Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Trump’s Foreign Policy Failings

All of these failings bode very ill for U.S. foreign policy in the coming year.
Donald Trump Saudi

Trump has been in office for close to eleven months, and in that time we have seen some patterns emerge in how he and his administration conduct foreign policy. Most of these patterns haven’t been surprising, but they have been distinctive and harmful. We should expect these destructive patterns to keep cropping up in U.S. foreign policy in the next few years.

One of the running themes in Trump’s foreign policy is his tendency to give client governments blank checks and free gifts. For all of Trump’s constant complaining about how the U.S. has been taken advantage of by other countries, he is remarkably eager to give certain governments whatever they want without condition or reciprocity. Trump’s Riyadh speech gave the Saudis and their allies a green light to act however they pleased. He backed their war on Yemen to the hilt, and started the process of reneging on the nuclear deal that they resent. He has repeatedly endorsed reckless Saudi behavior and encouraged more of it, and in exchange he has obtained precisely nothing for the U.S. By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump gave away something that the U.S. had refused to provide for decades, and in return he got absolutely nothing.

As we have seen from his moves in blowing up the nuclear deal, recognizing Jerusalem and moving the U.S. embassy there, and withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump has consistently put his misguided campaign pledges ahead of existing U.S. commitments. He probably doesn’t understand the implications of what he’s doing, and he doesn’t care about the consequences of following through on these pledges. The fact that he is bucking an overwhelming international consensus in each case doesn’t concern him, and he probably considers that to be a reason to do the things he does. In each case, Trump has abruptly broken with previous U.S. commitments in such a way that the U.S. bears extra costs without getting anything for our trouble.

In the process of blowing off the international consensus on these issues, Trump shows treaty allies as much contempt as he can. When our European allies vociferously object to a proposed course of action, he either ignores them completely or thinks that he can force them into submitting to his preferences by doing the things they specifically warn him against doing. When our East Asian allies express their reservations about his bellicosity and destabilizing behavior over North Korea, he publicly ridicules them and then expects them to fall in line.

Running throughout all of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is the president’s evident disdain for diplomacy. If a successful agreement exists and is functioning as it should, Trump wants to undermine or reject it. If there is a chance at making progress in resolving an ongoing conflict, Trump prefers to escalate U.S. involvement in the war while giving diplomacy short shrift. While he will pay lip service to pursuing “peace” from time to time, he reliably takes actions guaranteed to stir up resentment and hostility. All of these failings bode very ill for U.S. foreign policy in the coming year, and what makes them even more troubling is the knowledge that none of them can be fixed while Trump is president.