President Trump’s approach to defense and national security issues in his first year in office has been a shock to the global system.
In some areas, his moves have been less dramatic than expected. He continued the war in Afghanistan, didn’t move to refill the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and hasn’t yet ripped up the Iran nuclear deal.
But in other areas, his presidency has been anything but conventional. He got into Twitter spats with allies like Britain and foes like North Korea, gave the military more autonomy to strike terrorists without his approval and fulfilled a promise to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel despite widespread international opposition.
“The biggest characteristic of the year is just the huge gap between what members of the Cabinet are saying and what the president is saying,” said Michael Carpenter, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “That’s partially responsible for what’s roiling allies and enemies alike.”
Trump came into office with few firm stances on foreign policy, beyond a promise to put “America first.”
During the campaign, promised to “bomb the s—” out of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), fill Guantanamo with “bad dudes” and return to waterboarding and a “hell of a lot worse.”
He talked of improving relations with Russia even as the U.S. intelligence community assessed Moscow interfered in the presidential election.
He disparaged international alliances, questioning whether he would come to the defense of attacked NATO allies who don’t spend more on defense. He suggested he would be willing to withdraw U.S. troops stationed in countries such as South Korea if they didn’t pay a bigger share of the cost of the deployment.
He vowed to tear up or renegotiate several international agreements, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
He pledged to end “nation-building” missions such as efforts to train Afghan troops and stabilize the Afghan government so they can one day handle the Taliban on their own.
And he promised a massive buildup in the size of the military, including thousands more troops, dozens more ships and at least a hundred more combat aircraft.
Despite Trump’s repeated statements in recent weeks that “we’ve been rebuilding our military,” the buildup has yet to become a reality. The White House needs Congress to lift the caps that now restrain defense spending, which is something that could happen in January.
On some campaign promises that alarmed critics, Trump ultimately sided with the more traditional advice of advisors such as Defense Secretary James Mattis. Shortly after taking office, Trump said that Mattis, who opposes torture, would “override” him on that issue.
And over the summer, Trump announced a new strategy for Afghanistan that includes an indefinite time commitment. He acknowledged his advisors had changed his mind about withdrawing from the country.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and, historically, I like following my instincts,” Trump said in August. “But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, in other words when you’re President of the United States.”
On the Iran deal, Trump took a hard-line stance in October by refusing to certify that Tehran is in compliance with the agreement. But the certification was a requirement of U.S. law, not the deal itself, and Trump did not pressure Congress to take the next step that would have killed the accord — re-imposing sanctions. A 60-day deadline for Congress to quickly put sanctions back in place passed quietly in early December with no action.
Still, Trump has said he’ll scuttle the nuclear deal if Congress doesn’t act to fix the issues he sees with it.
“Phase two might be positive, and it might be very negative,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting in October. “It might be a total termination. That’s a very real possibility; some would say that’s a greater possibility. But it could also could turn out to be very positive. We’ll see what happens.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he was “sort of surprised” the Iran deal remained intact throughout 2017, but said 2018 could be the year Trump loses his patience with the country.
While Trump continues to say he wants to improve relations with Moscow, that hasn’t happened yet. Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller continue to investigate Russian election interference; Congress overwhelming passed legislation that prevents Trump from lifting sanctions on Russia; and the Pentagon recently accused Russia of intentionally violating a de-confliction agreement in Syria, among other obstacles to improving relations.
“I didn’t expect Congress to be so strong in terms of Congress boxing him in on Russia policy,” Carpenter said. “It wasn’t just that it passed. It was the overwhelming nature of the majority that signaled to him that, ‘Buddy, you don’t have any space to operate here.’ ”
Meanwhile, ISIS’s one-time twin capitals of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, were retaken by U.S.-backed forces this year, with officials crediting Trump for allowing the military to strike without high-level, interagency reviews.
“Over the last six months, we have dramatically accelerated this campaign,” Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, said at a press conference in August. “This is due to some key changes that were put in place very early on, three changes, initiatives from President Trump… Number one, and very importantly, this makes a tremendous difference on the ground, the delegation of tactical authority from the White House, from Washington, down through the chain of command to our commanders on the ground.”
O’Hanlon gave Trump “partial credit” for this year’s successes against ISIS.
“It’s gone pretty well largely because of momentum building under Obama,” he said. “Trump was able to build on that and do some additional things, so I give him partial credit for where we are. But nobody should be celebrating too much. After what we saw with al Qaeda… there’s no reason to think defeating ISIS is going to produce lasting stability in Iraq and Syria.”
Outside of Iraq and Syria, Trump also gave the military more authority to conduct strikes and raids in Yemen and Somalia. U.S. Central Command reported this week that it carried out more than 120 airstrikes in Yemen in 2017, about three times more than in 2016.
As U.S. air campaigns ramped up, so did accusations of civilian casualties. Prominent monitor Airwars estimates the U.S.-led coalition has killed at least 5,975 civilians since the start of the ISIS war in 2014. The majority of the deaths came after Trump took office.
The coalition admits to 801 civilian deaths and says the increase in the Trump administration was due to the difficulties of fighting in urban terrain in Mosul and Raqqa, not a relaxing of the rules of engagement.
Trump also took several actions opposed by U.S. allies. As he promised, he announced the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate accord and that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The latter action sealed his close with relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but drew a stinging rebuke in the United Nations with a 128-9 General Assembly vote this week denouncing the move.
And Trump used Twitter to disparage close U.S. allies. In March, he tweeted that Germany owes “vast sums of money” to NATO and the United States. In November, Trump shared three anti-Muslim videos from the far-right Britain First, prompting a public admonishment from Prime Minister Theresa May that Trump was “wrong” to share videos from a “hateful organization.”
At the same time, Trump moved to improve some alliances that had become strained under the Obama administration. In particular, he and Saudi Arabia courted each other, agreeing to a $100 billion arms deal during Trump’s visit to Riyadh — his first stop on his first trip abroad.
“There are certain key relationships where at least with foreign leaders Trump has done pretty well,” O’Hanlon said, citing as examples Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Israel’s Netanyahu, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Narendra Modi, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
“It is a little bit striking that he does have eight or ten major leaders around the world that he seems to be getting along with.”
But what has emerged as perhaps Trump’s biggest foreign policy challenge was just a blip on the radar during the presidential campaign — North Korea.
Pyongyang made considerable progress on its nuclear and missile programs in 2017. It tested an apparent hydrogen bomb in September and a new intercontinental ballistic missile in November that appeared to put the entire United States in range.
Trump has responded by belittling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man” and threatened “fire and fury” if Pyongyang doesn’t stop its threats. The administration has also slapped new sanctions on North Korea and rallied the U.N. Security Council to pass its toughest sanctions yet.
Administration officials have also stressed the need for diplomacy to resolve the crisis, though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s overtures have been contradicted by Trump.
“Going into 2017, I didn’t expect it to be year of the year of North Korea,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest. “I expected it to be the year of getting tough on China. I think Trump was caught flat-footed when the missiles started flying. With the rhetoric in the campaign, you can’t be completely surprised how he handled it, trying to go mono-a-mono with Kim Jong Un for top insult. Next year, it’s only going to get worse.”