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Will weight of presidency push Trump to ‘dial back’ on foreign policy vows? (+video)

shifts in thought

Even as Trump pursues an America-first vision, the multitude and complexity of ongoing global challenges could push him toward a more traditional foreign policy, some experts say.

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    Mexican newspapers headline with Donald Trump's triumph over Hillary Clinton, in Mexico City, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. President-elect Trump has pledged to usher in sweeping changes to US foreign policy, including building a wall along the US-Mexico border.
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Throughout the presidential campaign, Donald Trump hammered home his rejection of the traditional American-led international order in favor of a nationalist, America-first conception of US foreign policy.

Protectionism and pledges to shake up decades-old alliances while confronting more forcefully the likes of China and Iran were signature features of his worldview.

Will he stick to that approach once in the White House?

With victory his and the responsibility of the office – which since World War II has included “leader of the free world” – weighing on him, Mr. Trump may fall back on a more traditional, internationalist foreign policy, some analysts say.

“I wouldn’t expect Trump to turn away from his core agenda and from serving the middle-of-the-country electorate that propelled him to victory, but on foreign policy I think his ideas are sometimes more malleable, and he’s seemed willing to dial back on some of his pronouncements,” says Ellen Laipson, a former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council who is now a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington.

“In foreign policy there’s a lot of bad stuff going on out there,” she adds, “and that may encourage him to defer to some of the traditional foreign-policy tools and approaches that a long line of administrations has used.”

Alliances – which Trump often disparaged during the campaign as outdated and too costly – offer one example of where he may “dial back” to a more traditional stance, she says.

The absence from Trump’s brief acceptance speech early Wednesday of any mention of the anti-immigration and protectionist themes he pounded in the campaign may provide evidence that he could end up moderating his foreign policy stance, some experts say.

But others caution that Trump may indeed hold fast to some of his more unorthodox ideas – none was ever developed sufficiently in the campaign to be called “policy” – as he figures out how to put meat on the bones of his America-first vision.

Focus on Putin

Perhaps no aspect of Trump’s foreign policy will be watched more closely than his approach to Russia and Vladimir Putin, after the admiration he voiced during the campaign for the Russian president and his muscular leadership style.

On Syria, in particular, Trump might quickly find a path for working with Mr. Putin, analysts say – leaving the complexities of Syria’s internal conflict largely to Russia, which is already deeply invested there, while succeeding where Secretary State John Kerry could not – working out a joint US-Russia plan for destroying ISIS.

Another issue likely to arise early in Trump’s presidency, given his attention to it in the campaign, is the Iran nuclear deal. Some experts are skeptical he will truly seek to “tear up” a deal that was negotiated among a half-dozen countries and which has at least temporarily removed the Iranian nuclear threat from a volatile region.

“The governance in-box in the first year of his presidency is going to be huge, so is that really the moment to be gunning for a crisis?” says Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser in both Republican and Democratic administrations and now vice-president for new initiatives at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“Once you get to modifying or abrogating the Iran nuclear deal you’re likely to find the Iranians pushing themselves to break out [on a nuclear weapon], and then you’re back to the Israelis considering what to do about that or even considering military action yourself,” Mr. Miller says. “That’s not what you’d want on your plate the first year of a presidency.”

Trump would need action at the United Nations Security Council to fully abrogate the Iran deal, but he could work with Congress to put new unilateral binds on the deal that could make it increasingly unworkable or provoke the Iranians to take their own steps.

But some in Congress are cautioning against steps that could put in jeopardy a deal that has taken Iran off the path to a nuclear bomb.

Likely path in Mideast

“My hope is that Trump and the leaders in his administration … take a clear-eyed look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Iran deal, and really consider the consequences before abandoning it,” says Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware. “We have enough security challenges right in front of us, with North Korea’s nuclear program, an active military campaign in Mosul and Raqqa [in Syria], and the challenge of both Russian aggression in eastern Europe and Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.”

How Trump approaches America’s traditional alliances is likely to offer among the first clues as to how far he plans to go to up-end the apple cart of US foreign policy.

In the Middle East, expect Trump to strengthen “old alliances” with Israel and Egypt, while with others he presses his demand they shoulder more of the financial burden of providing regional security, says Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

One of Trump’s “basic themes” in the Middle East will be that “we need to make sure our traditional partners in the region – like Saudi Arabia – pay up for the help we give them,” Mr. Satloff says.

Gone, he suspects, will be past administrations’ interest in reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or any of the criticism the Obama administration has directed at Israel over its settlement activity in Palestinian territories.

Warning from Asia experts

The same “pay up” demand Trump could issue to the Saudis is also likely to be served on US allies in Europe and Asia. Analysts note that during the campaign Trump repeated his view that either these allies assume more of the burden (financial and otherwise) of providing their security, or the US could reassess its commitments.

In the case of Japan and South Korea, Trump has suggested that enhanced self-reliance could extend to those two countries acquiring their own nuclear weapons rather than relying on the American nuclear umbrella – a development that many experts say would risk destabilizing the region.

Some Asia experts warn that North Korea could present the new administration with its first international crisis. And in that unstable context, a new president seems unlikely to present regional allies with an ultimatum on their defense posture.

“North Korea presents such an acute situation that I’d have to think that Trump would listen to those arguing that with our allies this is a time more for continuity than for change,” says Ms. Laipson of the Stimson Center.

The situation with Europe and NATO will be “trickier” with Trump, on the other hand, she adds. That's not because of Trump’s calls for the Europeans to pay more of their way on defense – she describes that as a “perennial” of US gripes with Europe – but because of his admiration for Putin and his assertion that he will be able to work with him.

“If Trump starts off telling them, ‘I can handle Russia. You guys are so concerned about Russia, but let’s try approaching these issues differently,’ that will be of deep concern to our European allies,” Laipson says. “They would feel very rattled by that.”

Stepping forward to serve

Perhaps most troubling about a Trump foreign policy for some analysts is the fact that the real estate mogul as candidate was rejected as unfit for the presidency by virtually all of the foreign-policy establishment, Republican as much as Democrat.

As a result, Trump has not had the benefit of months of working with a cadre of seasoned (some would say “establishment”) foreign-policy practitioners.

But now that Trump is president-elect, that shunning is certain to end, diplomats with long Washington experience say.

“I expect we’ll soon see some Republicans who loathe Trump and who signed those letters rejecting a Trump presidency on national security grounds now coming forward to serve the country,” says Laipson.

Trump may have often quipped that he is his own best adviser – that he knows “more than the generals do,” as he once said – but the country’s foreign policy elites, particularly Republicans, aren’t likely to stay away and see that bravado tested.

“There will be many people who for any number of motivations will join the new foreign policy team,” says the Wilson Center’s Miller. “For some it will be because they will want to help save the republic.”

Staff Writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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