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How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Changed In Trump's First Year In Office

Walter Russell Mead

On January 17th, Walter Russell Mead appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” to discuss American foreign policy in President Trump’s first year in office.

Below is the full transcript of the interview:


This Saturday marks the end of President Trump’s first year in office, and we wanted to take stock of a promise he made back on his very first day about how he planned to carry out foreign policy.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First, America First.

KELLY: So how is that America First orientation changing the United States’ place in the world? Well, we’ll put that question to Walter Russell Mead, who has made a career of tracking America’s place in the world. He’s a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College, also a fellow at the Hudson Institute. Welcome.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Thanks – good to be here.

KELLY: Start by answering this. How would you define America First?

MEAD: Well, it’s a funny phrase because I can’t actually think that a president of the United States would ever say, well, I’m for America second…

KELLY: Right.

MEAD: …Or, I’m for America third. So in one sense, it’s just – obviously you’re president of the United States. That’s your job. But it makes a lot of foreigners nervous because they think, well, what about us? And I think it was Secretary Tillerson who said, America First does not mean America alone. Let’s hope that that theme resonates in the administration.

KELLY: President Trump appears to be less comfortable dealing with America’s traditional allies – you can look at some European leaders, for example – than with authoritarian regimes. And I wonder, A, would you agree with that? B, is it a problem?

MEAD: I think we have to limit that and say he’s less comfortable with European allies. Part of it is that the European Union is sort of ideologically committed to an idea of a liberal world order where the rule of law is paramount, democratic peace theory and so on. And it’s not I think so much that Trump hates democracy but that Trump doesn’t believe that you can actually build a stable world on these foundations.

KELLY: What about what’s been perhaps his most closely watched personal relationship? And I’m referring to his relationship with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Have you been able to figure it out?

MEAD: Well, as far as I can tell, it looks like a relationship of rivalry with Valentines. That is…

KELLY: (Laughter) OK. Explain that.

MEAD: That is, under Trump, U.S. policy is almost as anti-Russian as it can be at the strategic level. So modernize and rebuild your nuclear forces. Increase your military spending, forcing Russia either to compete in a league that it can’t afford or to drop back.

But at the same time, Trump, possibly like other American presidents, has overestimated the role of atmospherics and had hoped to still have good relations with Russia even as he was taking a wrecking ball to the foundations of Russian power.

KELLY: What would you describe as administration foreign policy victories so far – a year?

MEAD: Foreign policy isn’t necessarily something that yields victories. That’s a little bit of, in my mind, kind of America First excessive thinking.

KELLY: That’s a fair point – not something you easily put the tally up on the scoreboard.

MEAD: Right, you know…

KELLY: But where are they doing – where are they doing well? What’s promising to you?

MEAD: I would say they’ve done a reasonably good job with relations with India and Japan…


MEAD: …Who were the two most important partners for us in Asia and, therefore, I think in the world. They have done a reasonable though not a great job working past some of the issues in U.S.-European relations – can’t say that they’ve restored stability to the Middle East. They have not effectively communicated their position on energy, which I think is kind of a key to the Trump strategy. But I do think there’s something very powerful going on there.

KELLY: Stay with energy for a second. Why do you think that’s key, and how does the Trump administration’s policies on energy perhaps play out and change the way that it’s interacting with the rest of the world?

MEAD: I think for Trump, the idea that America’s newfound energy wealth – unconventional hydrocarbons, natural gas, so on – is changing the rules of world politics. It’s reduced Russia’s power. It’s created an internal crisis in Iran. It is forcing Saudi Arabia in a way none of us have ever seen to rethink some of their basic assumptions. So to the extent that there is kind of a central vision in the Trump administration, I think it is this idea that America’s energy dominance can be a positive force in the world, and that’s something they want to work toward.

KELLY: So we won’t call it a victory but a positive force.

MEAD: Right. And again, let’s not forget that a lot of the things that created this happened while President Obama was in the White House. This wasn’t just invented on January 20.

KELLY: Well, this speaks to the next thing I wanted to ask you, which is, how much has actually changed? We see a lot of rhetoric coming out of this White House. President Trump, for example, threatens to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. He walks right up to the line but so far hasn’t stepped over it.

MEAD: Yeah. I think a lot of foreign policy is pretty well-fixed. People were stunned by how similar President Obama’s foreign policies were to President Bush’s in his first year – couple of years in office.

KELLY: Is that ‘cause it’s just a really big ship? It’s really hard to make a sudden turn.

MEAD: Yeah. You don’t – you can’t turn it on the dot. In the Trump administration’s case, I think they haven’t appointed all of the officials that they would need to retool the government. So we’re still operating, you know, on old hardware, so to speak.

KELLY: That’s Bard College professor and foreign policy sage Walter Russell Mead. Thanks so much for stopping by.

MEAD: Thank you.

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