It started with taking a protocol-shattering phone call from Taiwan. Then came an almost immediate realignment with Saudi Arabia against Iran, 59 Tomahawk missiles fired at Syria, an increasingly combative posture toward Russia, a massive military strike in Afghanistan and a level of North Korea brinkmanship not seen from U.S. administrations in decades.
For all the roadblocks and headwinds President Trump has faced on the domestic front, there is little debate that he and his unconventional national security team have made a consequential impact on the course and conduct of foreign policy in his first 100 days in office.
The man whose populist inauguration speech vowed to put “America first” has been dominating the headlines with aggressive foreign engagement and high-level meetings, including hosting leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
From Canberra and Berlin, from Tokyo and Ankara, Mr. Trump has rankled foreign leaders with his abrasiveness while intriguing them with a willingness to rethink conventional wisdom and conventional policies in American diplomacy.
It was at Mar-a-Lago, for instance, that Mr. Trump informed Mr. Xi on April 7 over a “beautiful” piece of chocolate cake that he had authorized airstrikes against Syria — the first by the U.S. to explicitly target the regime of President Bashar Assad over the suspected use of chemical weapons.
It was also at his Florida winter White House that Mr. Trump’s increasingly bare-knuckle posture toward North Korea began to develop, when news broke that Pyongyang had tested a ballistic missile just as the president was wining and dining Mr. Abe.
In the months since, Mr. Trump has ordered more U.S. military assets to South Korea and dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to the region to deliver the message that the “era of strategic patience” — a reference to Washington’s long-held policy of trying to pressure Pyongyang through sanctions and diplomacy — “is over.”
With the prospect of a pre-emptive U.S. strike against North Korea a subject of deep speculation in Washington, Mr. Pence issued his statements on Pyongyang just after the administration’s preference for “hard” over “soft” power was put on dramatic display in Afghanistan with a massive ordnance air blast strike against suspected Islamic State hideouts this month.
Critics contend that Mr. Trump still has articulated no clear strategy for North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan or the Islamic State group, let alone Iran, where authorities appear to be bracing for the president to follow through on threats to upend the multinational nuclear accord that President Obama pushed through in 2015. Trump supporters counter that the president’s actions have injected a much-needed degree of unpredictability and flexibility to American power projection around the world.
Some argue that Mr. Trump was expected to emerge as a serious foreign policy president because the former property mogul and reality TV star was a global presence long before he had the chance to live on Pennsylvania Avenue.
All sides agree it’s been an unusually bumpy ride at the start, with Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, forced to resign just weeks into the administration. Large numbers of posts below the Cabinet level at the State Department and other agencies have yet to be filled, and a probe of potential Russian links to the Trump campaign and influence on the November election still hangs over the Trump administration.
Still, Mr. Trump’s emerging foreign policy team is starting to win higher marks, with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster showing greater cohesion.
World leaders have watched with curiosity as Mr. Trump has altered or, in a few cases, reversed major policy positions he pushed as a candidate.
He campaigned on avoiding engagement in Syria’s civil war in favor of a laser focus on defeating the Islamic State terrorist group. Then he launched the missile strikes in retaliation for chemical attacks on civilians by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He declared NATO “obsolete” but has since embraced the alliance. He was accused of cozying up to the Kremlin. Now he is tough-talking to Russia. He branded China a currency manipulator, then ate cake with Mr. Xi.
Mr. Trump has talked of these shifts as the mark of a deal-maker, saying on Twitter once: “‘Be flexible enough to adjust to changing circumstances.’ — Think Big.”
A combination of impulse-driven action and deal-making savvy has defined the president’s first 100 days.
Both were on display just before his inauguration in a December call with Taiwan’s president. It was the first in 40 years between a Taiwanese leader and an American president-elect in the wake of the 1979 “one China” policy.
China was outraged. Although Mr. Trump later tamped down friction by saying he wouldn’t break with “one China,” the move appeared to have put Mr. Xi off balance ahead of talks with the new U.S. president.
With Mr. Trump proposing a 28 percent cut to the State Department’s budget, Mr. Tillerson still has no administration-appointed deputy and has named only a few U.S. ambassadors to represent the president’s positions around the world.
Foreign policy specialists say the evolving situation makes it hard to grade the administration’s diplomacy, even though several acknowledge that they have been impressed by the president’s focus on international affairs.
“There remain reasons to be concerned, particularly about the administration’s trade agenda,” Daniel Twining, a director at the German Marshall Fund, said in an analysis that the organization circulated this week. “But U.S. power is back as a force to be reckoned with in a dangerous world, after what many saw as President Obama’s abdication of the U.S. role as global guarantor and following a political campaign in which the U.S. was presented as a victim of globalization rather than as its engine.”
While others argue there is uncertainty over where U.S. foreign policy is headed — or which country Washington might bomb next — Mr. Twining has been joined by a range of hawkish analysts in praising Mr. Trump’s initial forays.
Georgetown University Professor Matthew Kroenig, writing in Foreign Affairs, praised Mr. Trump’s aggressive posture, particularly compared with his predecessor’s.
“Trump has begun to correct the failures of the past eight years and position the United States well for the challenges to come,” Mr. Kroenig wrote. “With greater adherence to a core strategy going forward, Trump may well, as [Henry] Kissinger predicted was possible, go ‘down in history as a very considerable president.’”