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Trump Has Upended Traditional Foreign Policy. What's In Store For 2018?


So where will President Trump take U.S. foreign policy in 2018? Judging from year one, it's hard to say. From announcing he'll pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement to recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Trump has upended tradition. And in recent days, he sent tweets condemning Iran and Pakistan. So to look at what lies ahead, we turn now to Ambassador Ryan Crocker. He's a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria during both the Obama and Bush administrations. Good morning, Ambassador.

RYAN CROCKER: Good morning, Ailsa.

CHANG: So looking back on the whole last year, how might you characterize President Trump's foreign policy strategy. Are there some common through lines we can pick out?

CROCKER: There are. First, the president - President Trump got a good bounce simply by not being President Obama in the eyes of our traditional allies in the area. When he took office, our relations were suffering greatly with our traditional friends like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel. So his first trip out there was, I think, exactly the right thing to do - to say it's a new team, a new president. I'm going to engage with you. And we'll see where we go. The problem is there isn't much of a there there. I don't really see an active foreign policy taking shape. It's all pretty reactive. And the world is a big, complicated place if all you're doing is reacting.

CHANG: Well, I want first turn to Trump's tweet, his first tweet of the new year. He wrote that even though U.S. is giving billions in aid, Pakistan has given, quote, "nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan with little help - no more." What do you think? I mean, is that something you would describe as reactive? And would threats like that be effective in your opinion in shaping Pakistan's behavior?

CROCKER: I'm afraid it will take Pakistan in exactly the opposite direction. You know, look, Ailsa. The Pakistanis have their own narrative about the relationship - that once the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s, we went from being their most allied of allies to their most sanctioned of adversaries. So they tend to be very, very defensive and very worried that the U.S. will walk out on them again. And the president's comments unfortunately are simply going to feed into that.

There's a larger problem here. He has some great people in his administration like H.R. McMaster, like Jim Mattis. These are not people who understand the issue with a perspective on the whole. They know Afghanistan. They've watched their troopers get killed by insurgents who cross the border and then slip back to safe havens.

CHANG: But what do you mean they don't understand things on the whole?

CROCKER: They don't understand the Pakistani side of the equation. To put it as briefly as I can, it's - well, we're glad you're back, you Americans. We're going to take what we can get as long as you'll give it. But we know you're not going to stay the course. So if you expect us to go in full throttle turning the Taliban into an enemy and then leave us with an existential threat, you're nuts.

So the president had an opportunity with his statement on Afghanistan that we're there for - as long as it takes to get what we need to bring Pakistan in as a partner. He's pushing them in the other direction. Nothing good is going to come of that. They will simply dig in deeper and leave us without any good options.

CHANG: I also - if I can move to Iran as well - he tweeted about Iran yesterday, writing that Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama administration. And then he went on to say time for change. Why do you think Trump is lashing out at Iran at this particular moment?

CROCKER: Well, Iran is a huge challenge and problem for us. It was for the previous administration. It is for this administration. But once again, it's complicated out there. Generalities don't work. Be careful with your slogans. It's one thing to say we're going to get tough on Iran. It's another thing to say exactly how we're going to do that.

CHANG: Right.

CROCKER: So again, I'm - I wonder if we're seeing the same phenomenon that we saw with the Obama administration. President Obama talked very tough on Syria. Assad must go. Chemical weapons are a red line. Well, he couldn't back that up. And I'm worried that in the case of Iran, it is going to be the same thing. We don't seem to be fashioning a coherent policy, let alone a strategy. And that's what I mean by reaction.

CHANG: And if I may, turning very quickly to North Korea now, this year began with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unexpectedly calling for direct talks with South Korea. But, you know, over here, the relationship between Trump and Kim Jong Un has been loud and very personal, full of insults in both directions. What do you think? Can President Trump's style achieve things with this regime that previous U.S. leaders have not been able to?

CROCKER: Let's see what happens now, Ailsa. It is interesting. We don't know anything really about North Korea or its leader. It may just be that the difference in tone that President Trump has existed may do something down the line there. So let's see if this goes somewhere different or better. What we have to do is stay in incredibly close contact with our allies, Japan and South Korea. And we need to be listening to the Chinese, not just lecture them.

CHANG: All right. Ryan Crocker is the former U.S. ambassador. Thank you very much.

CROCKER: Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the version of this story that was broadcast, we say that President Trump named Jerusalem the capital of Israel. In fact, he didn’t name it as the capital, he said the U.S. would recognize it as the capital.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 2, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
In previous audio and a Web introduction for this page, we said President Trump named Jerusalem the capital of Israel. In fact, he didn't name it as the capital; he said the U.S. would recognize it as the capital.