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 elections.
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 beginning.
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., 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 and Africa.
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 China/Russia.
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.
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 possible.
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.