Ranked: Donald Trump's Foreign-Policy Contradictions
A guide to the unpredictable presidency to come.
“We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” proclaimed Donald Trump in April. On the eve of his inauguration as president of the United States, he can already declare victory. There are major foreign-policy issues about which Trump has generated huge uncertainty by flatly contradicting his own policy promises. He has mused that it might be good for U.S. allies to acquire nuclear weapons, and then sworn he never said that; he has promised to ban Muslim immigrants from the U.S., and then walked it back. But that’s just the beginning. Here are the top foreign-policy areas set to become more unpredictable.
7. The Iran Deal. Trump has promised to take a harder line on Iran as president, declaring the 2015 nuclear agreement the “worst deal ever negotiated.” But what exactly is he planning to do about it? Last year, in a speech to an anti-Iran crowd at AIPAC, he declared, “My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” But that threat directly contradicts his prior statements that “we have to live with” the deal. “I know it would be very popular for me to do what a couple of ‘em said—‘we’re gonna rip it up.’” But, he continued, “we have an agreement.” Instead, he promised, “I will police that deal.” His latest statement? “I don’t want to say what I’m gonna do with the Iran deal.”
6. Climate Change. During the campaign, Trump promised bluntly: “We're going to cancel the Paris climate agreement.” But in the wake of the election, even China has managed to move to his left on climate, dryly reminding the president-elect that climate change is not a Chinese hoax, as he has tweeted. But Trump’s mind is apparently not fully made up yet. In a New York Times interview, Thomas Friedman asked, “Are you going to take America out of the world’s lead of confronting climate change?” Trump replied, “I’m looking at it very closely, Tom. I’ll tell you what. I have an open mind to it.”
5. The Nuclear Arsenal. Trump is at his most bewildering when it comes to nukes. He has repeatedly insisted that nuclear stockpiles should be reduced, saying last week, “I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially.” But it’s difficult to square that view with the position he took in December, when he tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” He elaborated the next day that he had no problem if that position led other countries to build up their own nuclear capabilities. “Let it be an arms race,” he reportedly told MSNBC.
4. ISIS. Here's something everyone can agree on: Trump hates ISIS. But what to do about them? Send more troops to the Middle East? Trump has indicated he would consider it: “I would listen to the generals, but I’m hearing numbers of 20,000-30,000.” He's also said he wouldn't. “I would knock the hell out of ISIS in some form. I would rather not do it with our troops, you understand that.” And along the way he might seize the region's oil: “I’ve been saying it for years. Take the oil.” Or maybe not: “We should’ve taken it and we would’ve had it. Now we have to destroy the oil.”
3. NATO. Trump has gone back and forth on whether the alliance is “obsolete,” using that term throughout the campaign, only to decide in mid-August that things had changed. “I had previously said that NATO was obsolete because it failed to deal adequately with terrorism; since my comments they have changed their policy and now have a new division focused on terror threats.” (NATO’s mission has included a terror focus for years, including a decade-plus post-9/11 engagement in Afghanistan.) Now, per a weekend interview two European newspapers conducted with Trump, NATO is once more obsolete “because it was designed many, many years ago.” And yet, he said in the same interview: “NATO is very important to me.”
2. Russia. Trump has gone from 60 to zero on his relationship with Vladimir Putin, at least when he faces the press. Initially, he insisted that “I do have a relationship” with the Russian president and wondered whether Putin could be “my new best friend.” But as of last week, the relationship had apparently cooled, or so Trump explained at a press conference. “I don’t know that I’m gonna get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do. But there’s a good chance I won’t. And if I don’t, do you honestly believe that Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me? Does anybody in this room really believe that? Give me a break.”
1. Twitter. Trump’s embrace of social media has made him the model of a post-modern messaging machine. South Korea has reportedly assigned an official just to watch Trump’s tweets. And yet he can’t seem to decide how he feels about it. In 2012, he declared, “I love Twitter.” But in an interview that aired Wednesday morning, he changed his tune: “I don’t like tweeting.” He went back to tweeting less than an hour after the interview aired.
This article has been adapted from Matt Peterson’s weekly newsletter for Eurasia Group, Signal.
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