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Ambassador Says, So Far, Trump Administration Is A 'Reassertion Of America Power'


Continuing with our special coverage of President Trump's first 100 days in office, we turn to international affairs and foreign policy. This weekend, the big international story is ongoing tensions with North Korea which defied world pressure yesterday by testing another missile.

As for President Trump, observers are noting that his foreign policy has been marked by a series of decisions seemingly at odds with his rhetoric on the campaign trail from the relevance of NATO to greater involvement in the Syria conflict. To talk more about Trump's foreign policy approach so far, we called Dennis Ross. He has advised four different U.S. presidents on foreign policy. He's with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And I started our conversation by asking about President Trump's first 100 days and how this period compares to that of other administrations.

DENNIS ROSS: Well, so far I would say he does not look so far outside the mainstream. He has acted to reassure allies which was something that was put in doubt during the campaign. He has said explicitly that NATO is relevant. He has had a large number of meetings with foreign leaders. He's now planning a trip abroad. He apparently is going to go to the NATO summit.

He seems to be focused heavily on assuring others that even when he wants there to be more equitable burden-sharing, which by the way when it comes to the sharing of burdens, this is not a new concept. We have had many presidents talk about the need to share burdens. He has put more of a premium on that. But still, he doesn't seem to be shaping some kind of fundamentally new approach or one that has any kind of isolationist characteristic to it.

MARTIN: So for many people, for some people, let's say, some of his supporters, surely, these represent a change of mind, charitably, or a flip-flop, uncharitably. Do you see some through line among these issues in which you see him as frankly more consistent with precedent than, perhaps, he thought he would be?

ROSS: I do, but I also think some of this can be accounted for by simply the reality of it's one thing to be a candidate. It's something else to be president. And he's not the first one to discover that. You know, President Clinton when he was a candidate when it referred to Bosnia, he said he was going to carry out a policy of lift and strike. He was going to lift the embargo on arms, so that the Bosnian-Muslims wouldn't suffer, and he was going to carry out airstrikes against the Serbs.

And when he got in, he didn't do that. He decided it was in a sense more challenging, complicated than they thought. Well, we have seen President Trump say that he was going to label China as a currency manipulator. He didn't do that. He obviously has adopted, I think, a strong position rhetorically on North Korea, but he also said after speaking to the president of China for 10 minutes, he had a better appreciation of what the relationship was with China and North Korea, that China does have leverage, but it was more complicated than he had thought.

MARTIN: Do you see a guiding foreign policy principle emerging?

ROSS: I don't really see that yet. I would say if one were going to characterize the Trump administration so far, I think it's basically a reassertion of American power, but not at this point necessarily an explanation of where with regard to what priorities. We certainly see a characterization of threat, and that's most clearly that relates to North Korea. But I don't think we have a kind of broad approach that integrates the role of power with a set of political objectives.

And I think that's obviously something that is likely to emerge over time. It wouldn't be the first administration that would not have shaped such an approach in its first hundred days. And, obviously, we're still waiting to see it happen here.

MARTIN: To that end, though, there are those who have criticized this administration in particular for seeming to be particularly unorganized. There are many unfilled positions in the administration especially it seems in the State Department. The administration seems to have struggled at times to present a unified front on foreign policy.

ROSS: Right.

MARTIN: Do you see it that way? I mean, do they need to still get their act together administratively?

ROSS: Well, there's no doubt that the process of putting people in positions has been an unusually slow one. You don't have deputy secretaries of defense or state. You don't have undersecretaries of defense or state who have been appointed. And I think right now in the Trump administration, you have a small number of people having to carry out a very large number of tests. And I think that's one of the reasons it's going to take more time before you see a clear approach formulated and that one that can also be explained.

MARTIN: That's Ambassador Dennis Ross. He's a longtime U.S. diplomat. He's now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's author of the book "Doomed To Succeed." He was kind enough to join us from his home office outside of Washington, D.C. Ambassador, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROSS: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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