6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

What Does the World Expect of President Donald Trump: The First 100 Days

Webcast available

Webcast Recap

The Takeaways

 

The first 100 days in office are considered a benchmark to measure the early success of a first-term president.  President Trump has outlined an ambitious set of plans including proposals related to immigration, trade deals, and defense policy. On February 1st, 2017 a distinguished panel of Wilson Center regional experts had a spirited conversation about the foreign policy expectations and challenges confronting the Trump administration.

“A lot has happened in the first ten-plus days,” observed Indira Lakshmanan, Washington Columnist for the Boston Globe, who moderated the event.  She was joined by Aaron David Miller, Vice President for New Initiatives and a distinguished scholar with the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program; Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute; Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute; and Duncan Wood, Director of the Mexico Institute, to discuss the expectations and challenges for the Trump administration's first 100 days in office.

The conversation began with Trump’s most recent and provocative action: the executive order on refugees and immigration. “The real threat does not seem to be the one which this executive order is designed to address,” said Aaron David Miller. Miller emphasized that, since 1980, refugee participation in terrorist attacks has not only been low, but nonexistent; the real source of terrorism is American citizens radicalized through social media channels. Miller noted “If you are interested in addressing the primary threat, then you really have to be careful that you don’t alienate, stigmatize, or essentially isolate the best line of defense in this country.” Although strong reviews of vetting remain important in an age of terrorism, this executive order “was neither wise nor warranted,” said Miller. “Are we safer? Yes. Are we safe? No. And there’s no way to insulate and hermetically seal a free society.”

Pivoting to changes in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, “we knew it was coming, we didn’t know it would be this bad,” said Duncan Wood. “There was a great sense of good will on the part of the Mexicans, even though they were very, very afraid of what was coming, and then … the tweets came, and then it was all over.” While fresh wounds may be hard to heal, and growing suspicions long to dissipate, Wood doubts that the damage is irreparable, either to security or trade relations. Contentions have, however, had immediate impacts, such as halting the intelligence sharing as part of the Mérida Initiative and a general increase of skepticism about the United States. This change in the Mexican stance extends beyond the administrative level: “Mexicans are rallying around the flag, quite literally. Mexicans are rediscovering their anti-Yanquismo; they are rediscovering nationalism.” The best thing for both sides to do, Wood warned, is stop publicly discussing the issues, and instead allow for “cooler heads to prevail at a lower level.” NAFTA in particular “is an imperfect agreement, which is now an old lady of free trade agreements. It needs to be modernized.” Yet the path pursued by the Trump administration, favoring several bilateral agreements over a larger, multilateral one, may be problematic. Wood stressed, “If we begin to break it down … I think we lose a lot of that bigger picture reality.”

Matthew Rojansky began by emphasizing the significance of armed conflicts involving Russia and warned the fighting between Russia and Ukraine could end up implicating NATO nations. “The prospects that this could escalate into full scale war, in the center of Europe are real.” Rojansky noted that Trump’s comment that NATO was “obsolete”, sometimes interpreted as  jeopardizing NATO’s integrity, may have more to do with structural elements in NATO, rather than NATO’s existence itself. “No one knows quite what’s promised or guaranteed,” warned Rojansky, a problem not only for conventional defense but for cybersecurity and terrorist threats as well. Although the personalization of contact between Russia and the United States may provide closer ties or clearer communication, in contrast to some of the Obama administration’s frustration, “personalization of international relations is more destructive than constructive in the long run.” That said, Trump’s ties to Putin are, Rojansky emphasized, more ambiguous and less clear than people sometimes make them out to be. The region as a whole remains within an atmosphere of tension and distrust.

A major issue with respect to China was the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. According to Robert Daly, to the Chinese this was “a gift, not a victory, something that was handed to them, not won through conflict.” According to Daly, part of the TPP’s importance was a product of the Obama administration's rhetoric, which “set the stakes for TPP passage a good deal higher than they had to be in geostrategic terms. The TPP was going to push a number of very useful pawns forward a square or two, that was all it was designed to do.” The end of U.S. involvement in the TPP sent a much stronger regional signal than it might have otherwise. At the same time, some of China’s goals depend upon a stable regional order, to which the United States contributes. United States withdrawal, therefore, was not wholly a boon to China.

Perhaps more pressing than the TPP was the potential reconsideration of the One-China policy, and whether or not such recognition could be used as a bargaining chip. “This is not a bargaining chip, this is the whole table. … This is the foundation of the relationship upon which all other negotiations occur,” emphasized Daly. Questioning the entire policy remains different from interacting with Taiwan; after the call, “even among folks who wanted to defend the traditional way of doing business with China, you saw an admission that ‘Yeah, we’ve been hypersensitive about Beijing’s hypersensitivity too long.’” The space between changing the approach to the One-China policy and changing the policy all together is wide. That reconsideration has involved more than diplomatic maneuvering: Daly noted that for the first time since 1979, both the United States populace and leadership view the relationship with China as adversarial, with China as perhaps the only long term threat to American preeminence.  

Each expert concluded with their hopes and suggestions for the new administration, with a common theme: a desire for fact-based competence and analysis. Robert Daly’s advice to “staff up, and do the policy review” was echoed by Duncan Wood, who said that “I think we do actually need an impartial evaluation of what the United States gets and loses from the North American Free Trade Agreement. That would be a very welcome and worthwhile study, so that we can base any decisions that we have to make in the future on facts.” The question of facts underscored Aaron David Miller’s reality-conscious recommendation: “find the balance between the way the world is and the way you want it to be, because in that balance, therein lies, probably, the most judicious and effective way to make some policy and protect the interests of the United States.” In addition to suggesting that “the most important thing that the new U.S. government can do is demonstrate that Americans have figured out how to solve some problems,” Matthew Rojansky voiced a concern that reduced funding had hurt, and would continue to hurt, foreign policy research and knowledge. It was Daly who put forward the clearest articulation of the importance of the truth: “the administration will increasingly run into things like facts, history, and the existence of other nations, that you can’t walk or talk your way around.”

Speakers

Moderator

  • Indira Lakshmanan

    Washington Columnist, The Boston Globe and Contributor, Politico Magazine

Panelists