Has Trump Altered the Course of American Foreign Policy?

 In China, GDI, Defense, Cyber/ICT, France

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.

Source: National Interest

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