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Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security adviser, announces outside the White House that Kim Jong-un has offered to meet President Trump (©Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Once again, Donald Trump has confounded both his domestic and international critics, be they liberals who style themselves “progressives,” the media, think-tankers, businessmen, or government officials. No one, not even his own White House staff, expected the American president to agree to a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un, the opaque leader of the world’s most hermetically-sealed state, who is less than half Trump’s age. Which is, of course, why Trump decided on just such a meeting.

Ever since he won the American presidential election, Trump’s critics have conflated his tawdry personal behaviour, his outrageous tweets and his domestic policies, with his positions on international issues. Just because Trump’s character is nothing short of despicable does not necessarily mean that his policy choices will always be wrong, however. Certainly, Trump has been at his most provocative internationally on matters of trade and immigration. Yet his positions on both issues derive from his reactionary and benighted view that they are essentially domestic matters, with their international ramifications of secondary importance. Thus he slaps tariffs on steel and aluminium because he argues that he must protect American industry, as if international supply chains did not exist, or as if it were still the 19th century, when America needed to protect its transformation from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Similarly, his efforts to restrict immigration to white Europeans are redolent of mid-19th-century America, when the Know Nothing Party sought to prevent the entry of Irish and southern European immigrants to the young republic, not to mention immigrants from anywhere else.

On the other hand, Trump’s national security policies, as reflected not only in his administration’s National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture review, but also in the actions he has taken, have for the most part not veered too far from traditional American priorities. To begin with, his approach to European security has built upon those of his predecessors. Indeed, he actually has gone far beyond both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in ratcheting up the number, size and complexity of American military operations in Eastern Europe. Moreover, he is prepared to go even further: his budget request for Fiscal Year 2019 calls for $6.5 billion for America’s European Deterrence Initiative, an increase of $1.7 billion over the Fiscal Year 2018 request and nearly twice what President Obama’s final budget called for. This initiative has but one purpose, to send a clear message to Russia; until this year it was called the European Reassurance Initiative, now it emphasises deterrence. President Putin should take note: there is much in a name change.

Trump has also maintained decent working relationships with China, Japan, India and — after a false start with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull — with Australia. His positions on Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran likewise do not mark a radical change from those of the George W. Bush administration, nor, for that matter, do his close ties with Israel and the Sunni Arab states. Trump has certainly departed from the positions that the Obama administration took on many foreign policy and national security issues, but arguabley it was Obama who was the outlier, with his frosty relations with Israel, Egypt and the other Sunni Arabs, his cosying up to Iran, and his impulse, clearly premature, to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
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