By David Sanger, New York Times–

WASHINGTON — Lurking behind the turmoil and the jockeying for advantage in President-elect Donald J. Trump’s effort to assemble a national security team lies the more fundamental question of how he will address the immediate and complex challenges he inherits upon taking office.

Mr. Trump has never articulated any detailed foreign policy vision beyond the vague slogan “America First.” The diverse and shifting cast of potential appointees under consideration for top administration jobs has only highlighted the deep splits among conservatives about how the new administration should confront fast-evolving threats involving Iran, North Korea, Syria and Russia, among others, and how it should manage relations with allies in Europe and Asia.

“I’m America First,” Mr. Trump said in a March interview with The New York Times, describing for the first time what the phrase meant to him. “We have been disrespected, mocked and ripped off for many, many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher.”

Now, from his personnel appointments to his first major meeting with a foreign leader — it comes Thursday in New York, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan — Mr. Trump faces a series of decisions that will begin to flesh out his approach to the world and provide some clue as to how he might respond to whatever crises confront him as commander in chief.

Does “America First” mean he will use America’s military and cyber power pre-emptively, to wipe out emerging threats, from rogue nuclear states to terrorist groups, before they can do harm to the United States? Or does it mean he calls America’s forward-deployed troops back home, building them into a defensive, retaliatory force that can lash out if the nation is attacked?

At moments during the campaign, he suggested both approaches. He said he would “take the oil” from Islamic State-controlled areas of Iraq, and he criticized President Obama for pulling troops out too soon. But he is also the man who rejected nation-building and asked, “Why is it always the United States that gets right in the middle of things?” He added, “At some point, we cannot be the policeman of the world.”

No one knows what response to expect from Mr. Trump, a man who said he prided himself on following his instincts and has little patience for careful legalisms of his predecessor. But while presidents change, the challenges do not: Here are some places and issues where “America First” will first take shape:


Mr. Trump has been critical of the nuclear agreement with Iran negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry, center, and his team. CreditPool photo by Carlos Barria

Remaking the Iran Deal

Mr. Trump called the agreement reached with Iran in July 2015, intended to constrain Tehran from building nuclear weapons, “one of the most incompetent deals of any kind I’ve ever seen,” and he promised to fix it.

Because the Iran deal is an executive agreement, not a treaty, the new president has great latitude to alter or scrap it. But two can play that game: The Iranians are deeply unhappy with the accord, too, arguing that they never got the relief from sanctions that they were promised. Any effort to reopen the bargaining will also give Iran’s mullahs, military officers and conservatives a chance to alter the pact — or threaten to resume their race for nuclear capability.

To Mr. Trump, the Iran deal was not only misguided, but also badly negotiated. “They should’ve walked,” he said of Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiating team. Mr. Trump said he would have left the negotiating room, doubled down on sanctions, and never agreed to give back billions of dollars, money that belonged to Iran and was frozen in American financial institutions.

But when pressed, he struggled to name any part of the deal he would have walked out of the negotiations to alter. With some prompting, he finally settled on a common critique: that after 15 years, Iran will be free to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium again, in any quantity.

In “America First” terms, Mr. Trump’s decision about what to do with the Iran deal will be an early test of his willingness to act unilaterally. The nations that joined the United States in the negotiations — Britain, France, Russia and China — not only support the deal, but are rushing to take economic advantage of it by building commercial ties with Iran. If Mr. Trump wanted to abandon the deal or reimpose sanctions, they would almost certainly refuse to go along.

The Iranians hold a few cards, too. In January they shipped 98 percent of their nuclear fuel out of the country, disabled a plutonium reactor and took thousands of centrifuges, which enrich uranium, out of service. If the deal were to be declared dead, they would be free to re-create their nuclear infrastructure and rebuild their stockpile, now frozen until 2030. By Obama administration estimates, it would take about a year for them to produce enough new material for a weapon — longer to produce the weapon itself.

One option for Mr. Trump, advocated by many Republicans, is to simply reimpose sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear reasons, including its activities in Syria and its continued support of terrorism. The Iranians would say that violates the spirit of the agreement — and Iran’s leadership has already threatened that such action would nullify it.

North Korea’s Nuclear Buildup

It is hard to say which has sounded more confrontational in recent years about North Korea: the Obama administration, which has regularly warned of a “devastating response” to any North Korean use of its expanding nuclear arsenal, or the Republicans, who spent much of the Bush years plotting ways to make the country’s regime collapse.

But if there is likely to be an early test of Mr. Trump’s reaction to provocations, North Korea is probably it. The nation has accelerated its nuclear tests, and its arsenal is growing: It could have 20 to 50 weapons during Mr. Trump’s term. In his security briefings, Mr. Trump will be hearing the latest estimates for how long it will take the North to build a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach America — the public figure is five years or so, though some intelligence officials believe it could happen significantly sooner.

Mr. Trump has at various times described North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, as “a maniac,” even while expressing grudging admiration for Mr. Kim’s toughness.

So the early “America First” choice will be this: Should Mr. Trump confront the North with full-on sanctions, more missile defenses and perhaps a naval blockade to stop all trade that does not go across the Chinese border? Perhaps that is what Mr. Trump meant when he said that “we should use our economic power to have them disarm.”

Should he reopen negotiations with a nation that has made clear that its nuclear arsenal is nonnegotiable? Perhaps that is what Mr. Trump was suggesting when he said he was willing to meet one on one with Mr. Kim over a hamburger.

Or, as yet another option, should he pull back American forces in the Pacific and let the Chinese and the Japanese deal with the problem? He suggested just that in a July interview with The New York Times, saying that if countries did not pay their fair share for defense, he was prepared to tell them, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.”


Pro-government forces in Aleppo, Syria, on Nov. 8 after seizing the city from rebel fighters. Mr. Trump will face a critical test on Syria as he takes office. CreditGeorges Ourfalian/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Syria Conundrum

Mr. Trump made clear, before and after the election, that he was determined to reverse American policy in Syria, and perhaps elsewhere in the Middle East. At the core of his “America First” approach is an argument that the nation’s only interest in the region is to fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, a position vigorously endorsed by Rudolph W. Giuliani, the onetime New York City mayor who was seen as a leading candidate for secretary of state. To ramp that up, Mr. Trump argued again last week that the United States should ally itself with Russia and the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, five years after Mr. Obama declared that Mr. Assad must leave office. Mr. Assad said he was cautiously optimistic that Mr. Trump could be a “natural ally” in battling terrorism.

If Mr. Trump follows through on his campaign positions, it would essentially mean aligning the United States with a man now believed to have presided over the killing of more than 470,000 of his own citizens. “I’m not saying Assad is a good man, ’cause he’s not,” Mr. Trump said in March, “but our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS.”

How Mr. Trump changes course on Syria — and particularly on Mr. Assad — will be watched closely by other authoritarians around the world. Chief among them: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, another strongman who is imprisoning dissenters, or worse, while seeking more American military aid, and the Saudi royal family, about whom Mr. Trump has been deeply critical.

Russia and NATO

Three of the leading candidates for top national security jobs in the new administration — Mr. Giuliani, John R. Bolton and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama — have all been reflexively critical of Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian leader. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Mr. Sessions said Russia must feel “pain for this,” because if it did not, Mr. Putin could feel free to “move forward to take all of Ukraine.”

Mr. Trump, in contrast, has said that in his view, the United States was more concerned about Russia’s seizure of territory in Ukraine than its neighbors were. He has at times hinted that he might seek to end sanctions against Moscow.

Mr. Trump has also suggested that the time has come for a “reset” of Russia policy that would essentially seek a series of partnerships with Moscow. He has never indicated how he would react if, for example, Mr. Putin tested him by seizing more territory, especially in non-NATO countries.

The debate over containing Russia or joining up with it may be one of the most crucial in the early days of a Trump presidency. European states will be looking for reassurance that Mr. Trump’s talk about pulling back from NATO commitments was campaign chatter, not policy. Mr. Obama, meeting European leaders this week, is repeating the familiar reassurances about the American commitment to Europe. But his assurances will mean little, several European diplomats have noted in recent days, since he also assured his counterparts that Mr. Trump would not get elected.