Why Trump fulfills one campaign promise, busts another

President Trump withdraws US from Paris accord
President Trump withdraws US from Paris accord

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President Trump withdraws US from Paris accord 01:25

Story highlights

  • President fulfills promise to pull out of Paris climate change accord while failing to carry out his pledge to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, writes Aaron Miller.
  • Understanding the reasons why sheds light on Trump's foreign policy choices, Miller says

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his alone.

(CNN)Today, President Donald Trump fulfilled one campaign commitment -- withdrawing from the Paris climate change agreement -- and busted another -- choosing to exercise the waiver of not opening a US embassy in Jerusalem -- at least for now.

So what do the President's actions today tell us about the Trump administration's foreign policy and the role of politics and personality in shaping them? Here are my takeaways:

Apples and oranges

    To a large degree, the two decisions taken today represent totally different situations. The action on the Paris accord is strategic and is likely to have profound consequences for US credibility and diplomacy, not to mention the future of the planet in the years to come.
    Coming on the heels of Trump's disastrous European tour, the American retreat from an agreement that includes 195 nations will call into question Washington's reliability as an ally and partner, not just on climate change but on any number of other matters.
    The US now has the distinction, along with Syria and Nicaragua, of being one of three countries outside of the agreement, and that's not good company. And US withdrawal removes the moral and practical leverage America might have exercised on other nations to maintain their obligations and commitments. Many might argue that had the US remained, the Trump administration would have undermined the accord from within. But, clearly, being at the table would still have been preferable to not being there at all.
    The decision to exercise the waiver on opening an embassy in Jerusalem, on the other hand, was tactical. The President sought a Solomonic fix: waive, but in his explanation repeat, his campaign commitment that at some point the embassy would be opened in Jerusalem.
    In comparison to withdrawal from the climate change agreement, the Jerusalem matter can be reversed at the President's discretion. No damage was done. Had he broken precedent with his three predecessors and not exercised the waiver, the impact would have been much more serious; and like withdrawal from the Paris accord, would have had a significant negative impact on an important foreign policy issue -- the pursuit of Arab-Israel peace. Indeed, it would have augured badly for the success of an issue with which Mr. Trump is increasingly identified.

    Is campaigning governing?

    On many issues it is. Presidents run for office and get elected on the basis of commitments they make to their supporters. But on other issues, what was said during a campaign fades away or is adroitly finessed.
    The two decisions the President made raise the intriguing question of why on foreign policy Mr. Trump has kept certain commitments and not others. He said he'd tear up the Iran deal -- "the worst deal ever" -- and he hasn't; he said he'd go after China as a currency manipulator; he hasn't; he said he'd withdraw or at least reshape an obsolete NATO; he didn't; and of course, on the promise to open an embassy in Jerusalem, he just used the waiver.
    Since there doesn't appear to be an ideological dimension to much of what Mr. Trump does on foreign policy, one can only assume that a combination of factors -- including advice from his foreign policy team; (James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, Jared Kushner); conversations with foreign leaders (China's President Xi Jinping; King Abdullah of Jordan; the Saudis); reality (the immediate negative consequences that certain decisions might produce for his administration); and his own instincts combined to persuade him to change his mind. Clearly, that was the case on the Jerusalem embassy issue.

    Politics and personality

    And just as clearly, that was not the case on the climate change issue. It seems doubtful that Mr. Trump is ideologically opposed to action to prevent global warming. And the decision to withdraw from the accord was reportedly a hotly contested one within his administration, right up to the last moment.
    One explanation is that rejection of the Democrats' climate change policies -- like immigration and building the wall -- is an issue that resonates deeply with his "forgotten man" constituency; one that he repeatedly talked about in the campaign; one that he'd have a difficult time explaining away if he didn't fulfill it; and one that is somehow associated with his predecessor.
    The President is reacting against the elites, the idea of a global community and the notion that each nation in the international system has a stake in one another's success. Indeed, of all the decisions on the foreign policy side since he became president, none better signals that America first is -- at least on climate change -- America only.
    Indeed, the Paris agreement was viewed as one of Barack Obama's signature achievements and one of which he was proudest. In Trumpland, differentiating his administration -- or seeming to -- from his predecessor is good politics and creates the sense that Mr. Trump is not only reversing his predecessor's achievements but transforming the way America does business.
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    Finally, unlike the embassy issue, from Mr. Trump's perspective, the climate change challenge is a distant and abstract matter and doesn't really impact his here and now, though much of the world disagrees with him. The Jerusalem embassy issue on the other hand is key to Trump's commitment to cut the ultimate Middle East peace deal which is now inextricably linked to him.
    When it comes to President Trump, it's impossible to ignore the personal dimension in the style and substance of his governing. Withdrawing from Paris is, to be sure, consistent with his politics and his policies: but it's also congruent with his persona.
    As a self-described master of negotiations, Trump believes that his predecessor negotiated a series of bad deals -- from Iran to Cuba to climate change. And he feels that the Paris deal in particular has left America as a laughingstock. The not so subtle message is that President Trump would have negotiated a better deal.