President Donald Trump took a lot of ribbing Tuesday morning at the United Nations for proclaiming, in his usual modest style, that his administration had “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
But if the claim smacks of hyperbole, then the hyperbole is at least well deserved. The economy is booming, the military is rapidly recovering from fifteen years of overextension, and the Trump administration is concluding trade deals in record time.
And all this has come despite the fact that much of the country’s expert class, including many people employed in the federal government itself, have been desperately hoping for failure. If it is true that the Trump presidency is unprecedented, then it is equally true that the existence of an organized resistance campaign among erstwhile public servants is unprecedented.
Yet Trump has overcome internal resistance and external pressure to deliver an as yet uninterrupted string of foreign-policy successes: North Korea’s “Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un hasn’t launched a rocket in ten months; America’s NATO allies are finally starting to deliver on pledges to increase defense spending toward the 2 percent of GDP target agreed in 2006; Mexico has seemingly come to terms on long-overdue NAFTA reforms; the United States has stayed out of the Arab world’s interminable wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen; and the U.S. embassy in Israel moved to Jerusalem in May without sparking the Third Intifada predicted by Trump’s opponents.
Perhaps just as important (from a U.S. perspective), America’s long-term enemies are nearly all on the run. The Russian economy is crumbling. The Venezuelan economy has crumbled. The Iranian economy, which boomed after the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, has come back down to earth since Trump took office, and stagnated since he pulled the United States out of the deal in May.
And then there’s China. Back in December 2016, just a few weeks before Trump took office, China staged a “Trump Test,” exactly as predicted by U.S. Naval War College Professor Andrew S. Erickson. A Chinese ship sent marines on a speedboat to seize a surveillance drone from under the stern of a U.S. Navy oceanographic survey vessel. President Barack Obama politely asked for the return of the device. President-elect Trump told China to keep the drone—and implied that things would get tougher when he took office.
Under the Obama administration, Chinese forces regularly harassed U.S. vessels navigating the South China Sea. That doesn’t happen under the Trump administration. What’s more, China is now enforcing UN sanctions against North Korea, cooperation that has been crucial to bringing Kim to the nuclear bargaining table. And though China regularly threatens and bullies Taiwan, it has done little more than issue bland propaganda statements in response to expanding U.S. weapons sales to the island. Even the Trump administration’s full court press on trade has not disrupted U.S. relations with China. If anything, China’s behavior has improved.
The secret to the Trump team’s success is its embrace of principled realism: in its simplest terms, the faith that America’s goals are just and American power should be exercised to support those goals. Since taking office a year and a half ago, Trump has forcefully applied American power—while avoiding his predecessors’ equation of power with military force. As a result, America is getting its way on the world stage, generally without putting American lives at risk to get it. That’s about as win-win as things come in international relations.
If anyone doubts that this newfound realism is principled, just look at the targets: North Korea, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Russia and China. Trump has exerted strong pressure on America’s NATO allies as well—to arm themselves against Russia and other regional threats. And on international trade, Trump has pressured just about everyone to stop unfair and often illegal trading practices.
Now that the Trump era is well and truly underway, it is worth remembering that Hillary Clinton’s “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations was a hallmark of the Obama administration’s first term foreign policy. It ended in Russia’s seizure of Crimea and a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine that continues today. John Kerry’s signature issue at the start of Obama’s second term was Israeli-Palestinian peace. Nine months of inconclusive talks ended in the 2014 war in Gaza.
It may be too soon to declare victory for principled realism, but the early signs are certainly encouraging. Other countries do not always accept the principle that America’s goals are just, but history has usually vindicated the United States in the long run. And in any case, as Trump is fond of pointing out, he is not the president of the world. He is the president of the United States of America.
Two weeks into that presidency, one of America’s most respected foreign-policy scholars summarily declared that Trump Has Already Blown It, while Obama administration veterans were labeling Trump’s foreign policy the “Grand Strategic Train Wreck.” With the midterm elections now looming, there’s little chance that these experts will admit that they were wrong. But as long as the voters keep seeing results, the chances are that Trump will stay on target.
Salvatore Babones is the author of The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a signing ceremony for the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria