Trump’s first 100 days: is his bark worse than his bite?

April 28, 2017

When I asked my colleagues here at PAX if US President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office had already had an effect on our work, I was not surprised by the answers I got. Trump has unequivocally brought about change of some sort in most aspects of our work. What I am still trying to figure out is how much of that change is substantive, and how much is tone? In other words, is Trump´s bark worse than his bite?

There is no question, Trump’s tone is different from his predecessor. During his first three months in office, Trump has succeeded in signalling to friend and foe alike that he does not aspire to continue Barack Obama’s policies. From Syria to the supreme court, from trade to taxes, from health care to human rights, President Trump says he will do things differently. But if we cut through the bluster, how much is a Trump administration actually going to change US policy substantively? Given his numerous policy failures and flip-flops, will his slogan be the antithesis of Theodore Roosevelt’s: speak loudly and carry a little stick?

So I asked my PAX colleagues to look past the incompetence and the bumbling. The verdict: Trump’s administration has already moved toward substantive policy changes. Here are a few examples.

Arms trade
PAX´s arms trade expert Frank Slijper says Trump may break arms sales records set under the Obama administration. Trump has indicated a willingness to neglect the few safeguards installed under his predecessor. Some of the transactions already under way: a stalled fighter jet sale to Bahrain, closer military ties with Egypt, fighter jets for Nigeria, a push to sell Reaper drones to Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, and new potential for arms sales to Taiwan, as well as closer links with India and Iraq. Last but not least, Trump is selling more weapons to the Saudis.

As for armed drones, PAX expert Jessica Dorsey is concerned that Trump seems poised to roll back Obama-era protections (as fuzzy as those were) and has already placed more authority for drone strikes back in the hands of the CIA. She also sees a lack of respect, or even interest in, international law, based on Trump´s use of force in Syria as a response to the chemical weapons. The administration did not bother to argue that this attack was legal under international law. This is worrying for PAX on a number of fronts since it could further erode the demand for legal justification for the use force in many areas, including drones and other weapons systems.

Nuclear weapons
The most important other weapons system is, of course, nuclear weapons. Trump has advocated a new nuclear arms race, tweeting, “[The United States] must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” For PAX’s Susi Snyder, this is cause for concern, to put it mildly. She is also closely watching the new nuclear posture review the administration has announced. This review will assess the political and technical needs of the country vis a vis nuclear weapons.  At a recent conference, US State Department representative Chris Ford indicated that he is unsure whether the long-standing commitment to work towards a nuclear weapons free world, which the US is legally obliged to pursue, is something the new administration will continue adhering to. Trump’s government may also stop supporting the Nuclear Test Ban treaty, and may downplay the requirements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the meantime, Trump seems intent on escalating the conflict with North Korea.

Protection of Civilians
As for protection of civilians, Carrie Huisman sees a willingness to accept more civilian casualties in waging counterterrorism efforts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. It´s too soon to tell, she adds, whether this is a permanent change, or short-term policy, but either way, it is unacceptable.

The storm raging in Syria has not changed under Trump. Trump did change US policy toward Syria, first by accepting Syria President Bashar al-Assad’s role in the country’s future, only to reverse himself when confronted with the inhumanity of a chemical weapons attack. Assad may have felt he could get away with using chemical weapons, given Trump´s early position. But after bombing the airfield near Homs, Trump´s administration has indicated no broader strategy regarding Syria. Trump values the element of surprise, but US unpredictability in Syria will not help end the war.

Who’s first?
Just as I had finished making the rounds of colleagues here at PAX, general director Jan Gruiters came by to help wrap things up on a somewhat more positive note. Syria is only one example of Trump’s learning curve during his first 100 days in office. He is finding out that the world is more complex than he had imagined, and that taking a tougher tone than his predecessor is not enough to change the way international relations work. America First may work on the campaign trail, but it doesn’t get one very far in the real world. Isolation is no longer possible, nor is it desirable. No single country can tackle the 21st century threats to international peace and security on its own. In his first 100 days, Trump has shown signs of learning this lesson. Whatever other policies he pursues, let’s hope he at least continues improving on this one.

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