The basic contours of a consistent approach are beginning to take shape.
Amid the seeming disarray of President Trump’s foreign policy, critics seem unable to make up their minds: Either Mr. Trump is upending America’s traditional postwar priorities, such as by denigrating NATO, or he is easily accommodating conventional wisdom, such as by accepting the “One China” policy. Which is it?
These critiques miss the logical thread that ties together Mr. Trump’s actions. Although it is too early to expect the president’s foreign policy to be fully fleshed out, especially after the abrupt resignation of Mike Flynn as national security adviser, the White House appears to be guided by a consistent approach.
On foreign issues that directly affect domestic concerns, Mr. Trump pursues radical change. But on matters that are truly foreign, he is willing to adopt a traditional stance. What looks like inconsistency is actually an instinct deeply grounded in his worldview.
This explains the president’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Some charge that this is a betrayal of America’s decades-long commitment to a liberal global economic system. But Mr. Trump sees it as a domestic priority, a necessary shielding of American workers. Instead of sweeping, multicountry agreements, he has proposed bilateral trade pacts, beginning with Britain and possibly Japan.
On pure foreign policy, Mr. Trump has stayed the course for now. After initially questioning the relevance and utility of America’s main postwar alliances, he now seems committed to them. The president and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have affirmed the mutual-defense agreements with Japan and South Korea. Mr. Mattis had tough words for NATO allies last week when urging increased military spending, but walking away seems a remote possibility.
Even more surprising was the recent phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Mr. Trump dropped his criticism of the “One China” policy that has defined relations with Beijing since the 1970s. Mr. Mattis, during a visit to Japan, also calmed fears that the U.S. Navy might physically confront Chinese vessels in the South China Sea.
The Trump administration has kept Russia at arm’s length, too, despite the president’s continued praise of Vladimir Putin. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has made clear that American sanctions will remain in effect unless Russia withdraws from Ukraine.
Mr. Trump rejects the widely held belief that globalization always benefits American interests. This may be his most lasting challenge to the postwar international order. Still, the Trump administration appears willing to live up to commitments and responsibilities that do not impose costs at home.
None of this means Mr. Trump’s policies will go smoothly. But critics are wrong to claim he is suddenly kowtowing, seeing the wisdom of “orthodoxy,” or being tamed by the establishment.
At least so far, Mr. Trump has been remarkably consistent. Critics from the left and right should accept that the next four years of American foreign policy will be defined by a mix of traditionalism and radicalism.
Mr. Auslin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “The End of the Asian Century,” out last month from Yale.