Is Trump finding 'America First' incompatible with 'America alone'?

Lately, President Trump seems to be putting more stock in strong alliances – a contrast to the rhetoric that dominated his first year in office. But compromise often comes with a more familiar message: that his hard line made it happen. 

Evan Vucci/AP/File
President Trump and NATO leaders watch a flyover during a transfer ceremony at the new NATO headquarters, May 25, 2017, in Brussels.

President Trump came into office showing deep disdain for America’s allies.

Mexicans crossing the border were murderers and rapists, and needed to be separated from the United States by a “beautiful” wall.

Europeans were deadbeats who relied on America for their defense. Similarly, the South Koreans had gotten rich while letting the US military hold a hostile North Korea at bay.

And all of them had built up their own economies through unfair trade deals and on the backs of American workers.

That tune barely changed over the course of the president’s first year in office.

But lately Mr. Trump seems to have discovered the value of America’s allies near and far.

This week, after the poisonings of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter in Britain, the president ordered the strongest punitive measures since the cold war against Russia, citing the need to show solidarity with America’s closest allies at a time of crisis.

On Wednesday, the administration announced it had reached a deal with South Korea to tweak a free-trade agreement that Trump had long said was “horrible” and might just have to be scuttled. The Koreans also got an exemption from Trump’s steel tariffs – as did the European Union last week.

To top it all off, administration officials and policy analysts close to the administration say that despite appearances, US-Mexico relations are on the upswing – with even some senior Mexican officials confirming that the cross-border dialogue has never been more fruitful.

What’s going on?

Trump seems to be discovering that to do much of what he wants to do both at home and on the world stage,  he needs allies and partners who are not estranged from the United States, foreign policy analysts say. Thus the strident threats and criticisms are mostly out.

But that doesn’t mean compromise is always in – at least in the way the administration explains its actions. Unlike other presidents who have alienated allies in the past, some add, Trump and his officials tend to declare that their tough talk and threats have jarred allies into doing what the president has demanded – allowing him to move in their direction. It’s a have-it-both-ways approach that may face its toughest test this spring, as the administration determines its approach to yet another deal Trump has steadily blasted: the Iran nuclear agreement.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the president has come around to the value of solidarity and close working relations with our allies, and we’re seeing that right now with the Europeans and the South Koreans,” says Lawrence Korb, a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

“But he’s also making sure that he’s going to have it both ways,” he adds. “He’s figured out that when he does honor our commitments or make concessions to our allies to get their cooperation, he’s going to say that they caved and his tough words got them to do their part so we can go back to doing ours.”

'A bit of relief'

The sudden shift towards allies comes just weeks before a crucial deadline: By May 12, Trump must decide whether or not to extend waivers on Iran sanctions. His choice will likely decide the fate of a deal he disdains, but which allies say is working to roll back Iran’s nuclear program – one of the administration’s most high-stakes diplomatic puzzles, in which Trump may be loath to back down from his longtime hard-line stance. And with a hard-line national security team coming in that wants to scuttle the deal, a turn to allies could prove to be short-lived.

“There is a bit of a relief among allies that Trump seems to be stepping back from his most extreme comments and disregard for them,” Mr. Korb says. “But they’re also worried about Iran and they know that this president could still do anything out of the blue.”

Indeed Trump provided an example of his potential to still throw allies for a loop when he told an audience in Ohio Thursday that he might “hold up” the renegotiated trade deal with South Korea until after the US gets a deal with North Korea on its nuclear program. Trump hinted that he could still hold the “strong card” of a trade deal over South Korea’s head to ensure that the ally presents a united front with the US in talks with the North.

That may hardly sound like a new allies-appreciation song, but analysts close to the White House say that such hard bargaining is simply Trump. The real story, they argue, is that the president is acting with allies and getting results, even if it is in his own way.

“What we’re seeing is a pattern in which the president and the administration are highlighting how promoting America First also benefits our allies,” says Ana Quintana, a US-Latin America policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “What all the focus on Trump’s tough rhetoric with allies has missed is that behind the scenes there’s a lot going on,” she adds. “It's just that this president is not going to give up something without getting something back in exchange.”

Breaking the wall?

Relations with Mexico are a case in point, Ms. Quintana says. It’s true that Trump has had testy phone calls with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over the border wall, and that Mr. Pena Nieto recently called off a scheduled Washington visit over how funding for the wall would be treated publicly during the visit. But the White House and federal agencies have been pursuing deepened relations on everything from immigration and drug enforcement to trans-border trade in legitimate goods, she adds.

Just one example of how relations with Mexico affect US domestic policies: As much as 90 percent of the heroin coming into the US arrives through Mexico, Quintana says, so getting a handle on the opioid crisis in the US includes working with Mexico to address transnational organized crime, among other things.

Moreover, Quintana notes that NAFTA renegotiations are headed into their eighth round – suggesting that in fact Trump wants to preserve a deal that everyone thought he would have ditched by now.

“It’s really not going too far to say that the cooperation is unprecedented,” says Quintana – echoing Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, who in February declared that the US-Mexico relationship under Trump “is more fluid, is closer than it was with previous administrations.”

And then there’s Trump himself. Quintana points out that when Trump visited the border recently to review border wall prototypes, he made no mention of his campaign pledge to have Mexico pay for the wall, and even called Pena Nieto “a wonderful guy.”

“What we’re seeing is that not only is Trump changing his tune on Mexico but he’s publicly comfortable with changing his tune on Mexico,” she says.

Watching warily

Still, some analysts caution against reading too much into recent moves.

When it comes to the Russian expulsions, Trump may have been convinced by aides that the US had no choice but to respond dramatically to underscore a commitment to NATO allies, says Geysha Gonzalez, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center in Washington.

“This is not a president who is typically keen to lean in on his advisers’ advice, but I think in this case he was convinced that he needed to show strength on Russia,” she says. “Plus [the solidarity with Britain] shows he understands that he needs to make up some ground in that relationship.”

White House and senior administration officials including Defense Secretary James Mattis saw the poisoning in Britain as a must-do moment to stand by friends and come down hard on Russia, Ms. Gonzalez says. “Here’s a NATO country with a ‘special relationship’ with the US, so this provided the best opportunity to make this statement.”

For those unconvinced that Trump’s recent actions constitute a real change, the Iran nuclear deal looms large on the horizon. Speculation runs wide on just what impact a US decision to break the deal would have on the international accord’s ability to survive, but there’s little doubt that a US withdrawal would plunge relations with European allies (Britain, France, and Germany are signatories to the deal) into crisis.

It’s one reason some experts expect, against the grain of conventional wisdom, that Trump will stay in the deal – his way.

“I know I’m going out on a limb on this, but I do expect him to do something short of putting the sanctions [on Iran] back on, which would mean the deal is still OK,” says Korb.

It would simply be “disastrous” for Trump to pull out of one nuclear commitment just as he’ll be trying to get an even trickier denuclearization deal with North Korea, Korb says. He believes that on Iran, Trump will follow his recent pattern of cooperating with allies but claiming it’s his tough talk that has made that cooperation possible.

“I think what he’ll say is that the Europeans are now coming over to us and we’re working together to do something really tough on Iran’s ballistic missiles,” he says. “Like in these other cases his point will be that they caved, so it’s OK to keep working with them.”

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