding all four actors. However, we argue that this view does not hold given the Trump Administration’s actions thus far.


During his campaign, Trump had promised to destroy ISIS. However, he was unwilling or unable to present an actual policy on how he would achieve this goal. He simply said that the fight against global terrorism is not only a military struggle but also a “philosophical struggle” [3], and that he wanted to step up the bombing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, stepping up the fight against ISIS has so far been one of the few foreign policy goals Trump has not diverged from, as shown by an increase in air raids and drone strikes. This however, is hardly an effective policy considering offshoots of the terror groups targeted also operate cells in remote locations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Yemen, with sympathizers in many more countries.

It is unlikely that bombings alone will eventually lead to the destruction of ISIS and other terror groups. Instead, it is more likely to do more harm than good in terms of the ‘philosophical struggle’, considering recent policy changes expanding the rules of engagement for the US military and the CIA. A case in point is the Trump Administration’s decision to loosen restrictions regarding drone strikes by granting increased autonomy in authorizing strikes, or declaring places a war zone as happened in Yemen.

Declaring places a war zone technically means there is no longer any need to prove targets pose an imminent threat to US national security, or that no civilians will be harmed. The United States’ reputation as an advocate of human rights and international law will be severely degraded, especially in new operational theatres such as Yemen, which is likely to result in an increase in anti-American sentiment and quite possibly a surge in support for terror groups such as ISIS or al-Qaeda. Marjorie Cohn, Professor Emerita at Jefferson School of Law, already accused the Trump Administration of war crimes by violating US and international law in the conduct of drone strikes as they constitute extrajudicial killings in her opinion [4]. Loosening the restrictions of the rules of engagement regarding drone strikes in the fight against international terrorism is therefore likely to do more harm than good to US national security interests. The United States seems to be on the losing end of Trump’s ‘philosophical struggle.’

North Korea

Trump claimed during his election campaign that he intended to stop the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile program. Indeed, Trump has taken up the North Korean issue, but has so far only managed to heighten the tensions on the Korean Peninsula further by responding to North Korean military provocations in kind. North Korea tested ballistic missiles in violation of UN Security Council resolutions in February, March, and April. Another provocation was Kim Jong-Un’s largest-ever artillery drill celebrating the 85th anniversary of the North Korean armed forces, which was also in April. In response to North Korean actions, the United States conducted joint naval exercises with South Korea and Japan in March. Trump also ordered an aircraft carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula, albeit in a display of incompetence and poor internal communication, another embarrassment for the Trump Administration. Additionally, in April, the US started the construction of the Thaad missile defense system in South Korea that will complement the already existing joint ship-based Aegis missile defense system and Japan’s Patriot missile defense system to enhance protection from North Korean ballistic missiles. Furthermore, the US airstrike against the Assad regime in response to the use of chemical weapons at the begin of April could be seen as a warning to Pyongyang that Washington will retaliate should the DPRK use chemical or small-yield nuclear weapons in the future.

Further escalation in form of limited military action bears the strong probability of a devastating all-out war on the Korean Peninsula given the recently increasingly fiery rhetoric and provocative actions taken by Pyongyang and Washington. Although the construction of the Thaad missile defense system has been started, the metro area of Seoul, and roughly 25 million people, remains vulnerable as it is within range of North Korean artillery. Moreover, the DPRK has multiple nuclear facilities and is apparently in an advanced stage of completing the commissioning of submarines capable of delivering nuclear warheads, making it increasingly difficult to destroy all its capabilities in one swift strike, and possibly risking nuclear retaliation. Additionally, the South Korean armed forces lack the required offensive capabilities to bring a conflict to a quick end, as their focus is on defensive capabilities [5]. The deployment of the required US reinforcements to end the conflict would take time, leading to an increase in cost of life and destruction. Also, it is not certain how Beijing would react in case of violent conflict. Taking these points into consideration, it appears that the current tense situation offers only a diplomatic way out of the crisis through renewed negotiations if further escalation is to be avoided.

Despite the rise in tensions on the Korean Peninsula, there are also commentators who argue that the Trump Administration’s actions toward North Korea could bear fruit through the increase in Washington’s pressure on Beijing to take a tougher stance on Pyongyang. Beijing’s decision to stop all coal imports from the DPRK and to suspend all direct flights to Pyongyang, as well as the deployment of 150,000 troops at the North Korean border could be seen as a reaction to recent US actions. Moreover, a recent statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to offer room for renewed negotiations. Tillerson stated that the goal of the US is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula without regime change or regime collapse [6]. In the case of the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missiles program, this approach might actually be beneficial, given that the North Korean regime is currently building its nuclear arsenal as an insurance policy against external regime change.

The Trump Administration could use the pressure it has built up on Pyongyang and Beijing to force a return to the format of the six-party talks with the 2005 Joint Statement as a starting point for renewed negotiations over the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Additional impetus for détente could now come from Moon Jae-in, who won the South Korean presidential elections on 9 May 2017, as he advocates rapprochement with Pyongyang. In 2005, when the regime in Pyongyang agreed to the Joint Statement’s principles, it appeared to be ready to engage in a step-by-step process of abandoning all nuclear programs and peace negotiations with Seoul, in return for comprehensive security guarantees and economic aid. In the end, however, the Joint Statement was never implemented because of disagreements, which led the Bush Administration to eventually suspend the proceedings [7]. In the current situation, revoking the six-party talks based on the principles of the 2005 Joint Statement could offer a way out of the current crisis that allows both Pyongyang and the Trump Administration to save face.

Currently, tensions only seem to increase further, and no remarks have publicly been made by Washington or Pyongyang that would hint at a return to the negotiating table. Only Beijing has called for a new round of talks. Also, it is problematic that the Trump Administration has presented South Korea and Japan, its allies in the region, with a fait accompli, when Trump stated that he would not rule out unilateral military action against Pyongyang. This makes Trump’s foreign policy with regard to the Korean Peninsula an unpredictable exercise of unnecessary brinkmanship bringing about an increased risk of military confrontation with the North Korean regime.


Trump’s foreign policy is extremely reactionary in nature and has been characterized by a ‘ready, shoot, aim’ mentality. Keeping true to his campaign promise to put America first, human rights and defense burden sharing are of secondary importance. This tendency to shoot from the hip has manifested itself in the Trump Administration’s actions in Syria and Iraq combatting ISIS, and most especially by the recent missile strike against the air complex in Syria. The rational and strategic thinking used to justify the attack has been inconsistent and contradictory. Trump has claimed alternatively that the missile strike was “in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” in addition to saying that images of babies and children killed in the Sarin strike moved him to act [8].

This is a crystal-clear indicator that American foreign policy is being crafted and executed based on Trump’s reaction to events, rather than in accordance with any overarching, long-term policy agenda objectives. Trump’s policy decisions are a testament to a reversal on his stated “America First” policy objectives and should instead be termed Realpolitik Lite.

While the Tomahawk missile strike did not do any harm to Russian men or material, and suggests there was some measure of communication between Russia and the US before the strike, it has effectively sunk any hope of closer ties or cooperation between the United States and Russia, at least in the short-term. Additionally, it shows a complete lack of forward thinking into other policy issues or agenda items in a big picture sense. This strike confirms that we can continue to see more reactionary decisions from the Trump camp in foreign policy.

Perhaps on the only example of a long-term foreign policy objective of the Trump Administration has been not insisting that the Assad Regime step down and be excluded from a post-war Syrian peace process. In stark contrast to the position of the Obama Administration, which insisted on Assad’s eventual removal from power, Trump has been seemingly more pragmatic. This is presumably to bridge the gap between Russian and US foreign policy in Syria, given Russia’s strong support of the Assad and commitment to preserving the Assad Regime.


The Trump Administration’s stance on Assad is confusing however. Secretary of State Tillerson’s visit to Moscow in April was an attempt to draw Russia away from the Assad Regime, an odd request to come from an administration that does not see a problem with Assad’s involvement in a post-war Syria [9]. Predictably, Tillerson’s visit and request failed, and is further evidence of the Trump Administration’s disjointed approach to foreign policy. On the one hand the US is attacking a Russian protectorate, and on the other hand the US is asking Russia to reduce or eliminate support to Assad. If there exists a place where this logic makes sense, it is not in Damascus, and certainly not in Moscow.

Drawing Russian support away from Assad would almost certainly be a fruitless endeavor. Despite Assad’s odious military campaign against his own people, Russian control over domestic public opinion through the manipulation of media is extremely firm and unlikely to relent. Syria is of strategic interest for Russia and provides them with a springboard into the Middle East via the Tartus naval base and the Latakia air base which are to be leased until 2066 [10]. This toehold allows Russia to be involved in finding a political solution to the conflict, which is well received by Russia’s domestic audience, who would like to see Russia return to great-power politics. Additionally, we can assume that the recent subway bombing of the St. Petersburg metro will have reinforced public opinion in favor of continued involvement in the Middle East in some capacity.

The Trump-Putin phone call of early May is another example of Trump’s discombobulated foreign policy. While the phone call was lauded by both leaders as a continuation of their positive relationship, the scope of their conversation was rather narrow and noncommittal to the extreme. Both Trump and Putin agreed that they should “cooperate” on fighting “terrorism” but it remains to be seen what this verbal agreement will amount to, or if they can agree who the terrorists are [11, 12]. It is difficult at this point in time to see possible avenues for cooperation on combatting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, given the disagreements elsewhere.


All in all, the foreign policy actions taken by the Trump Administration regarding ISIS, North Korea, Syria, and Russia have been inconsistent, increasingly confrontational, and above all else, unpredictable. Stepping up the military campaign against ISIS and other terror groups will be largely ineffective apart from the occasional headline; these terror groups tend to operate as cells dispersed over the globe and are relatively location-independent. Significantly, the Trump Administration stands to lose the philosophical struggle by making compliance with US and international law secondary to military objectives. A considerable increase in civilian casualties related to US military operations has already been recorded since Trump took office. One can only imagine what damage a continuation of this policy will do to the reputation and credibility of the US in the long term. Trump’s North Korea policy could turn out to become equally destructive should the situation escalate further. Only a face-saving return to the six-party talks seems to offer a way out of the current heated situation. The conditions for a return to the negotiating table have improved considerably, when the Trump Administration stated that it is not seeking the dual goal of regime change and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, trust that neither party is going to escalate the situation further is currently at a low, due in large part because Trump’s Korea policy has been unpredictable and reactionary, making it difficult to return to a state of reduced tensions that could form the basis for renewed talks.

Trump advocated during the last election campaign cycle for closer ties with Russia and said that he wanted to “get along with Russia…If we get along with Russia, I think that would be great.” However, little progress has been made in drawing Russia closer to the US/EU fold. At this point in time, cooperation between the United States and Russia is in all likelihood a pipe dream. Indeed, the cruise missile strike in Syria and Secretary of State Tillerson’s failed trip to Moscow both show how the United States is operating without a concrete foreign policy agenda, nor moving towards medium or long-term objectives. The United States’ soft power and credibility abroad has been significantly downgraded, and unfortunately, we should expect to see more of the same in the coming months. It is clear that under the Trump Administration, American leadership and moral credibility is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

Disclaimer: The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/28/us/politics/transcript-trump-foreign-policy.html

[2] http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/donald-trump-lies-liar-effect-brain-214658

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/28/us/politics/transcript-trump-foreign-policy.html

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trumps-war-crimes_us_58e7a2fae4b06f8c18beeaf9

[5] Christopher R. Hill (2013) The Elusive Vision of a Non-nuclear North Korea, The Washington Quarterly, 36:2, 7-19

[6] http://thehill.com/policy/international/331055-tillerson-calls-for-new-un-pressure-on-north-korea

[7] Christopher R. Hill (2013) The Elusive Vision of a Non-nuclear North Korea, The Washington Quarterly, 36:2, 7-19

[8] https://www.lawfareblog.com/trump-administration-sends-mixed-messages-about-syria-strike-christians-targeted-egypt-and-new

[9] http://news.nationalpost.com/news/world/tillerson-brings-tough-line-to-moscow

[10] https://www.rt.com/news/317528-latakia-russian-khmeimim-airbase/

[11] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/05/putin-trump-meeting/525174/

[12] http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/54441

Follow Caleb Larson / Julian Untiet:

Julian Untiet has joined the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy as a Master's Candidate specializing in Conflict Studies and Management in 2016. He holds a BA in International Relations and International Organization from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. His research interests include German and US foreign policy, good governance, post-conflict peacebuilding, and sustainable development. Caleb Larson is currently pursuing a Master's in Public Policy with a specialization in Conflict Studies and Management and the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt Germany and holds a BA in History from UCLA. He is a committed Trans-Atlanticist; his interests lie in EU-Russia/US-Russia relations and defense issues, NATO shortcomings, and European security studies.