Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
Donald Trump travels from Washington on Friday, some four months after taking office, for his first foreign tour at a time of continuing domestic troubles. With many U.S. allies still nervous about what his presidency means for U.S. foreign policy, the visit will see the Trump team intensify a campaign of diplomatic reassurance.
The trip will take in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy, the Vatican and Brussels in a complex tour that includes the ancient capitals of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It culminates with the NATO and G7 summits next week, where international leaders will urge Mr. Trump to move further away from the "America First" rhetoric of the campaign trail.
So far, Mr. Trump's international approach remains largely undefined. He promised "a new foreign-policy direction" in what was seen, in some quarters this year, as perhaps the biggest potential shakeup of U.S. foreign relations since 1945. To be sure, it is already clear that the new administration will challenge some key elements of the postwar orthodoxy pursued, in different ways, by Democratic and Republican presidents. However, his period in office so far has been more about reversing campaign rhetoric and pledges than fulfilling them.
Take the example of Syria, where his "America First" rhetoric indicated he would not seek to deepen U.S. involvement in that country. Yet the President took many by surprise a few weeks ago by authorizing missile strikes after a poison gas attack on citizens in a rebel-held town allegedly committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
This is just one reason why key U.S. allies see Mr. Trump's presidency as unpredictable, and this problem will have been made worse by the furor surrounding the President's possible disclosure of sensitive intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The intelligence, which may have been supplied to the United States by Israel, will add extra spice to Mr. Trump's time with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, given that the latter was apparently not informed in advance of the President's decision to share the information with Moscow.
While much remains uncertain about Mr. Trump, what is clear is the host of major foreign policy challenges he has inherited in a world full of danger. This includes the Middle East, where there are bleak prospects facing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and where significant military operations against Islamic State continue in Syria and Iraq, and Europe, where there is considerable uncertainty over the future of the EU post-Brexit.
Other geopolitical fault lines include tensions with China over its territorial claims in the South China Sea as well as continuing instability in Afghanistan and Libya. Meanwhile, international terrorism remains a significant concern more than a decade and a half after 9/11. Unstable countries (including North Korea, with its nuclear weapon program), continuing hostilities in Ukraine and tensions over Syria mean Washington's relationship with Moscow is strained, which makes Mr. Trump's recent disclosure of intelligence all the more perplexing.
Some critics of former president Barack Obama, including Mr. Trump, see this troubled international picture as a result of weak leadership in Washington over the past eight years. However, this is too simple. To be sure, the U.S. remains the most powerful country in the world – certainly in a military sense. It can, for instance, still project and deploy overwhelming force.
However, despite some of his rhetoric, Mr. Trump hopefully recognizes that Washington is not an all-powerful hegemonic power. This core fact has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout the post-Cold War period, from Somalia in 1993, Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 and, most recently, in Ukraine and Syria.
What this underlines, instead, is that Washington's success in helping manage the complexity of international relations will increasingly depend upon the co-operation of others, both competitors and allies. This includes the EU, to which Mr. Trump has become the first U.S. president to show outright hostility.
A key uncertainty for Mr. Trump's presidency is the direction of bilateral relations with China, which could become a force for greater global tension or a deeper strategic partnership. Earlier this year, it appeared Beijing could become the new administration's bête noire. However, Mr. Trump's position on Beijing appears to have undergone a significant change, and this partially reflects the importance of North Korea in his foreign policy. The President has acknowledged that China could play a very constructive role in curbing Pyongyang's continuing provocations, which could create his first foreign policy crisis.
However, growing bilateral co-operation is also realistic if the two powers can find ways to resolve harder power disagreements, including South China Sea territorial claims, while co-operating on soft issues such as climate change.