Just one week ago, U.S. President Donald Trump stood before a crowd of construction workers and made the same promise he did hundreds of times during his presidential campaign.
“I’m not, and I don’t want to be president of the world,” Trump told the trade union conference in Washington. “I’m president of the United States, and from now on it’s going to be ‘America First.'”
But in the week since, Trump’s “America First” policy has been challenged by problems elsewhere in the world. And the president’s interventionist response is leaving many to wonder if he is more open to the U.S. role as world policeman than his campaign rhetoric suggested.
The problems broke out in familiar hotspots.
In Syria, a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held area prompted Trump to launch airstrikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, further pulling the U.S. into a bloody, six-year conflict.
In northeast Asia, the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group was redirected toward North Korea, in a show of force to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has threatened the U.S. and its allies with nuclear weapons.
On a related note, a shakeup in the White House National Security Council resulted in the demotion of Steve Bannon, Trump’s nationalist chief adviser who was a main architect of the “America First” policy.
A fundamental shift?
The moves were widely praised by the Washington foreign policy establishment. But they don’t necessarily represent a wider shift toward more intervention, cautions James Carafano, a member of Trump’s presidential transition team.
“I don’t think it’s an interventionist foreign policy, per se,” said Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “What the president has demonstrated is the willingness to intervene when U.S. interests are pushed.”
In the view of Carafano, both the Syria missile strike and the repositioning of the aircraft carrier send the same message: “It’s that if you’re beginning to infringe on my interests, I am going to demonstrate that I’m willing to protect them.”
While that’s a contrast from former President Barack Obama, who at times was reluctant to use military force around the world, and George W. Bush, who was accused of intervening too much, it’s not out of the mainstream of historic U.S. foreign policy, Carafano argues.
“I think in some ways, history will look back and they will find that Trump’s foreign policy is actually more mainstream than Obama’s or (that of) George W. Bush,” he said.
Syria strikes only a ‘warning’
Trump administration officials stress that the Syria strikes are only a “one-off,” meant to warn Assad not to use chemical weapons, and do not reflect a new policy aimed at regime change.
That reasoning is similar to the justification given for previous U.S. military interventions, such as Obama’s strikes in Libya in 2011, which were originally presented as a humanitarian effort but later morphed into attacks to oust Moammar Gadhafi.
But while there is a risk of unintended escalation, the U.S. is not likely to get further involved in Syria’s civil war, says P.J. Crowley, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state.
“Barack Obama defined the American interest in Syria as the defeat of the Islamic State,” he said. “President Trump has largely embraced the same definition of the conflict. I’m not sure [the airstrikes] really represent a fundamental change in policy.”
Tougher on North Korea?
Trump also appears to be relying on familiar strategies for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear threat. So far, those strategies include pressuring China to contain the North; making clear that the U.S. will act alone if necessary, and occasionally demonstrating the superior U.S. military might with symbolic shows of force against Pyongyang.
But Victor Cha, who worked on Asia policy in George W. Bush’s administration, said rerouting the Carl Vinson strike group is especially notable, given that it was not a part of regular military exercises in the area. “I think it certainly sends the message that they seem to be conveying about being much tougher on North Korea than the last administration,” said Cha.
But in the end, despite all the tough rhetoric against foreign adversaries, the president who was elected on promises of putting “America First” may eventually run into domestic political limitations, said Crowley.
“President Trump was elected to fix problems in America,” he said. “He was not elected to fix problems in Syria.”