Is 2018 the year when President Donald Trump finally pulls it together in the realm of foreign policy, or is it the year when the train goes fully off the rails, with potentially disastrous consequences? As I argue in my new book, American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump, the first year of Trump’s presidency has been plenty corrosive to U.S. power and influence, because Trump has steadily undermined a number of qualities that made American statecraft effective in the past. Trump has often seemed determined to erode longstanding pillars of U.S. diplomacy: America’s reputation for steadiness and reliability, commitment to a positive-sum global order in which all countries that play by the rules can prosper, soft power and identification with the advancement of universal values, and image as a dependable ally and a country committed to solving the world’s toughest problems. Meanwhile, the administration has struggled (to say the least) with systematic policy formulation and execution. The combination of internal disorganization and understaffing, erratic presidential behavior, and very public disputes between Trump and his cabinet secretaries has made 2017 one of the messiest first years ever.
What can nonetheless be said for this administration is that it has so far avoided some of the most disastrous outcomes that were widely — and quite reasonably — feared when Trump took office. The president’s tweets have often proved beyond irresponsible, but so far there has been no preventive war with North Korea. Symbolically decertifying the Iran nuclear deal was a bad idea, but Trump did not commit the far worse error of unilaterally withdrawing from the accord. The White House reportedly flirted with lifting sanctions on Russia and bringing back torture and CIA black sites, but internal and congressional resistance apparently blocked those ideas. The president withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thus making a major strategic misstep, but he has so far refrained from initiating trade wars or pulling out of existing agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.