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 came 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 cyberpower 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:
The Iran Nuclear 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.