Incoming secretary of state Anthony Blinken experienced his right of passage last Wednesday, when he was grilled by senators, both Democrats and Republicans, about how he intended to approach the job of America's top diplomat. After years of political rancor and acrimony in Washington, one might have expected Blinken to hammer former U.S. president Donald Trump's foreign policy at every turn. But he didn't. In fact, on many issues, Blinken appeared to signal more continuity than change.
When asked whether he thought it was a bad idea for the Trump administration to cajole America's NATO allies to spend more on defense, Blinken replied: "I do not."
On the Trump administration's targeted killing of Iranian arch-terrorist Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, Blinken said, "When I was last in office, I saw first-hand the blood that he had on his hands. So, no one regrets the fact that he is no longer there."
After four years of pro-Israel policies under Trump, Blinken showed no intention of changing that. He affirmed that, "Our commitment to Israel's security is sacrosanct." He further acknowledged the benefits of Trump's landmark peace deals inked between Israel and four Arab states: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Blinken called China the "most significant challenge of any nation state to the United States," echoing the two of the most important documents issued by the Trump administration: the "National Security Strategy" and "National Defense Strategy."
Even the Trump administration's decision on its final day to call the Chinese treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang a "genocide" did not seem to bother Blinken. He stated: "Forcing men, women and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect re-educate them (to) be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide. And so, I agree with that finding."
More broadly, when asked about the Trump administration's use of human rights sanctions against authoritarian governments, Blinken lauded them as a "success story in actually bringing the democratic countries of the world together and giving them an effective tool to actually push back against the abuses of democracy and human rights."
Yes, of course, there are some extremely heated debates looming. Notably, the highly controversial 2015 Iran deal that was first brokered by President Barack Obama, and then eviscerated by Trump in 2018, is now back on the agenda for the Biden administration. But this controversy has little to do with Trump. Even centrist Republicans who voted against Trump in the last election are sure to oppose a new accord with the world's most prolific state sponsor of terrorism, particularly if it grants the regime in Tehran a patient pathway to acquiring nuclear weapons.
Policies surrounding immigration, Saudi Arabia and Europe are other areas where the Biden administration can be expected to make a U-turn. But with the perfunctory caveats, it may be that after years of vitriolic debates and nasty rhetoric, Democrats and Republicans actually agreed on more than they were willing to admit — in terms of foreign policy, that is.
That won't shield Trump from criticism, of course. His domestic legacy will almost certainly be defined by the national disgrace of Jan. 6, when insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol building in his name. And on foreign policy, Trump's toughest critics will likely point to his mercurial decision-making style.
Trump was a "post-policy" president. There were times when he didn't actually have a policy. He was perhaps most indecisive about military deployments in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. He could never quite articulate his preferred course of action — stay or leave — often to the delight of terrorists and strongmen in the Middle East.
Some of his other policies were similarly opaque. He imposed sanctions on Russia and used harsh rhetoric at times, yet praised Russian President Vladimir Putin on occasion. He threatened North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un, but also developed a close personal relationship with him.
Trump thus vexed allies and enemies alike. And as I can personally attest, he vexed think tankers, too. Trying to derive a consistent policy from some of his public statements often led to splitting headaches among those of us charged with explaining America's foreign policy to audiences at home and abroad.
But even Trump's inconsistencies may ultimately be viewed by historians as strengths. The inability to predict the behavior of the American president likely curbed some of China's predatory behavior. It likely hindered the Iranians from engaging in more brazen violence. It pushed NATO countries to pony up more for defense. And it certainly seemed to prompt our southern neighbors to get a better handle on illegal immigration before it reached America's borders.
This is not to say that Trump's personal style should be emulated. Indeed, that is hard to imagine. But important foreign policy lessons are to be learned from Trump's idiosyncratic presidency. Given the political climate, that won't be easy. But one day, with the benefit of hindsight, and without anger, Trump's legacy will be examined. It had its failings. And his critics will not forget where he failed. But Trump's foreign policy legacy may surprisingly be viewed in hindsight as one of continuity and less radical change.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan national security think tank in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer.