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Home/Daniel Larison/Trump’s Dysfunctional Foreign Policy

Trump’s Dysfunctional Foreign Policy

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with U.S. President Donald Trump during the Singapore summit June 12.

The lack of coordination in the Trump administration is something to behold:

President Donald Trump last week intended to reverse sanctions imposed on two Chinese shipping companies accused of violating North Korea trade prohibitions — until officials in his administration persuaded him to back off and then devised a misleading explanation of his vague tweet announcing the move.

Trump stunned current and former government officials Friday afternoon with a tweet saying he had “ordered the withdrawal” of “additional large scale sanctions” against North Korea. For hours, officials at the White House and Treasury and State departments wouldn’t explain what he meant.

The president in fact intended to remove penalties Treasury had announced the day before against two Chinese shippers that had helped Pyongyang evade U.S. sanctions, according to four people familiar with the matter. It was unclear whether Trump knew about or signed off on the measures before they were issued, or what triggered his tweet the next day.

Trump’s foreign policy has been marked by confusion and dysfunction from the beginning, but this is one of the more ridiculous own goals that the president has scored. In the end, the misguided policy of piling on more sanctions stays in place, and Trump’s aborted attempt to withdraw these sanctions suggests that he sometimes doesn’t know what his officials are doing until after they have done it. If the president disagreed with imposing the latest sanctions, they should never have been planned or announced. The president’s subsequent willingness to give up on his earlier impetuous decision shows how flighty and inconstant he is, and that is hardly reassuring to anyone on the North Korean side that thinks they can make a lasting agreement with him.

Almost everything wrong with Trump’s foreign policy is on display here. There is the poor or non-existent policy process thanks to Bolton, there are the competing and contradictory messages from different members of the administration, and there are the arbitrary presidential reversals of his own policy before deferring once again to his hard-line advisers and reversing the reversal. On top of all that, there is the absurd and dishonest spin that is supposed to minimize the president’s embarrassment but actually makes him look much worse. The North Korea tweet episode is reminiscent of the confusion surrounding withdrawal from Syria. Each time this happens, it becomes increasingly difficult to know which statements reflect administration policy and which ones can be dismissed as hot air. It isn’t possible to make any progress with North Korea or any other government when everyone here and abroad is forced to guess which way the administration will lurch next and how long it will be before it lurches back in the other direction.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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