For many, Donald Trump represents massive change in the status quo, for better or for worse.
Plenty of critics of the foreign policy status quo, embodied by the Bush-Clinton-Obama trio, are cautiously optimistic that Trump will embrace a pared-down, interest-based foreign policy. Others, of course, despair that Trump’s evident fondness for Vladimir Putin will mean selling the United States’ policy down the river. But perhaps the most striking thing about Trump’s foreign policy stances thus far — and indeed, many question marks remain — is how close they are to Barack Obama’s. The rhetoric has been very different, but in many cases, the substance, or at least the end result, is much the same.
Let’s look at several theaters in turn.
Ukraine. Rhetorically, Obama and Trump could not be more different on this topic. The Obama administration has forcefully condemned Putin’s annexation of Crimea and Russia’s continued involvement in Ukraine’s internal affairs, while Trump infamously moved to remove confrontation with Russia from the Republican Party platform during the Republican National Convention, and has generally sounded very pro-Russian. But when it comes to substance, what has the Obama administration really done to counter Russia’s actions in Ukraine? It has imposed some unilateral economic sanctions. But has it supported anti-Russian elements within Ukraine, with either money or weapons or both? In a meandering interview with The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama provided a theory for why the United States should not confront Russia: Putin’s regime is not “on the right side of history,” and is set to decline on its own, and so confronting it is a waste of time and resources. The U.S. hasn’t done very much to roll back Russia’s presence in Ukraine, and the Obama administration’s stance there has been much closer to Trump’s stated leanings than you might think.
Syria. It’s been a long time since 2013, with its talk of “red lines,” regime change, arming and training “moderates,” and “Assad must go.” After far too many incidents of U.S. arms ending up in the hands of al Qaeda or similar groups, and U.S.-trained so-called moderates defecting to those groups, U.S. support to anti-Assad insurgents has become little more than symbolic. When Russia decided to take charge of the situation and backed Assad forcefully, taking control of Syrian airspace, the U.S. talked very loudly but did nothing with its big stick. The Obama administration’s objectives have been narrowed to providing support for an anti-ISIS coalition. In other words, it looks a lot like the Trump policy on Syria: Hit ISIS hard, let Assad and Putin figure out the rest, and look the other way.
Iran. Since the Iran nuclear deal, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and Barack Obama himself have essentially admitted that the goal of the deal and the United States’ policy toward Iran was to essentially facilitate a Middle East realignment in which the U.S. favors a balance of power between Sunni and Shia instead of being allied with the Sunni against the Shia. On the surface, Trump’s stated foreign policy is just the opposite: He has vowed to tear up the Iran deal and forcefully support Israel (which loathes the United States’ benign enablement of Iran). There is still a lot we don’t know, and it’s quite possible that Trump will reverse course. But whenever Trump has criticized the Obama-Clinton Iran deal, it has been to suggest that he would strike a much better (Yuge! The best!) deal, not that he would roll back Iran’s influence in the Middle East by any means necessary. And don’t forget, Russia is on the side of Iran with its drive to create a so-called Shia crescent controlled by its proxies in Iraq, Syria, and southern Lebanon. In other words, if Trump’s foreign policy is as “Putinified” as some think, it might end up in the same place as Obama, favoring Iran at the expense of Israel and the Sunni Gulf states.