The new US national security advisor’s effectiveness will depend on President Donald Trump’s whim.

In a typical American democratic transition, mild bipartisanship might set a tone of normalisation. But President Donald J. Trump’s agenda on taking office was reactionary disruption. Immediate mismanagement of national-security policy included the diplomatic alienation of Mexico, the abandonment of the One China policy, the implied scuppering of the Iran nuclear deal, periodic suggestions of distancing the United States from NATO, the debunking of a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and the shambolic roll-out of an incoherent and probably illegal executive order banning the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Trump was compelled to quickly reverse some of these irresponsible moves. In particular, the administration reinstated the One China policy, stopped vowing to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, replaced scepticism about NATO with affirmation of its importance and criticism of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and raised unexpected opposition to new Israeli settlements in the West Bank while quieting talk about moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But these second thoughts have not provided reassurance that the Trump administration’s eccentricity and changeability will be checked. Instead, chaos within the White House’s National Security Council (NSC) staff has reinforced a general nervousness and uncertainty.

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Jonathan Stevenson is IISS Senior Fellow for US Defence, and Editor of Strategic Comments.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

April–May 2017

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