Donald Trump has been president of the United States for six months. While his behavior has been characteristically and consistently awful and his difficulty governing is predictable in hindsight, Trump’s foreign policy during the campaign and transition often seemed nebulous. Some ascribed a “transactional” and somewhat isolationist foreign policy vision to Trump. However, his lack of detail in his proposals and ignorance of foreign affairs made this idea of Trump’s “doctrine” uncertain. Half a year in, I believed now would be a good time to evaluate Trump’s foreign policy decisions and assess his performance.
The Middle East
Overall, Trump’s Middle East policy has been a mess: sometimes looking strikingly like Obama’s foreign policy and sometimes failing in new initiatives due to conflict within the administration. While Trump had seemed amenable taking a more passive role in the Middle East as a whole, he has failed to prioritize a set of limited and rational goals for the region and appears to be drifting listlessly without a plan.
In terms of threats, Trump has made good progress in the fight against ISIS as they continue to lose territory, most notably in Mosul. Weakening and ultimately destroying ISIS should be the top priority for the US in the Middle East. But a common failure of US foreign policy is to topple dictators or fight terrorists without a plan for what happens afterwards, resulting in power vacuums. Often, the situation that develops after US intervention could be even harder to solve. Iraq’s chaos over the past decade and a half has mostly strengthened Iran, while Assad and Russia could easily benefit from the demise of ISIS in Syria. The Trump administration needs to come up with some sort of strategy to plan for what happens after ISIS is no longer a threat. Also, I am not sure how much credit Trump can really claim for any progress against ISIS as similar progress on the ground was made under Obama, and Trump arguably just kept this process going.
Iran presents another challenge. The Iranian nuclear deal has so far survived thanks to Tillerson, Mattis, and McMaster, but apparently Trump himself wants to get rid of it. I won’t pretend to be an expert on JCPOA, but abandoning the deal would isolate the US as European countries would not follow suit. If this occurred, it would be almost impossible to bring Iran back to the negotiating table and Trump would be back to square one in terms of confronting the nuclear problem. Even so, the deal may not last long and relations between the US and Iran are unlikely to improve. Trump also seems to be firmly on the side of the Saudis (more on this later) in their proxy conflict with Iran over regional dominance, which could lead to more direct conflicts or even war in the future.
In one of his better foreign policy moves, Trump authorized a punitive missile strike in Syria after Assad once again used chemical weapons on his own citizens. While this was a good move, the strike itself had little military effect and the US has missed its chance to have any chance of helping turn the tide in the Civil War. Russia has largely succeeded in propping up Assad and he looks likely to stay in power for the near future. Setting aside the missile strike and the media hype it received, Trump’s Syrian policy has been largely the same as Obama’s. The US has no core interests at stake and Trump himself has no problem with dictatorships, leaving little incentive to commit any real action. Trump has recently praised a limited ceasefire that the US helped obtain, but many such ceasefires have failed in the past and there is no reason to assume that this one will last.
One new conflict that has arisen under Trump’s watch is between Qatar and other Gulf states. While Saudi Arabia and others accuse Qatar of funding terrorism, their real motives are murkier and have more to do with Qatar’s closeness with Iran. The US response to this crisis was laughable: Tillerson correctly determined that the US should mediate the dispute and not support either side while Trump simultaneously sent out tweets lambasting Qatar and cheering on Saudi Arabia. While the dispute has so far not escalated, it remains unsolved and Tillerson has acted slowly after Trump so publicly undermined him. Qatar symbolizes two things: Trump has little understanding of foreign events and foreign policy, and Tillerson is often an isolated (and frustrated) figure in the administration. Having an incoherent response to a mid-level diplomatic dispute does not bode well for when an actual war erupts.
Otherwise, Jared Kushner has little chance of making progress with Israel-Palestine and the administration seems to have little interest or any new ideas about the war in Afghanistan. In short, the Middle East has been challenging for Trump and there are few indications that he can reverse this trend.
Trump has also struggled with many of our European allies. While US relations with the UK and France are not bad, there is tension between the US and Germany, for example. Trump has shown little interest in leading the liberal world order that Western Europe has benefited much from, and his waffling about Article 5 and complaining about NATO has not helped either. In a confusing contradiction, Trump wants our allies to pay more for their own defense, yet he also wants to increase our military budget. The US defense budget is so high because we essentially subsidize defense costs for most of our allies. If we can move away from paying for them, we should be spending less. While getting our allies to pay for their own defense is not a bad idea in and of itself (Obama and George W. Bush also wanted NATO allies to increase defense spending), Trump has gone about it in a heavy-handed way and shown little appreciation for the negotiation and, yes, “deal-making” that would be required, instead publicly criticizing them in a speech during his first foreign trip as president. Clearly, Trump has struggled in his relations with our traditional Western European allies.
Where past presidents saw opportunities for global leadership by increasing trade, providing security, and bolstering democratic norms, Trump sees “bad deals” that impinge on American sovereignty and drain resources.
Meanwhile, Trump’s wish to improve Russian relations and find common ground has faced resistance, in part because of the growing scandal over Russian interference in the 2016 election. Russia’s goal in this may have been to truly help Trump win, or they may have been trying to delegitimize the US election process. In any case, Russia and the US are opposed in Syria, Ukraine, and their core interests. While Trump can offer Putin respect and a good personal relationship, I am not sure how much Putin can really gain out of Trump. Trump stepping back from a global leadership role may help Russia expand its influence and gain global stature, but it will still face resistance and Trump may yet sour on Russia. On the other hand, the US political climate and Congress in particular is warier of Russia than since the Cold War, and it will likely become harder and harder for US-Russian relations to improve in the way that Trump wants them to. Most presidents in the modern era come into office hoping to improve Russian relations, and most fail. Trump’s own scandals make success in this area almost impossible.
In Europe, Trump’s ideas about Russia have largely failed to gain traction, while he has damaged the Trans-Atlantic alliance, leaving little good in this region for Trump.
Trump’s efforts in the Asia-Pacific region have so far proceeded better than one might have expected, but things could easily get worse from here on out.
Since taking office, Trump reversed some of his campaign proposals (such as labeling China a currency manipulator) and stopped his harshest rhetoric about China. His first meeting with Xi Jinping went well and prospects of a trade war have dimmed. All of this is good news, but underlying problems remain and could bubble up again at any time: Taiwan, the South China Sea, trade, etc. However, the biggest issue and threat in the region comes from North Korea. Childishly, Trump has already given up on trying to enlist China’s help in pressuring North Korea on nuclear weapons. While China was always unlikely to do anything drastic to the Kim regime, abandoning the idea so quickly suggests that Trump has neither the patience nor the discipline to work out complicated diplomacy or “deals”.
North Korea will continue to develop its weapons program, and having Mike Pence stare stonily across the border will not help. Trump has rightly abandoned Obama’s “strategic patience” of doing nothing, but it remains unclear if he has an actual alternative strategy. War remains unlikely, but Trump’s administration also seems reluctant to truly negotiate as Bill Clinton did. However, time is not on our side and the situation is certainly worse than it was in the Clinton years. North Korea will not go away and efforts by Trump so far have been lacking.
Other Global Issues
In terms of other global issues, Trump has shown little interest in helping solve or even pay attention to problems that past administrations have spent much time and effort on. This is especially true for climate change, but also human rights, democracy promotion, global health, humanitarian aid/peacekeeping, and development. The Trump administration has also ignored mid-level conflicts and crises such as those in Ukraine, Yemen, and Venezuela. None of this bodes well for US foreign policy. The US has not only essentially ceded leadership in all of these efforts, but it has shown little interest in even trying at all. Trump could care less about institutions such as the UN, and it shows. While foreign policy experts can obviously disagree about how to handle these global issues and which ones should be a priority, I think most would agree that an utter lack of combatting these issues at all is bad for the US and the world. In the future, efforts to address these issues will be harder as the US will find it difficult to regain influence with foreign nations, let alone lead the efforts.
In terms of democracy, Trump’s noted chumminess with authoritarians is obviously bad, and I believe the US has lost a lot of authority to promote or try to recommend democratic reforms to other countries. When Trump himself attacks the media and disregards democratic norms, how can we claim to be leader of the free world? The US has no credibility to promote democracy when its own democracy is looking subpar. (Democratic erosion is a big issue of its own, but Trump’s rhetoric about the deep state/the judiciary/Comey/CNN is often concerning and could certainly get worse).
A separate global issue that merits a mention is trade. Trump is obviously opposed to decades of foreign policy that focused on promoting free trade, liberalization, lower tariffs, and the like. While Trump did withdraw from the TPP, he has moderated his stance about NAFTA and he has so far avoided any damaging trade wars or disputes. But the potential for a big self-inflicted wound remains.
The Trump Doctrine: America First?
Overall, Trump has no grand strategy or “doctrine” that describes his approach to US foreign policy. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. The media likes when presidents have a simple doctrine that explains their view of the US role in the world and what its strategy should be, but I think sticking to an ideological viewpoint can obscure opposing views and limit options when responding to events. Deciding different policies on their merits without an overarching scheme could work well. But Trump has a bigger problem in that his administration is generally chaotic and unorganized. Some of his personnel picks, like Mattis for Secretary of Denfense and McMaster for National Security Adviser were good ones: both are experienced and qualified with a huge knowledge base that Trump himself lacks. Tillerson has roughly standard views on US foreign policy, but it seems that he lacks stature in the White House and has often been somewhat marginalized. Sometimes these three are referred to as the “adults” that moderate Trump’s inconsistent and often dumb ideas. But Trump is ultimately still in charge and Trump himself is stubborn and ignorant. There may be a point at which Trump does what he wants regardless of what the “adult” advisers tell him. Moreover, the obvious disarray of the White House and lack of attention to foreign policy has already damaged US credibility and our image abroad and will likely continue to do so (as does Trump’s character and embarrassing setbacks for his domestic agenda).
If Trump does have a doctrine, it would have to be “America First”. Where past presidents saw opportunities for global leadership by increasing trade, providing security, and bolstering democratic norms, Trump sees “bad deals” that impinge on American sovereignty and drain resources. However, Trump also has shown strong desires to strengthen our military and project strength. His approach to foreign policy has therefore been inconsistent and his reactions to future events are unpredictable. What Trump has done is sacrifice America’s influence in world affairs and damage our standing in the eyes of the world.
Overall, I would rate Trump’s foreign policy so far as a “D”. Trump has been unable to focus on any foreign problem enough to form any actual, substantive new policies, let alone set priorities and effectively communicate them to both allies and enemies. Middle East crises show no sign of slowing, our alliance with Europe has been weakened, and there are no plans to deal with threats from North Korea and Russia, as well as effective manage our relationship with China. In general, America has abandoned any attempts to provide global leadership, especially in the areas of human rights, climate change, and democratization. However, Trump could have created much worse damage if he had, for example, terminated NAFTA, started a trade war, or even bombed North Korea. On the other hand, Trump’s often incoherent foreign policy and lack of planning, strategy, or knowledge does not bode well for the rest of his term.
Photo credit G7, Creative Commons