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Fury but no fire: World confused after Trump's first year

A year has passed and the lights are still on: we aren't speaking Russian, or at war with North Korea, or Iran. We've...

Posted: Jan. 19, 2018 5:03 AM
Updated: Jan. 19, 2018 12:40 PM

A year has passed and the lights are still on: we aren't speaking Russian, or at war with North Korea, or Iran. We've not started a self-defeating trade spat with China. And right-wing populists like Brexit pioneer Nigel Farage and France's Marine Le Pen are even less relevant than they were at the beginning of 2017.

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But still, after a year in power, the rest of the West is left asking: what does US President Donald Trump actually want?

We in the rest of the world had been warned the great age of American isolationism was upon us -- that the US was tired of being taken advantage of, tired of, to quote his inaugural speech, defending "other nation's borders while refusing to defend our own."

Yet the truth, it turns out, was more complicated. After a year of tweets and turns, it's still not often clear what the Trump foreign policy actually amounts to, other than more of the same, with some white-knuckle, 280-character roller coasters on the way.

Let's start with Iran. Trump said he wanted out of the nuclear deal, "one of the worst deals" he's ever seen. Yet twice he has continued to waive sanctions under the deal.

The aim is clearly to escalate pressure on Tehran through other, unilateral sanctions and to get European allies to demand separate concessions under a "supplemental deal."

But a year in, the deal remains intact, its European signatories as wedded to it as before, and the rhetoric less and less threatening every time it doesn't amount to action. There's noise, but little real change.

Trump had hoped for the ultimate deal in the Middle East. Yet that has been given to his son-in-law to privately negotiate, while publicly the Palestinians have been offended by the US recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

This was something Trump promised to do when campaigning, yet he didn't use it as leverage to get the Israeli government to change tack, for example, on settlement activity.

The Palestinians appear to consider the US a voice they no longer need to listen to in the peace process. But, given the peace process was pretty much dead when Trump got here, the Jerusalem announcement hardly upturned the apple cart. We are pretty much where we started, give or take some serious damage to the US' image.

Asia has provided the most immediate challenge. Yet the current talks between the Koreas ahead of the Winter Olympics -- which seem to essentially usurp the pressure of North Korea's pariah status as a rogue nuclear state in favor of immediate calm -- are happening without the US at the table.

Trump says his tough military rhetoric of "fire and fury" has forced them to the table. But it's also meant North Korea is engaged in talks with the US' ally without giving anything up -- a major victory.

The US President has promised to "handle it", but we don't know how, as the military options are all too ghastly. After the Olympics, we may end up with a belligerent North that thinks they get to decide when they talk, rather than make concessions for the opportunity.

With China, the real estate mogul who once tweeted "we have to get tough with China before they destroy us" has found himself flattered by President Xi Jinping in the Forbidden City, and at times pleading openly for more Chinese pressure on North Korea.

The relationship has been pragmatic and complex, yet not majorly different from the Obama years, bar the noise that it soon will be.

There are two places where the Trump administration has stated a specific policy that they own.

First is the recent statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlining five major points that need to be satisfied for the US to stop being "engaged" in Syria.

It's pretty extensive, and hard to satisfy, amounting to a series of reasons why the handful of US troops in Northern Syria might remain there for months, if not years longer.

It's exactly the opposite of what US allies feared an isolationist and tired White House would do -- inserting American forces for the long haul into a war the Obama administration bent over backwards to keep out of. But it isn't a major change: those troops were there when Trump came into power, and they will stay there.

In Afghanistan, the Commander in Chief has personally articulated a strategy for "winning," yet it does not differ massively from the 16 years of policies that have gone before it.

It shows commitment and a slight uptick in firepower and capabilities. But it is not a new approach. NATO allies are being asked to help out too, but the effort is still an American one, and will continue to be.

So on the other side of the Atlantic we are left asking what has really changed? And the answer is little: that there is much fury and smoke, but not a lot of fire to go with it.

Trump often has an angry posture, or several, for every foreign policy challenge. But the actions that follow it are very familiar.

That might be comforting to fans of American engagement -- they are not wholesale retreating across the Atlantic as former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon once intimated.

Yet they should not be lighting cigars either. The Trump White House has yet to experience a "bolt from the blue" challenge overseas. And its Commander in Chief hasn't yet been presented with real policy choices that match the fire of his tweets.

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