Assessing Trump's Foreign Policy, Two Years In

U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with China's President Xi Jinping / Getty
February 4, 2019

If nothing else, President Donald Trump's foreign policy has been unconventional, bucking orthodoxies of the Washington establishment. Trump waged a trade war with China, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, promised to destroy North Korea with "fire and fury," and moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Yet at the same time, the president negotiated with the Taliban, allowed Syria's dictator to massacre his own people, gave the North Korean leader a legitimizing photo op, and echoed his predecessor's talking points about the need to nation-build at home. Trump's foreign policy cannot be confined to a single label or ideology. He has done and said things to please and upset Americans of all political persuasions.

Now, halfway through Trump's current term in office, with enough time to digest a most unusual presidency, what are we to make of his foreign policy? It is easy for such a discussion to devolve into partisan bickering. That of course would be counterproductive and boringly predictable. Fortunately, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan think tank based in the nation's capital, has pushed aside the political muck to produce a report titled, "Midterm Assessment: The Trump Administration's Foreign and National Security Policies." Sober and objective, the report is essential for anyone interested in how the Trump administration approaches the world and, more generally, the current state of global affairs.

The assessment—which includes a forward by Trump's former national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster—includes more than 20 penetrating essays by scholars analyzing various aspects of the administration's policy. The breadth of the report is extensive—covering everything from Europe to China, human rights to cyber security. Each author is willing both to praise the administration's policies and to criticize them. Everyone will find parts with which they agree and disagree—as it should be.

"It is clear that Trump deserves more credit than his Democratic and Republican #NeverTrump critics give him, but less than his most fervent fans—and the president himself—like to claim," writes Clifford May, the president of FDD.

That statement effectively sums up a smart, responsible view of the last two years. Trump has made mistakes and emboldened adversaries of the United States. But he has also restored respect for and fear of American power. Both statements can be true, even when narrowed down to specific countries.

Take Iran, whose economy the Trump administration has crippled with sanctions after ripping up the nuclear deal. Identifying the Islamic Republic as an enemy and pressuring it to renegotiate the flawed atomic accord is tough and smart. Simultaneously, however, the administration's efforts to counter Iran's imperialist expansion across the Middle East are "on life support thanks to the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria," as Mark Dubowitz writes. FDD's chief executive goes on to say that, as a result, "U.S. policy [toward Iran] now depends almost entirely on sanctions. However, sanctions alone are not a strategy. In isolation, they serve the same purpose the nuclear deal did for Barack Obama: to cover America's retreat from the region."

Throughout the report, FDD's experts praise the Trump administration for recognizing threats and taking decisive action, while explaining the limits of the president's successes. "The Trump administration has effectively highlighted the seriousness of the challenge from Beijing, which some in the foreign policy community and general public tended to ignore until very recently," write Mathew Ha and Eric Lorber," before adding that Washington needs to create a more "cohesive" strategy.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross acknowledges Trump's success in destroying the Islamic State's so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but notes there is "no basis for [Trump's] claim that 'we have won against ISIS'" as the group shifts to an insurgency.

Boris Zilberman writes that Trump's "resistance to exerting personal pressure" on Vladimir Putin undermines the firm actions that he has taken against Russian belligerence.

And while the administration "should not reverse its position on critical issues simply because Europe disagrees, the president should articulate criticism with greater nuance and appreciation for the overall importance of the transatlantic alliance to U.S. security, prosperity, and values," explain Benjamin Weinthal and David Adesnik.

The report rebukes Trump for what its authors describe as his unpredictable and transactional approach to foreign policy. "Nothing ever seems settled—even when it seems settled," John Hannah writes in the introduction. "The half-life of any particular Trump policy could be decidedly short." May adds that Trump has been "mercurial, impulsive, and too quick to cast instances of modest progress as significant victories."

But, in his conclusion, May also writes: "[Trump] has seemed not just willing, but eager, to confront America's many enemies, adversaries, and competitors, and to prevent them from making further advances."

Here we get to the most important change that Trump brought to American foreign policy: re-establishing the notion that the United States needs to confront adversaries and support friends. This idea may sound simple and obvious, but to a large segment of the foreign policy establishment, it is risky, brutish, and leads to unwanted escalation. The Obama administration, for example, adopted an approach, especially in the Middle East, that prioritized engaging enemies at the expense of allies. Obama extended an open hand to those who chant "death to America," and held a dismissive palm in the face of allies who support the United States.

Trump should continue casting aside the tenets of Obama's foreign policy that so emboldened America's enemies. That needs to include his predecessor's inclination toward retrenchment, which the 44th and 45th presidents seem to share. Like it or not, the United States must be engaged—and yes, at times intervene—around the world to keep the world from descending into the abyss, and to keep the country rich and powerful. The next two years of Trump's foreign policy will help determine how he is remembered in history textbooks.