Iran tested a ballistic missile barely a week into Donald Trump’s presidency. North Korea then shot off a missile of its own. A Russian warship has been hanging out about 30 miles off the U.S. East Coast, and Moscow’s fighter jets recently buzzed a U.S. warship in the Black Sea.
President Trump has been in office less than a month, and U.S. adversaries have already tested him on several fronts. So far, Trump’s responses have been out of the traditional foreign policy playbook, and he’s largely refrained from the bluster of his campaign, when he threatened radical action against a host of rivals — and even some allies.
Trump has plenty of critics who say the transition period has been extremely rocky, and they point to the tumult surrounding the departure of national security adviser Michael Flynn this week.
“I think the national security agencies across the board — State Department, CIA, Defense Department — the career staff there are appalled,” Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism adviser to three presidents, told Morning Edition. “They’ve never seen this level of disorganization. They’re not sure who to trust in the White House.”
Yet in his first few weeks, Trump has opted for limited, moderate responses to events that had the potential to escalate.
Trump was hosting Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at an open-air dinner at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on Feb. 10 when word broke that North Korea had fired a test missile into the Sea of Japan. As fellow diners noted, this created a flurry of activity, but Trump’s public remarks were brief and restrained.
“I just want everybody to understand and fully know, that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent,” Trump said.
After the ballistic missile test by Iran, the Trump administration added additional sanctions to 25 individuals and companies, which was seen as a modest response. Trump tweeted that “Iran was playing with fire.”
But since taking office, the president has not yet given any indication that he will tear up the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, as he promised to do during the campaign.
On the military front, U.S. commandos carried out a Jan. 29 raid in Yemen — which was initially planned during Barack Obama’s final days — with mixed and disputed results. The U.S. military campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have remained on the same trajectory that Trump inherited from Obama, though the new president has ordered a revamped plan for the battle against the Islamic State.
After Trump’s provocative campaign statements, many countries, including U.S. allies, are still wary of his plans on the international stage. That was evident Friday at the Munich Security Conference, where leaders referred to Trump’s calls for tough action against Islamic radicals.
“We must beware of turning this fight into one against Islam and Muslims,” said Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. “Otherwise we run the risk of deepening the trenches from which terrorism grows.”
A spotlight on Russia
Russia has been the most active and most visible U.S. adversary in Trump’s first month, and the president will have to address several issues: Russia’s role in the Syrian war, Moscow’s support for separatists in Ukraine and U.S. allies in Europe who are jittery about the future of NATO.
Any action Trump takes will be placed under a microscope, given his complimentary remarks about Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign and the U.S. intelligence findings that Russia tried to influence the U.S. election.
The Russians are already probing Trump’s intentions, according to Clarke.
“I think [the Russians] are being aggressive because they think the U.S. won’t do anything about it,” he said. “They think the president of the United States is a friend who wants good relations with them, and won’t call them when they get more aggressive in Ukraine, which they’ve done, since the president came into office.”
Trump and Putin spoke by phone on Jan. 28, and both said they hoped for improved relations that have been deeply strained. However, they offered no specifics, and several points of friction have emerged since then.
If Trump takes any actions seen as soft on Russia — like easing sanctions — he will face strong opposition in the U.S. foreign policy and military establishments, as well as many in his own Republican Party.
A traditional response
Trump’s initial steps have been notable mostly because they are so similar to what his predecessors did.
His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, criticized Russia for its role in the Ukrainian conflict.
After Trump described NATO as “obsolete” during the campaign, he dispatched Defense Secretary James Mattis to NATO headquarters in Brussels this week. Mattis called on members to spend more on defense and said the alliance needed to “transform,” but overall, the speech was seen as reassuring.
NATO has been increasing its presence in eastern Europe, and that has continued with the recent deployment of U.S. Army soldiers from the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division. Troops, tanks and other vehicles arrived in Romania this week.
In his public remarks, Trump has not said exactly how he plans to deal with Russia and Putin.
He noted at his press conference Thursday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was meeting Friday at the G-20 with his Russian counterpart, and Trump added that he wouldn’t take any rash action against the Russian spy ship, Viktor Leonov, that’s been sailing off the East Coast, but in international waters:
“If we could get along with Russia, that’s a positive thing. We have a very talented man, Rex Tillerson, who’s going to be meeting with them shortly and I told him. I said, ‘I know politically it’s probably not good for me.’ The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles off shore right out of the water. Everyone in this country’s going to say ‘Oh, it’s so great.’ That’s not great. That’s not great. I would love to be able to get along with Russia.”
But, he added, “It’s possible I won’t be able to get along with Putin.”
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.