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Reading Trump's Foreign Policy Shifts

Walter Russell Mead

Over the past week, President Trump has done a remarkable about-face on foreign policy, from his embrace of NATO to his pessimism on Russia to his rosier outlook on cooperation with China. Reuters:

"We may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia," said Trump, who ordered the firing of U.S. cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield last week to punish Assad for suspected use of poison gas in Syria's civil war.

While criticizing Russia on Wednesday, Trump said he and Xi had bonded during the Chinese president's visit to the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where they dined together with their wives and held talks. […]

The evolving Trump foreign policy appears to reflect less of the influence of his campaign team and more the views of Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, all of whom are deeply skeptical of Russia.

One way to read events is that Trump hoped—like Bush and Obama before him—that he could shift Putin toward a more pro-U.S. position. The Bannonite dream of a Christian coalition against Islam may have been a factor, but Trump seemed to hope that he could dramatically simplify America’s complex Middle East dilemmas by peeling Russia away from Assad and Iran.

So far, that policy has predictably failed: Today in Moscow, the Foreign Ministers of Russia, Syria, and Iran presented a united front against the United States, promising to boost cooperation just two days after Rex Tillerson’s trip to Russia. And though Trump may still hope for a more productive and transactional relationship with Russia in the long term, for now the White House has embarked on another effort: to peel China away from North Korea.

This is also difficult, and may even be impossible, but there are reasons to try. Unlike Russia, China has been successfully integrated into the global economy and as a result, its relationship with the United States is less zero-sum than Russia’s. Trade with the United States is a vital component of China’s growth; Trump’s willingness, indeed his eagerness, to make trade a political instrument, offering “good deals” to friendly countries and tougher deals to bad actors, opens up a range of negotiating opportunities with China that simply don’t exist with Moscow.

He is also willing, in a way that his predecessors weren’t, to engage in brinkmanship with North Korea—responding to the DPRK’s volcanic eruptions of hatred and threats with firmness and warnings rather than the usual mumbling. This policy is full of risk, but it is hard to argue that at this point the United States has many alternatives, unless we are willing to live with a North Korean gun at our heads for the rest of time.

The hope seems to be that if the United States can effectively coordinate trade diplomacy with military and security diplomacy aimed at the Korean Peninsula, China will conclude that wholehearted cooperation with the United States on North Korea is its best option.

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