One life ago – January 2017 – I sat down to evaluate the foreign policy performance of the outgoing US President Barack Obama. Obama inherited a global financial panic and two unsuccessful wars, behaved with exemplary demeanor and dignity during his two terms as president, and achieved several clear foreign policy wins. Although I voted for him twice, I concluded that "in Obama's foreign policy record was largely a failure".
Now that President Donald Trump's tenure is wavering for a messy and unworthy ending, it is time to make a similar assessment. After Trump ran for what US foreign policy called "a complete and utter disaster," was he able to fix the ship of state and take a better course? Has America's power, prestige, and global influence increased on its watch compared to other countries? Or does Trump's foreign policy deal with his bankrupt casinos, the Trump Shuttle, Trump University or other failed companies?
It is worth remembering what he promised. Like most of his political platforms, Trump's foreign policy sprang from a sense of grievance. He thought the rest of the world was taking advantage of the United States; he would put "America first" instead. Allies would pay full price to protect the United States, adversaries would be confronted and defeated, and the United States would pursue its own interests with little regard for diplomatic intricacies. It would prevent China from "stealing" American jobs and get the US out of "bad deals" like the Paris climate agreement and the nuclear deal with Iran. He posed as the chief negotiator and promised to reach “nice” new trade deals that would restore US manufacturing and usher in a new era of prosperity. The United States would no longer play the fool: it would get "out of the nation-building business", curb immigration, rebuild a supposedly weak defense company, and get Mexico to pay for a wall on the southern border.
Overall, Trump offered a seductive vision that promised unbroken success with little or no additional effort. Restoring US dominance would not require personal sacrifice, national unity, or even a well-thought-out strategy – putting a "very stable genius" at the top was all it would take to "make America great again." Once he became president, Trump promised, Americans would "be so sick and tired of winning".
How did it all work out? Although Trump has some foreign policy successes, his overall record is grim. America's adversaries are more dangerous than they were in 2016, the United States is weaker, sicker, and more divided, relations with many of its allies in the United States are worse, and all American aspirations for moral guidance are severely tarnished.
To be fair, Trump has had a number of real achievements. For one thing, he did not start new wars or create new failed states. That may sound like a low bar, but none of its three predecessors can make a similar claim. The government also negotiated a new trade deal with South Korea and an updated version of NAFTA, although neither was a dramatic improvement on the previous deal. Repeatedly suggesting that he could take the United States out of NATO, Trump encouraged European efforts to take on a little more responsibility for their own defense and may have persuaded some fence sitters to go along with US demands, Chinese firm Huawei not to employ for building their digital infrastructure. Some observers would also credit his government with the recognition of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab states through midwives, although these steps did little to advance the cause of peace or justice in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, this humble list of successes has to be compared to a long list of consequential losses.
First, consider how he handled relations with China. He tried to get Chinese President Xi Jinping to put more pressure on North Korea. Xi refused. He tried to get China to carry out major structural reforms and end its predatory trade and investment practices, and he eventually launched a costly trade war to force Beijing to comply. That didn't work either because China reciprocated and adapted. US businesses, consumers, and farmers contributed most of the cost of Trump's tariffs. and Trump chose to unilaterally pressurize China instead of placing other countries alongside the United States. The government's escalating campaign against Huawei, ZTE, TikTok and other Chinese tech companies has damaged these companies in the short term, but has also fueled Chinese efforts to reduce their reliance on US technology and potentially cost US companies many future revenues.
Unsurprisingly, relations with China have steadily turned downward over the past four years.
That decline is not entirely Trump's fault. In many ways it is firmly tied to the emerging structure of the international system. What Trump's fault is America's deteriorating position within that structure and failure to take advantage of Beijing's own missteps. China has cracked down on its Uyghur minority (reportedly with Trump's approval) in Hong Kong and against its Uyghur minority, clashed with India along the Himalayan border, continued territorial encroachments in the South China Sea and made significant efforts to save Australia, a longtime US ally to bully. Trump has used the role of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to negotiate and sign a new regional comprehensive economic partnership with 14 other Asian nations, and has just signed a new investment agreement with the European Union. After abusing the coronavirus outbreak at the start, China now appears to have the pandemic under control within its borders and has reopened its economy. The United States continues to add tens of thousands of new cases every day and remains partially banned.
Trump's dealings with the other Asian great power – Russia – were no better. He told supporters in 2016 that "we will have a great relationship with Putin and Russia," and Trump's unwavering respect for Russian President Vladimir Putin remains a mystery. However, Trump never made serious efforts to improve relations or drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, when it would have made geopolitical sense to do so. Aside from sanctioning a few other Russian officials, Trump hasn't done much to challenge Russia either. Instead, Trump was charged with trying to improve his re-election prospects by withholding U.S. aid to Ukraine until Kiev unearthed some dirt on the Biden family.
The result? Russia continues to meddle in Ukraine today, continues to support Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria and warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and continues to carry out grueling attacks on perceived threats both domestically and abroad. Moscow is also the likely culprit of the massive cyber violation that compromised US government computer networks, including the Department of Defense, State Department, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Security Agency. Can you imagine what Trump would have said if this had happened on Obama's watch?
Trump's amateurish dealings with North Korea provide another example of foreign policy ineptitude. After exchanging some childish mockery with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Twitter, Trump made good sense to turn to diplomacy instead. However, instead of organizing a systematic negotiation to limit North Korean nuclear and missile programs, Trump opted for a couple of "reality show" summits with Kim that were long on spectacle and little substance. Convinced that his personal charm and business skills could convince Kim to abandon the nuclear deterrence on which his regime depends for survival, Trump got nothing. Although the summits generated the kind of media attention Trump craved, they only managed to improve Kim's stature and underscore Trump's gullibility. The president lost interest in the subject once his PR stunt failed, and North Korea's nuclear arsenal and missile capabilities have continued to improve since then.
And then there are the more obvious mistakes. It was a mistake to leave the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which was at least a useful first step in addressing the greatest long-term threat humanity faces. It was a mistake to abandon the TPP while trying to balance China, and an even bigger mistake to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran. Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and persistent members of the Israeli lobby continue to insist that Trump's "maximum pressure" policy works, but such claims are blatant nonsense. Yes, many ordinary Iranians have suffered under US sanctions, but the clerical regime is still in power, hardliners have gained more leverage, and Iran has resumed uranium enrichment, increasing its inventories eightfold and cutting its breakout time in half.
After all, one cannot ignore Trump's corrosive effects on the core elements of US power on which its security and well-being ultimately depend. Regarding COVID-19, Trump has offered a master class on how not to deal with a serious emergency. He eased pandemic readiness before the coronavirus emerged, then denied it was a serious problem. He openly advised against wearing masks and other preventive measures, insisted that the virus would "magically go away," and proved unable to coordinate a test. Tracking system that the pandemic may have contained months ago. Not only did its failure cost more American lives than World War I, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War combined, but it also caused tremendous damage to the US economy and badly damaged the American image of competence.
Furthermore, despite his early promise to rebuild American power, Trump did little to improve U.S. infrastructure, and his immigration policies made it harder for U.S. firms to recruit the best talent from overseas. Rather than promoting national unity and a broad sense of patriotic respect for our fellow citizens, he spent his four years in office sowing major divisions. He has led an unprecedented bleeding of senior officials in the State Department and other national security institutions, leaving key positions either vacant or filled with poorly qualified loyalists. In a world full of complex challenges, this was nothing more than unilateral diplomatic disarmament.
The end result is both ironic and tragic. Trump had reasonably sensible instincts on a range of issues and a refreshing willingness to question certain well-established but dubious orthodoxy. He was rightly accused of accusing Europeans of neglecting their defense, rightly accusing China of failing to meet some of its trade commitments, and rightly making endless efforts to build nations in distant lands of little or no strategic Meaning for the United States to have declined. Public support for a less ambitious, more realistic and more successful foreign policy was widespread. Yet he could not translate his instincts into a successful foreign policy. Why?
To be fair, Trump faced a major dilemma from the start. His criticism of US foreign policy had alienated most of the existing elite – including dozens of Republican veterans – and left him with few experienced aides to fill his administration. Hiring inexperienced outsiders would inevitably lead to a lot of rookie error. Appointing people who knew how to get the government machinery working would enable them to continue the policies he promised. This problem was particularly acute in the area of national security, where Trump's knowledge was particularly limited, and it helps explain his erratic responses to issues such as NATO, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan.
Second, Trump was a bad talent judge. He repeatedly selected top officials with either little or no government experience (e.g. Rex Tillerson, Jared Kushner), checkered personal stories (Michael Flynn, Larry Kudlow), deeply silly ideas (Peter Navarro, Steve Bannon), or a long story from previous political failures (Elliott Abrams, John Bolton). His more conventional candidates (Gary Cohn, James Mattis, H. R. McMaster) eventually fell out of favor, leaving foreign and national security policy in the hands of second-stringers or die-hard people like Robert O'Brien or Richard Grenell.
Trump also turned out to be an irritable, erratic, volcanic and ungrateful boss who managed to run away four chiefs of staff and four national security advisors in less than four years. One employee called Trump's White House "the most toxic work environment in the world" and turnover rates within the administration remained at historically unprecedented levels during his tenure. Trying to manage a complex world amid such chaos would have taxed a Bismarck, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt, and Trump was a far cry from those shrewd and subtle strategists.
Last but not least, Trump's foreign policy treatment succumbed to his own lack of character. His self-promotion genius and remarkable ability to defy established norms could include his ignorance of most policy areas, his distrust of real expertise, his short attention span, his incorrigible dishonesty and his inability to put the national interest before his own need for attention, not overcome and worship. Qualities that had worked at times in his ups and downs business career, on reality television, and even on the campaign trail, turned out to be wholly unsuitable for government duties, especially in the unforgiving world of foreign policy. In the end, even America's many remaining advantages could not offset Trump's innate incompetence.
Fortunately, American voters seem to have figured this out too. Trump is the only president whose approval rating has never exceeded 50 percent – not once – and he lost his re-election offer, despite the fact that the electoral college is currently making it much easier for Republicans to win. Indeed, the Republican candidates for the House and Senate seats in the November 2020 election did better than expected, while the man at the top of the ticket suffered a decisive defeat. Trump only has himself to blame, which is why he may have refused to accept it.
In many ways, Trump's presidency was a missed opportunity. His predecessors had poorly managed the unipolar moment, and Trump had a chance to put U.S. foreign policy on a solid footing. The general public had made it clear that they did not want isolationism, but a more restrained and more successful foreign policy. Trump could have built on that base of support and worked with U.S. allies to better balance the country's commitments. It could have built on the Iranian nuclear deal to achieve a more balanced stance in the Middle East and to end the Afghan war immediately. He could have worked with other advanced economies to confront China together and reform the World Trade Organization rather than trying to core it. If properly implemented, moving to a more realistic strategy would have made the United States safe and successful, and freed up resources needed to address urgent domestic priorities. If Trump had moved in that direction, the country would be much better off today and he wouldn't have to find a new place to live in three weeks.
But it was more than a missed opportunity as Trump's mistakes left the United States in much worse shape than when he took office. For President-elect Joe Biden and his team, the bad news is that they have a tremendous amount of repair work to do. The good news is that it won't be difficult to do better than the people they succeed in.