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Story highlights

It is far easier for a President to have major influence over American foreign policy than over domestic policy

Trump's moves represent the real possibility that America's engagement with its European allies may be fundamentally changing

(CNN) —  

On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel uttered a single sentence that speaks to how fundamentally President Donald Trump has reshaped – and will continue to reshape – the world, and America’s place in it.

“The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over,” Merkel said at a beer hall(!) rally to support her campaign.

While Merkel made no mention of Trump specifically, she made clear that her realization had come “in the last few days” – a time period which overlapped with a G7 meeting in which Trump blasted America’s traditional European allies over NATO obligations and made clear that he was more than willing to go it alone on climate change and trade.

What Trump’s words – and Merkel’s reaction – reveal is something that sharp foreign policy minds have known since the start of Trump’s campaign: His true potential for drastic change exists in the foreign policy sphere.

Trump’s ubiquitous “Make America Great Again” slogan was interpreted by many of his followers as the idea that we would make America great again by slaying political correctness, by bringing back jobs, by keeping undocumented workers from entering our country, from showing the mainstream media who’s boss. It was re-making our daily life right here in the good, old U-S-of-A that people were focused on.

But “Make America Great Again,” from the inception of Trump’s campaign, always had at least one foot in not only re-imagining America’s role in the world community but in reshaping the world community entirely.

Go back and read Trump’s announcement speech in June 2015. The first half of it is larded with talk of foreign policy – all built around the idea that foreign countries are playing the US for the fool.

A few examples:

  • “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China, in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.”
  • “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity.”
  • “The US has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.”

Then there is this simple fact: It is far easier for an empowered chief executive to have major influence over American foreign policy than over domestic policy.

Virtually everything a president can do on the domestic policy front is circumscribed by the Congress. Trump’s struggles to quickly pass health care reform or secure funding for his much-promised border wall are just two examples of how difficult it is to affect full-scale change in the domestic sphere.

While presidents don’t have entirely free rein when it comes to foreign affairs, their powers are significantly heightened. Trump has already pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He’s approved the Keystone pipeline. And now, in the last week, Trump had made clear he meant it when he said that he was not willing to commit to the Paris climate accords. (The Trump administration is expected to make a final decision on the climate deal later this week.)

That series of moves – all within Trump’s first 150 days as president – represent the real possibility that America’s engagement with its European allies, and its status as the financial pillar that stands up many of the world’s democracies, all of which have been realities since the days following World War II, may be fundamentally changing.

“Merkel saying Europe cannot rely on others & needs to take matters into its own hands is a watershed-& what US has sought to avoid since WW2,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted Sunday.

To be clear: Trump is far from the first president to make Europe nervous. In the not-too-distant past, Europe was clearly spooked by what they believed was the “cowboy” approach to foreign policy of then-President George W. Bush. That view was largely based in Bush’s approach to the Iraq War and the “coalition of the willing” that notably didn’t include Germany and France. (Both supported the first Gulf war.)

But, even amid that criticism, Bush never sought to undo or undermine the basic tenets of NATO or the G7. He was a believer, in the broadest sense, for the necessary strategic alliance between the United States and Europe. Was he at one end of that spectrum – particularly in his early days as president? Yes. But, the point is he was on the spectrum.

Trump’s comments and decisions over his first 100-plus days in office raise real questions as to whether he is on that same spectrum. On the campaign trail, he promised a fundamental reshaping – both domestically and in foreign policy – of how America is perceived. He appears to be making good on that promise in ways many people never imagined.

As Trump acts, the rest of the world necessarily reacts. And both the US actions and how they impact what other leaders and other countries do could well have lasting influence on America in the world that stretch well beyond the four or eight years Trump will be president.