Over the last week via email, Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes
Sulaiman discussed US foreign policy during the Trump era. Below is that
conversation. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Brad Nelson: We're nearly at the end of Trump's (1st? only?)
term in office, and so it's a good time to look back at his 3 plus years in
office. Given our areas of expertise and interest, let's focus on Trump’s
foreign policy. How would you evaluate his administration's foreign policy?
Yohanes Sulaiman: It is a mixed bag. As many have argued,
his foreign policy is oftentimes impulsive, chaotic, and lacks coherence, as he
is all over the place, pushing for unilateral solutions first before
trying to cobble a patchwork of coalition after things have gone wrong. Such as
his tiff with Iran. His disputes with Japan and South Korea is, I think,
overblown, but is also a bad move, at least optically. And his so-called "great
deal" with North Korea is just a balloon full of hot air, although I
am sure that other US presidents won't do better.
In short, he has made a lot of
unnecessary complications and enemies.
On the other hand, it seems to me that some of what he has been
doing is working. Yes, a stopped clock will be correct twice a day, and his
motives may not be admirable, but it is hard to argue that he is wrong on China.
America’s policy towards China has been too accommodative and it led to
problems not only within the US (e.g. Rust Belt) but also in South and
Southeast Asia. And in an area where Trump doesn't pay much attention,
Southeast Asia, everything is still running okay, though I would attribute
that to the professionalism of the US bureaucracy. Of course, the lack of the
president's attention hurts America's interest—people here have unfavorably
contrasted Trump with previous US Presidents, including George W. Bush. Bush
understood and acknowledged the importance of Southeast Asia.
And I consider Trump’s hit-job on Iranian General Soleimani
a good call, though Trump got lucky in the end, since Iran was dumb enough to
shoot its own passenger plane, which helped Trump avoid the messy aftermath of
assassinating a high level foreign official.
So, yes, in terms of foreign policy, Trump is not doing very
well, but it is not a complete disaster either.
BN: I'll start first with the one major area of the world
you didn't mention, and that's Europe. Arguably, Trump's Europe policy has
probably been the worst part of his administration's foreign policy. When it
comes to Russia, Washington doesn't speak in one voice. Congress and parts of
the government bureaucracy, like Defense and the CIA, want a very tough Russia
policy. And to an extent, they've gotten their way: Sanctions are still in
place and the US has upped its arms to Ukraine. But Trump himself has been extremely
deferential to Putin. It’s one thing for Trump to want good relations with
Russia—something I agree with—it's quite another to take Russia's side on a
host of important issues, like election tampering, intelligence matters,
the relevance of NATO, and so on. And Trump is so loath to criticize Putin.
Whether this disjointed stance toward Russia is a good cop/bad cop
strategy, a product of a conspiracy, or something else, who knows? Admittedly, I
don't. In any case, it's all so bizarre. My guess is that, with Trump at the
helm, Putin feels like he doesn't have to worry much about the US, because he
faces little earnest resistance from Trump, which is in marked contrast to the
Obama years. Putin has a free hand in his backyard, can challenge the US in the
periphery, and continue his monkey business in US politics and
Just as problematic is Trump's policy toward Western Europe.
Trump has openly questioned the importance of NATO, refused to commit to
upholding NATO's Article V, said that the EU is a "foe," engaged in
trade wars with Europe, and constantly criticized various European leaders. US
relations with Europe are as bad as they've been in decades, possible since the
interwar years. At the beginning of Trump's tenure, Europe took a patient
approach, hoping to avoid his ire and preferring to wait him out until the next
US president takes office. But that's changed a bit, as Europe—worried about a
second Trump term and concerned that Trump isn't a political aberration in the
US—has begun thinking about life without the US. Europe has started discussions
on providing for more of its own defense and carved out policy positions on
various issues, like China and climate change and health/disease prevention,
independent of the US. At bottom, Trump's Europe policy has badly damaged
American credibility in the eyes of Europeans, and any solution to the problem
won't be quick and easy.
I think his Middle East policies are quite shaky. Yeah,
Trump can take credit for the Israel-UAE peace deal and demolishing the Islamic
State caliphate. But the peace deal doesn't change much in the ME. And the
caliphate would've been smashed with or without Trump; Trump's ISIS campaign
was just a continuation of the Obama years. His close hugs of Netanyahu
and MBS and al-Sisi were very risky, given that all three have tons of
baggage. His moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was unnecessary. His moving
troops around Syria and abandoning the Kurds was shameful. His and Jared's
Middle East Plan was dead on arrival. And pulling out of the Iran nuclear
deal was spectacularly ill-advised, as it only encouraged Iran to up its
nuclear activities, and done solely to fulfill a campaign pledge. Indeed, many
of Trump's Middle East moves have been driven largely by US domestic politics
rather than US national interests. But in the end, despite a host of
questionable American decisions, the Middle East isn't any worse off. Trump is
lucky that ISIS is dumb, US allies hate Iran, and most of the region no
longer cares all that much about the Palestinians.
Trump's Asia policy is also on unstable grounds. He's
unnecessarily riled up South Korea and Japan over things like trade and troop
basing. Turns out that US friends in Asia don't like Washington
treating alliances as a protection racket. And not only that, they're
worried the US, under a capricious Trump, will leave them
high and dry to face all the serious local security problems on
their own. His North Korea overtures, despite the great hype, have led to
nowhere. Actually, North Korea is still building nukes and disarmament is
a pipe dream.
Trump's China policy is somewhat understandable, for the reasons
you mention. But I don't get the sense that Trump or his staff (especially
Peter Navarro, Mike Pompeo, and Robert O'Brien) have any idea what they
realistically can get from confronting China. It seems like they're confronting
China just to confront China. I'm sure domestic politics is also rearing its
head here. The Trump administration has constantly scapegoated China as
the big bad enemy that's the source of all of America's ills, from getting sick
to losing jobs. No surprise, I guess, given that this is an election year and
Trump is fighting for his political life. But where has this gotten the US? The
end result of the heated rhetoric, trade war, and the COVID blame-game, among
other things, is terrible relations with China, the worst they've been since
both sides normalized the relationship in 1979. This might not have been so
problematic 15 years ago, but it is now. Trump is paradoxically helping to
foment the kind of cold war with China that he wanted to squash from the
BN: Is there any foreign policy achievement, or series of achievements,
that Trump's accomplished as president? And do those achievements outweigh, in
your view, the bad in Trump's foreign policies?
YS: Well, sometimes "achievements" can be achieved
when your opponents are pushing a bad policy, making your policy look better
as a result. China's overly nationalistic foreign policy generates a lot of
dislike and distrust in South and Southeast Asia for instance, even though the
governments still grit their teeth and act friendly towards China due to
economic benefits. Or Iran as another example. Iran’s excesses in the Middle
East have caused a rapprochement between the Arab World and Israel, leading to
the establishment of diplomatic relations between UAE and Israel.
Are there any foreign policy successes based on Trump's own
personal intervention? I have been thinking about this for a while, but probably
not. His overture to North Korea generated lots of buzz, sure. While I was wary
of whether Trump was going to concede too much, in the end, the diplomatic
flurry ended with a whimper. As
I discussed in my article in Global Asia, there's no way North Korea
is going to give up its nukes because it would end the Kim's dynasty. Kim only
met Trump because he expected to get lots of money, and Trump of course only
wanted to meet KJU because it showed him as a "dealmaker." In
retrospect, Trump got the better out of it, but I would not call it a foreign
policy success as it maintained the status quo.
Trump's China policy's only success is in showing
the world that you need to be tough with China to get things done. And
even then, as we can see, without Covid, it seemed that Trump had conceded too
much. Probably the only benefit of Covid is that it made states take off their
gloves and start yelling at Beiing.
BN: I think Trump's willingness to buck the hawks' wishes
for more war is an achievement, honestly. The US has been at war for nearly
every year of the post-cold war period, and every year since 2001, so no new
wars—to me, as a realist in favor of a more sensible and restrained US foreign
policy—is something laudable. As we know, the hawks and the war lobby are
formidable forces inside the US. And they are constantly on high alert,
always looking for the next war to fight. During Trump’s term, hawks have been
pressing for regime change in Iran and Venezuela and North Korea, and wanted
the US to deepen its involvement in Syria. Yet, Trump didn't fall for the siren
song of war, even though he did have domestic political incentives to engage in
various diversionary conflicts. He does deserve credit for that.
The IS caliphate was destroyed on Trump's watch. While his
approach to ISIS was Obama's, only with more bombings, Trump deserves credit
for completing the destruction of ISIS's turf in Iraq and Syria. However, I do
worry that Trump's adopted George W. Bush's "mission accomplished"
attitude on ISIS and is too eager to wipe his hands of anything ISIS. After
all, ISIS isn't completely defeated, and the group has made in-roads in Asia
Lastly, I think Israel is in a better position today than in
2016, something Trump’s base is happy about. Now, is this because of Trump? To
an extent, yes. Improved US-Israeli bilateral ties are directly attributable to
Trump. And the Trump administration played a role in brokering the Israel-UAE
deal. But in other ways, Israel's improved situation doesn't have anything to
do with Trump, but instead with, as you said, Iran's overreach, the
popularity hit Hezbollah has suffered in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion,
the sharply declining salience of the Palestinian issue, and the winding down
of the Syrian civil war.
BN: What are Trump's biggest foreign policy mistake(s)--sins
of either commission or omission?
YS: Number 1: Not maintaining the level of engagement with
allies/friendly countries. For example, Trump's failure to visit SE Asia tells the region
that the US is not paying attention to them.
Number 2: Picking fights with fellow allies. Yes, the US may
be paying too much to the Europeans/Japanese/Koreans. But Trump could have
evened the playing field without pissing off the majority of his allies. His
desire for a "win" vis-à-vis these nations ended up hurting America’s
interests in other aspects, such as the absence of a coalition to deal with
To be fair, I am not going to say that his impact is as bad
as what his critics have claimed. The US still has significant influence, but
Trump is causing avoidable self-inflicted wounds.
BN: Yeah, I agree with you. Trump's failure to understand
the importance of peacetime alliances is his biggest foreign policy flaw. As
you said, it's unnecessarily aggravated US relations with its longtime friends.
Perhaps relations with those nations can be easily repaired by Trump's
successor, but that's pure speculation. If Trump is re-elected, that only
ups the burden on his successor. His successor will have to prove that Trump's
the aberration in US foreign policy, something that will be hard to do if he
gets eight years in office. At that point, after two terms of Trump, America's
allies will wonder if, going forward, Trump's successor is the aberration, not
Trump's alliance problem has certainly cracked open a window
of opportunity for troublemakers in Europe and China who see the US as
confused and indifferent to what happens outside of its borders. And while
Russia really hasn't seized the moment, China arguably has, given its crackdown
on Hong Kong. Again, I fear what a second term Trump administration might
bring. If Trump is re-elected, he will be unbound, free to act on his craziest
and wildest ambitions. He will likely interpret a second term as validation of
everything he's done in his first term; plus, because he won't have any worries
about re-election, he will feel few constraints on his foreign policy
prerogatives, a domain in which US presidents already have a fairly
free hand. There are rumblings that Trump will pull the US out of NATO if
he gets a second term. What other alliances might he wreck? What other
friendships and partnerships will he pollute? And how will China and
Russia react? As a second term Trump administration winds down, might China, in
the belief it'll never get a golden opportunity again, make moves to strangle
Taiwan's sovereignty if not outright conquer Taiwan? Frankly, it's
A secondary problem is Trump's tendency to pull the US out
of agreements, or threaten to do so, without any alternative plans. So, if the
US distances itself from, or, God forbid, leaves NATO, what's the next step? Is
the US going it alone in Europe? Is the US ceding Europe to Russia? Will the US
pursue a mini-alliance, whether formal or informal, with nations Trump believes
he can trust and are worthy of protection? My fear is that Trump will act and
then think about the consequences afterward, when it's too late. We can
apply this same logic to America's role in the WTO, the WHO, New START, and so
on, and so on. The end result will be more room for Russia and China to
maneuver on the world stage, to fill in the power vacuums created by the dearth
of America's leadership and its reluctance to fulfill its commitments.
In the end, I concur that Trump's foreign policy isn't quite
as bad as his critics suggest. Honestly, my biggest concerns involve his
domestic policies and political governing, both of which are fast eroding US
democracy and polarizing America in ways that haven't been seen since
the civil war. But that's another issue for another day. My main worry
about Trump's foreign policy is that what we've seen in his first term portends
something more ominous and dangerous should he get re-elected: continued
American decline, a further slide in US standing and prestige, a leaderless
international system, and a host of US rivals and foes emboldened by America's
full-on retreat from the world. In short, American foreign policy was able to
survive four years of Trump, I'm not so sure that it can withstand another four
years without major ramifications for US and global security.
YS: I don't think Trump will suddenly be
"liberated" after his second term. Take a look at the second term of
previous US presidents: there's no significant changes in their foreign policy.
Remember Obama's conversation with Medvedev that he would have more flexibility
after the election. At the end of the day, Obama's second term was not that
different from his first term.
I even argue that Trump's second term might see him pushing
for rapprochement with the EU, because now he has an enemy: China. In the
first term, he was doing a scattershot, shooting at everything with the hopes
of hitting a bullseye that would show him as a master "deal maker." If
he sticks with China as his target, his foreign policy will have a focus.
Domestically, though, methinks you worry too much. From
outside the US, the debate is like whether you should eat the egg from the
small side or from the big side. Plus, polarization is like a tango: you can't
have one without the other, and I think it is disingenuous to completely blame
him without considering how the media plays a major role in causing this to
happen (see Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan).
BN: I hope you are right, but fear that you won’t be.