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Trump Is No ‘Isolationist’

While the world was transfixed by the drama over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration last week doggedly pressed ahead with some of the most dramatic shifts in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. 

President Trump’s foreign policy is anything but isolationist. It is ambitious, interventionist and global. Having determined after almost two years of trying that the three revisionist powers—China, Russia and Iran—cannot, at least for now, be pried apart, the administration is preparing to take them on all at once.

This means, above all, intensifying competition with China. In the two weeks since Vice President Mike Pence’s speech laying out the far-reaching U.S. strategy for containing Beijing, the administration has not let up: The trade war has escalated; Mr. Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from an 1844 postal-services treaty that, in his view, gives Chinese shippers unfair advantages; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Panama to warn that country’s leaders against Chinese debt-trap diplomacy.

Perhaps more surprising to some of its critics is the Trump administration’s increasingly hard line against Russia. In the same week that Mr. Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing Russian noncompliance, an American aircraft carrier visited the Russian Arctic for the first time in almost 30 years. Meanwhile, A. Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, described a new era of U.S.-Russia competition in a blistering speech Thursday at the Atlantic Council.

A. Wess Mitchell

“From the Baltic to the Adriatic, across the Balkan Peninsula and through the Caucasus, America’s rivals are expanding their political, military and commercial influence. Russia is again a military factor in this region, following the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. Well beyond the frontier, in the countries of Central Europe, Russia uses manipulative energy tactics, corruption and propaganda to weaken Western nations from within and undermine their bonds with the United States,” Mr. Mitchell said. He went on to hail “Ukraine, Georgia and even Belarus” as a “bulwark against Russian neo-imperialism” and signaled increased U.S. support for their independence and sovereignty. 

The storm over U.S.-Saudi relations has not deterred the administration from intensifying its campaign against Iran. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is still flying to Riyadh to coordinate U.S. and Saudi economic actions to isolate Tehran. The U.S. remains on schedule to reimpose its most powerful sanctions against Iran on Nov. 5.

Traditionally, countries headed toward confrontation with adversaries look to strengthen their alliances. This has not been the Trump administration’s approach. Without mentioning Germany by name, Mr. Mitchell sharply criticized its dealings with Russia and Iran: “We expect those whom America helps to not abet our rivals. Western Europeans cannot continue to deepen energy dependence on the same Russia that America defends it against. Or enrich themselves on the same Iran that is building ballistic missiles which threaten Europe.”

Yet Mr. Mitchell also signaled a deeper U.S. involvement in Europe that Berlin should welcome. He noted that “many of America’s closest allies in Central Europe operate networks of corruption and state-owned enterprises that rig the system in favor of China and Russia.” Joint efforts by the U.S. and the European Union to stabilize democracy in Central and Eastern European countries could help give the old trans-Atlantic alliance a new lease on life. 

As Mr. Trump’s ambitious foreign policy takes shape, the hopes of Jeffersonian realists for a more inward-looking, less globally engaged U.S. are fading away. Instead of reducing American military commitments overseas, Mr. Trump is doubling down on them. Instead of abolishing the Overseas Private Investment Corp., Mr. Trump has expanded it. Though the administration’s stalling on the Khashoggi affair attracted widespread criticism, human rights are climbing back onto the agenda as the administration attacks China for its repression of Uighurs, Tibetans and Christians.

Can the Trump administration unite a deeply divided country behind an expensive, risky and ambitious foreign-policy agenda to block the objectives of America’s determined rivals? And can its strategy work?

There are skeptics. Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Trump administration’s threats to penalize European companies that trade with Iran are “a huge strategic mistake” born of a hubristic sense of American power. “I think this is a typical mistake made by any empire,” Mr. Putin said, when it believes itself “so strong and stable that there will be no negative consequences. But no, they will come sooner or later.” 

Perhaps. We cannot know in advance whether President Trump’s outsize foreign-policy venture will finish in triumph, tears or somewhere in between. But he appears determined to upend the international system as thoroughly and disruptively as he has upended American politics. 

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