February brings the most significant series of tests yet of whether President Trump can transform his disruptive U.S. foreign policy into concrete outcomes.
The House of Representatives has passed legislation that is engineered to “ring fence” Trump on NATO, and the Senate is preparing to do the same.
For his part, the president in his State of the Union altered his tone on NATO, speaking of how for years “the United States was being treated very unfairly by NATO,” but that he now had “secured a $100 billion increase in defense spending from NATO allies.”
What confounds Trump critics, as illustrated above, is his success at identifying real foreign policy problems and then taking them on with characteristic rhetorical gusto and tweets. A less bold American president wouldn’t have made the progress he has achieved on a host of issues that seemed previously immovable. And his most ardent opponents won’t be able to complain much if in February he shows progress in addressing China’s unfair trade practices, toward denuclearizing North Korea, in rallying support to counter Iran’s malevolent behavior, and in replacing Venezuela’s odious dictatorship with democratic change.
What should concern his supporters, however, is his disdain for the sort of allies, strategies and process that he’ll need to address all the above challenges. With their level of risk and complexity, Trump isn’t going to score lasting wins on any front without allies. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ resignation letter was all about differences he had with Trump on that central issue.
It won’t make it any easier that he’s dealing with a cabinet that lacks the many decades of experience lost through recent departures. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan observes in her weekend column that, when Mattis, John Kelly and H.R. McMaster left the Trump White House, “a cumulative 123 years of military and diplomatic experience left with them.”
To steer all the above issues across the finish line and beyond may take a more strategic actor and thinker than President Trump.
Let’s see where we are at the end of this month.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter
and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.
For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow