Trump’s Biggest Foreign Policy Problem Is The Future
America’s international decline
In year-end assessments, an interesting argument emerged from a Trump-skeptic segment of the conservative commentariat: the president’s foreign policy has been pretty good.
For example, here’s Commentary’s Noah Rothman:
When it comes to foreign affairs, the so-called “Never Trump” right has had to admit that the president and his administration are, for the most, part getting the policy right.
Conservatives defending Trump’s foreign policy point to:
- Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, which they saw as unduly burdensome to the United States without sufficiently enforceable commitments from others.
- Launching airstrikes against a Syrian airfield in response to the government’s chemical weapons attack on civilians.
- Dislodging ISIS from the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria.
- Taking a tough line with North Korea.
- Decertifying the Iran nuclear deal.
- Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
- Cutting the U.N. budget.
Perhaps most importantly, they praise the president for not following through on the most dramatic moves he floated during the campaign, such as starting a trade war with China, killing the family members of suspected terrorists, or withdrawing security commitments to eastern Europe.
Abandoning bad ideas isn’t much of an achievement, and I don’t think the president made the right call on Paris, the Iran deal, or Jerusalem (and even if he did, the executions were poor). However, his Syria policy has gone reasonably well considering the mess he inherited, and his administration deserves some of the credit for the successful three-year campaign against ISIS.
But even if we assume everything on that list was the right choice — and he avoids major mistakes, such as initiating a war with North Korea that goes poorly — Donald Trump’s presidency is already a foreign policy disaster. He’s damaged relationships and tarnished America’s reputation, transforming the United States from a dependable partner to a source of uncertainty.
Evaluating Trump based only on 2017 policy outcomes misses that most of the downsides will come in the future. Some actions worked out — Syria hasn’t used chemical weapons again — but others damaged America’s long-term position. Most notably, scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) ceded Asia-Pacific to China, effectively telling Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and others to cast their lot with the rising Asian power rather than the declining one from North America.
By Quitting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump Cedes Asia-Pacific to China
Abdicating economic leadership in southeast Asia while increasing confrontation over the South China Sea is terrible…
Few international leaders have any confidence in Donald Trump. A year-end Politico report details how diplomats from around the world were stunned by his ignorance of their countries, the international system, and America’s place within it. And they often found meeting with him a waste of time:
On some things, he accepted the argument, and we thought now it is resolved, only to find out later he uses the same phrases and arguments as he did before.
The few foreign leaders who like that Trump is president either think they can get him to shift U.S. policy in their favor (Saudi Arabia, Israel), or are authoritarians happy that the United States no longer pressures them on democracy or human rights (Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, Erdogan’s Turkey, Duterte’s Philippines).
Even worse, the world has less confidence in America. No matter who leads the United States in the future, it will always be the country that elevated someone profoundly ignorant of international relations — and uninterested in learning — to the planet’s most powerful position.
The world will be throwing this in our face for decades.
America’s Global Position
The president views international relations as transactional, through the prism of short-term “deals.” But foreign policy is primarily about building relationships. Cultivate trust, establish connections at all levels — diplomatic, economic, cultural, military, intelligence — demonstrate a commitment to mutually beneficial outcomes, and long-term partnerships can flourish.
America’s remarkable post-WWII experience is still underappreciated. Throughout history, dominant countries tend to prompt balancing counter-reactions, in which lesser powers join to undermine or at least contain the aspiring hegemon. But most of the world acquiesced to a U.S.-dominated international system.
A lot of this can be explained by fear of the Soviet Union. But that’s my point. NATO is a voluntary alliance. The Warsaw Pact was an involuntary empire.
The United States presented an attractive example, and offered relationships that served other countries’ interests. America designed international economic and diplomatic institutions with itself at the center, but other countries gained as well. Bretton-Woods, GATT, the World Bank and IMF, the dollar, military bases around the world, the United Nations in the United States, and U.S. allies Britain and France given equal footing with Russia and China in the UN Security Council and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Other countries didn’t have to buy in. But most did.
As impressive as that was, it’s even more remarkable that when the Soviet Union collapsed, America’s network grew. Rather than asserting their independence now that the primary threat was gone, partners doubled down. Eastern Europe became capitalist and rushed to join NATO. Even Vietnam — still run by the communist party, and with vivid memories of “the American War” — grew closer to the United States.
Trump looks at this as a series of “bad deals” with other countries taking advantage and America “losing.” His anti-globalist supporters see charity driven by misguided altruism or manipulation by nefarious forces. But it’s really one of the smartest, stablest, most nationally beneficial exercises of international power in history.
The national benefits aren’t always apparent at first glance. You have to consider counterfactuals — we can’t run an experiment to see how the United States would’ve fared over the last 70 years without so many voluntary partnerships. And these long-term investments pay off the most in unexpected crises.
Here’s the best 21st century example: After September 11th, NATO invoked Article 5 — an attack on one is an attack on all — and every member contributed to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. So did Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Ukraine, Romania, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and others.
Less overt — but no less important — the United States led a global effort to share intelligence, track suspected members of al Qaeda, freeze their finances, and shut down terrorists’ fundraising fronts. That doesn’t happen without strong relationships cultivated over decades, especially not as quickly and thoroughly as it did.
Trump single-handedly damaged intelligence relationships in May when he casually revealed highly sensitive Israeli secrets to Russia’s ambassador and foreign minister. Israel managed to place a spy high within ISIS. The United States, it’s long-time intelligence partner, was authorized to know. Russia, which partners with Israel’s adversaries Iran and Syria, was not. Trump revealed information compromising the spy — multiple accounts of the meeting say he was trying to show off and didn’t appear to realize what he’d done — sending American officials scrambling to clean up the damage.
Trump Forfeits Global Leadership
The president is weakening the United States for no good reason
That day, Israel and other American allies learned that the president of the United States is an intelligence risk. That’s a concern as long as Trump is in office, and intelligence agencies will withhold information long after he’s gone. Because the United States is a now country that might empower someone who can’t be trusted with secrets.
Rallying An International Coalition
International crises are best addressed by international coalitions. That leverages additional resources, and lends the effort greater legitimacy.
Though critics mocked it at the time, George W. Bush put together a 48-country “coalition of the willing” to support America’s effort in Iraq. The U.K., Australia, and Poland all committed troops to the invasion force, and 34 additional countries sent personnel to help with the occupation. At its peak, the U.K. had 41,000 troops on the ground.
It’s hard to imagine Trump accomplishing anything like that, let alone the near-universal support for the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. 74% of the world has no confidence in him, compared to 22% who do, and he’s dragged down opinion of the United States since the end of the Obama presidency.
Those numbers come from June 2017. It’s safe to assume it hasn’t gotten better.
Confidence in America’s president has plummeted everywhere besides Israel (+7) and Russia (+42). And neither of those countries contribute troops to American military efforts (for different reasons).
In the three countries that joined the invasion of Iraq, few have confidence in America’s president:
- U.K.: 22%, down 57 points
- Australia: 29%, down 55
- Poland: 23%, down 35
The numbers look similar in U.S. allies that contributed over 1,000 troops to the occupation:
- South Korea (3,600 troops at peak): 17%, down 71 points
- Italy (3,200 at peak): 25%, down 43 points
- Spain (1,300 at peak): 7%, down 68 points
International relations is not a popularity contest. If other countries disapprove of America pursuing a core national interest, that shouldn’t stop the United States. But international support can be a valuable asset.
If a crisis breaks out — and no modern president has been lucky enough to avoid one — Trump will find it exceedingly difficult to lead a multilateral response. Few foreign leaders trust his ability to understand, let alone handle serious issues. And even if they did, Trump is so despised that standing up to him could reap domestic political gains.
This problem extends to normal foreign policy. For example, in his trip to Asia, Trump was unable to secure a single bilateral trade deal to replace the arrangements he scrapped when withdrawing from the TPP.
That’s regrettable, but not surprising. Trump insists trade agreements are about “winning” and “losing,” rather than mutual benefit. Add that to his business record, and foreign leaders think he’s trying to screw them over. Why should they acquiesce to America setting the rules when the president might change them on a whim? China’s terms are less attractive, but at least they’re consistent.
Crazy Like A Fox?
One possible defense of Trump’s approach to foreign policy is the Madman Theory. During the Cold War, Nixon tried to convince the world he was crazy enough to initiate a nuclear exchange to get the USSR — or North Vietnam — to make concessions. It didn’t work.
Along those lines, Trump said during the campaign he planned to keep international rivals off balance. As president, he’s unsettled both allies and adversaries. His threats might be more credible than Nixon’s because Nixon was trying to convince others he didn’t respect international norms, while Trump appears not to understand them. And Trump has a record of openly flouting norms at home.
The Iran Deal and the Madman Theory
Why pulling out severely damages American interests
Therefore, his threats to use force against North Korea might be more credible than previous presidents’. They understood the risks— to South Korea, the 37,500 Americans stationed there, Japan, Guam, Hawaii, and now maybe the U.S. mainland — but Trump might not know. Or care. Which means he might actually do it.
That’s a concern for China. The Chinese don’t like North Korean nuclear proliferation. But they prefer it to Korean unification — which would bring a U.S. ally to the Chinese border — or North Korean collapse, which risks millions of refugees flooding into China along with South Korean expansion.
However, as bad as those outcomes might be, a second Korean War would be worse. So if China believes the U.S. will actually attack, it would probably do more to address North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Observers who praise this Madman logic make the mistake of evaluating it based on how they could take advantage of these circumstances to break the stalemate. But they’re not playing this hand.
Trump’s already developed a reputation as a stereotypical bully. Happy to use force in Yemen, Afghanistan, or Syria, but quick to prostrate himself before the leaders of countries that could hit back, such as Putin or Xi.
At first, China didn’t know what to make of Trump. But it’s increasingly clear they think he’s for sale. Trademarks for Ivanka, red carpet flattery during his visit, and some investments they were probably going to make anyway — which allow Trump to claim a win for U.S. business — and the president transformed from a staunch China critic to praising Xi the way he praises Putin.
The uncertainty Trump creates is arguably useful in some business negotiations. But in international relations, reducing uncertainty is usually preferable. For example, deterrence works only if the target believes you will do what you say. And alliances work only if others believe you will honor your commitments.
The United States is a status quo power, aiming to maintain and strengthen the global system it leads. Sowing chaos benefits revisionist powers, not the dominant state.
All The President’s Handlers
The other main Trump foreign policy defense is that he’s surrounded by good people. Many senior officials are impressive, starting with James Mattis at Defense and H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor. And it’s gotten a lot better, as Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, K.T. McFarland, Sebastian Gorka, and other problematic individuals have been pushed out, while John Kelly has imposed some discipline as Chief of Staff.
Trump ditched most of his worst ideas from the campaign. His statements on the anti-government demonstrations in Iran were measured, expressing support for the protesters without making himself the center of attention. The “adults in the room” probably deserve some credit for these and other rational policy choices.
But still, this means the United States is relying on senior officials convincing the world to ignore the president. At times, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner appear to be running three different foreign policies, creating uncertainty that makes allies and adversaries disregard all of them. And while the most senior officials may be impressive (besides Kushner), the State Department has seen an exodus of talent. Many important positions — including Ambassador to South Korea and Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security — remain unfilled.
Additionally, it’s clear no one can control Trump.
Mattis, McMaster, and Tillerson advised the president not to decertify the Iran nuclear deal or recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, because those moves would anger others without yielding clear gains for the United States. He did both.
They put language reaffirming America’s commitment to NATO into a speech Trump gave at a summit commemorating the invocation of Article 5 after 9/11. The president took it out.
They opposed Saudi Arabia isolating Qatar, which hosts an airbase from which the U.S. ran the campaign against ISIS. Trump backed it anyway. And when Mattis and Tillerson tried to clean up the damage, Trump (and Kushner) got in the way.
No matter how good the national security team, the buck stops with the president. And the world knows it.
Meet the new National Security Adviser. There is a lot to like.
The international playing field is shaped by capabilities and perceptions. Part of the game takes place in the material world and part is in our heads. Foreign policy, therefore, relies on both hard and soft power, and the most successful countries excel in both.
The United States has lost some of its economic edge — catching up is always easier than maintaining the lead — but it’s still a wealthy country. And America’s military strength is unparalleled. It will remain the world’s most powerful state for the indefinite future.
But, thanks to Donald Trump unnecessarily squandering the other major source of the United States’ power, the American Age is over.