WHEN DONALD Trump delivered his first and only major foreign policy address of the 2016 campaign on April 27 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, he indicated that it was time for a fundamental change in America’s approach to both its allies and adversaries. Now that the 2020 presidential campaign has begun in earnest, it’s worth looking back at that speech to measure how far he has met the goals that he set. Has Trump profoundly altered the course of American foreign policy? Or has he been a study in inconsistency?
At the outset of his 2016 speech, he declared that it was time to “shake the rust off America’s foreign policy.” He proposed to remove it by pursuing a policy of America First that would usher in a shiny new nationalism. To be sure, Trump pointed to the Cold War as an era of American greatness. But he argued that the very triumphalism that had emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall set the stage for the disasters that ensued in the Middle East, when the George W. Bush administration set out on a quixotic quest to transform the region overnight into a bastion of Western-style democracies. The problems were only compounded by President Barack Obama’s intervention in Libya. According to Trump, “each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos and gave isis the space it needs to grow and prosper. Very bad.” He also noted that these actions had created a vacuum that allowed Iran to expand its reach and influence.
Trump's verdict was stark. He stated that overall, “our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster.” He pointed to a number of problems. First, he said that Obama had crippled America with massive debt, low growth, and open borders. Instead of rebuilding other countries, America should end the “theft of American jobs.” Second, he stated that America’s allies were not meeting their financial obligations to a common defense: “a Trump administration will lead a free world that is properly armed and funded, and funded beautifully.” Third, Trump argued that America’s allies were increasingly convinced that Washington was a fickle friend. “We’ve had a president who dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies,” he said, “something that we’ve never seen before in the history of our country.” Trump condemned Obama’s “disastrous deal with Iran,” castigated him for supporting the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and decried his approach to Israel. Fourth, Trump contended that under Obama, America was no longer respected abroad. North Korea, he complained, had carte blanche to increase its “aggression” and “nuclear reach,” while China was continuing its “economic assault.” Finally, he said it was critical for America to abandon the “nation-building business” and focus on “creating stability in the world.”
To reorient American foreign policy, Trump said he would no longer rely on the experts who had populated previous administrations. According to Trump,
“I also look and have to look for talented experts with approaches and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war. We have to look for new people.”
THERE CAN be no doubting that Trump has sought to fulfill a number of the promises that he made during the campaign. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Trump has no convictions, he clearly has deep-seated beliefs, or at least impulses, when it comes to foreign policy. These center, more often than not, on an older conception of American foreign policy. In his stances on trade, immigration, international organizations, and NATO, he has exhumed Republican traditions that date back to Henry Cabot Lodge, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Robert Taft. He represents a challenge not only to Wilsonian liberals, but also to the neoconservatives who joined the gop during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
How effectively Trump has pursued his aims is another matter. In the Middle East, Trump built on Obama’s policies and largely fulfilled his aim of crushing isis. He has also upended the debate over Israel by essentially sanctioning its occupation of not only the Golan Heights, but also supporting a peace plan that would eventually allow it to annex a substantial area of the Jordan Valley. In backing this plan, however, Trump may be condemning the region to further turmoil as the Palestinians abandon the slender hope that negotiations would allow them to form a viable state. Ultimately, Israel could be headed toward something resembling a binational state.
When it comes to Iran, Trump has essentially fulfilled his campaign vows. To the consternation of America’s European allies, he exited the nuclear deal in May 2018, calling it a “horrible one-sided deal that should never, ever have been made.” Since then, tensions with Iran have been on the upswing and Tehran has demonstrated no willingness to engage in negotiations with the Trump administration. Despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertions that the policy of maximum pressure is succeeding, the dangers of a war, particularly in the wake of Trump’s liquidation in January of Qassim Suleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, cannot be discounted.
Trump’s moves in the Middle East have further strained relations with America’s European allies. His insistence on an increase in financial contributions to NATO has been helpful. But his erratic suggestions such as expanding NATO’s remit into the Middle East to create a “NATOME,” as Trump put it, have not met with a favorable reception in Europe. It is also the case that Trump’s predilection for creating crises at NATO summits is now being imitated by other members. On the eve of the recent summit in London, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that NATO is “brain dead.” If Trump imposes auto tariffs on Europe in coming months, the alliance will inevitably come under even further strain as France, Germany, and Great Britain protest.
THEN THERE is the matter of Trump’s relations with China. Trump has blown hot and cold on China, denouncing it for its predatory trade practices on the one hand and hailing his beautiful relationship with its President Xi Jinping on the other. But Trump’s fulminations about China are counterproductive. The summary of the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy stated that both China and Russia are revisionist powers intent on creating a world “consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” This may well overstate the extent of Beijing’s ambitions. If anything, the regime’s difficulties in dealing with unexpected crises like the coronavirus suggest that it is more fragile internally and vulnerable to fissiparous tendencies than is often assumed abroad.
Many in Washington, Democrats and Republican alike, have become convinced that a collision between China and America is inevitable. In this issue, however, former World Bank president Robert B. Zoellick forcefully reminds us of the perils of exaggerating the threat posed by China. It is an adversary but not a new Soviet Union. For all the huffing and puffing about the China threat, it has been a fairly responsible great power, albeit an increasingly aggressive one. It halted nuclear testing in the 1990s and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It has worked to impede Iran’s nuclear program. Without China’s assistance, no real deal on nuclear weapons is possible with North Korea.
For now, Trump may have backed off a heightened trade war with China, but the wanton tariffs that he has already imposed are not being paid by Beijing, as he continually insists, but by American consumers. At the same time, they have injured the very farmers who form a vital part of his political base. For the past fifteen years, China was the fastest-growing destination for American exports until the Trump administration enacted its purblind protectionist policies. This does not mean that there are not serious strategic conflicts between the two countries. But they can be managed through diplomacy. Zoellick has it right:
“A slide into Sino-American conflict—whether intentionally or by accident—would lead to incalculable costs and dangers. The twentieth century painted a shocking picture of industrial age destruction; do not assume that the cyber era of the twenty-first century is immune to crack-ups or catastrophes of equal or even greater scale. The United States needs to enhance its influence through long-term partnerships with allies and partners. … And the United States needs to cooperate with China to mutual benefit while managing differences.”
TRUMP’S POLICIES have been something of a mixed bag and his mercurial management style has not helped. In his Mayflower speech, Trump may have waxed eloquent about bringing in new and fresh voices to his administration, but he largely relied on a rotating cast of familiar aides, including James Mattis and John Bolton. As Dov S. Zakheim notes in this issue in reviewing a new book by Colin Dueck that seeks to depict Trump as a conservative nationalist, it can be difficult to ascribe much coherence to Trump’s approach, partly because he has replaced two secretaries of defense, three national security advisers, his director of national intelligence, his secretary of homeland security, several chiefs of staff, and innumerable other aides. Indeed, the Brookings Institution reports that as of the end of January the turnover in Trump’s “A Team” of members of the executive office of the president is a whopping 80 percent.