What Trump Got Right About Foreign Policy

(And screwed up anyway.)

PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 22:  U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center during a rally on August 22, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona. An earlier statement by the president that he was considering a pardon for Joe Arpaio,, the former sheriff of Maricopa County who was convicted of criminal contempt of court for defying a court order in a case involving racial profiling, has angered Latinos and immigrant rights advocates.  (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 22: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center during a rally on August 22, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona. An earlier statement by the president that he was considering a pardon for Joe Arpaio,, the former sheriff of Maricopa County who was convicted of criminal contempt of court for defying a court order in a case involving racial profiling, has angered Latinos and immigrant rights advocates. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

You gotta give the man credit. Like a viral video you just can’t stop watching, President Donald Trump knows how to hold on to our attention. His administration may be losing appointees faster than a sheepdog sheds in the summer and his approval ratings may be tanking, but his train wreck of a presidency has still got us riveted to our TV screens and Twitter accounts. If only this were just a summer stand-in series and we could look forward to returning to the regular lineup in the fall.

One overlooked feature in this ongoing tragedy is that Trump isn’t wrong about everything. Some of his critics won’t admit it, but several of the themes he sounded during the 2016 campaign — such as the need to rebuild America’s deteriorating infrastructure — were correct (if far from original), and some of his foreign-policy instincts were sound even if his command of details was not. A minimally competent president could have made substantial progress on most if not all of these fronts, thereby leaving the country better off and enhancing his prospects for a second term. Sadly, “minimally competent” are not words that apply to the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Still, it is worth remembering what Trump got right and exploring how he has managed to miss so many 2-foot putts.

Relations with Russia

Trump believes a better relationship with Russia is in the U.S. interest, and he has resisted the foreign-policy establishment’s reflexive tendency to demonize Vladimir Putin. He’s not wrong here: Russia is not solely responsible for the deterioration of relations (see: NATO expansion), and Russian help would be valuable in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and, over the longer term, with China. Whatever his tangled personal connections with Moscow might be, Trump’s desire for a more constructive relationship with Russia is correct.

Unfortunately, he has handled this issue in the worst possible way. His stubborn refusal to release his tax records inevitably led to questions about whether there are in fact skeletons lurking there. His reluctance to denounce Russian interference in elections here and in Europe reinforces those same suspicions. Even worse, it is now clear that some of his close associates (including his son Donald Jr.; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and his first national security advisor, Michael Flynn) met with some suspicious Russian characters, yet they have been unable to tell a straight and consistent story about these dealings. Then Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for doing his job and refusing to halt the FBI investigation into these matters. Whatever the truth may be, Trump & Co. have consistently acted like people who really do have something to hide.

The upshot is that Trump can’t mend fences with Moscow now, even if he really wanted to and even if it were the right thing to do. Instead, Congress has imposed new sanctions on Russia over Trump’s opposition, plunging relations with Moscow even further into the deep freeze. Trump’s instincts on Russia were sensible, but his blunders helped betray them.

The need to reform the world trade order

One of the central themes of Trump’s campaign was his claim that bad trade deals had allowed countries like China to “steal American jobs.” Trump also railed against other states that run persistent trade surpluses with the United States (such as Germany and South Korea) and seems to think these imbalances are due to clever skullduggery on their part rather than to broader macroeconomic behavior (such as America’s chronically low savings rate).

Details aside, Trump’s core belief that existing trade arrangements need work is correct. China isn’t manipulating its currency anymore, but it does engage in widespread industrial espionage, and its aggressive efforts to obtain advanced technology from U.S. companies have led the Trump administration to launch a Section 301 investigation of these practices. Similarly, while Trump is wrong to see the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, as a net loss for the United States, it is nearly 25 years old and badly needs updating.

In short, Trump was not wrong in saying some aspects of U.S. trade policy and some features of the international trade regime needed to be improved. The problem is that he had no good ideas for fixing what was broken, and he has repeatedly acted in ways that undercut U.S. leverage and complicated efforts at reform. He withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his third day in office, even though it would have helped American businesses by creating a more level playing field in Asia. Instead of playing hardball with the Chinese on trade issues during his first six months in office, he held off in the naive hope that he could sweet-talk them into cracking down on North Korea. So much for the “art of the deal.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s bizarre fixation on “building a wall” and his positively delusional idea that Mexico will eventually pay for something it doesn’t even want have poisoned relations with America’s southern neighbor and needlessly complicated what was already bound to be a difficult effort to reform NAFTA.

The bottom line: Trump was correct to favor a systematic effort to improve U.S. foreign economic policy. Unfortunately, his diagnosis of its problems was mostly faulty, and his proposed remedies won’t help.

Alliance burden-sharing

 For as long as I can remember, U.S. leaders have complained about free-riding by U.S. allies in Europe and Asia. The tendency of smaller allies to free-ride (or “cheap-ride”) isn’t surprising, however; it is precisely what the theory of collective goods leads us to expect. If security is a (partial) public good that all members of an alliance can consume, and if it is in the interest of the largest member to provide enough to defend its interests (including its allies), then other members will get some protection without doing a proportionate share themselves. U.S. ambivalence about Europe’s defense capabilities makes this problem worse: Washington wants its allies to spend (a bit) more but doesn’t want them to be so powerful or united that they start thinking and acting for themselves.

So Trump was not wrong when he said the United States was spending too much money defending its wealthy partners, even if he incorrectly thought of NATO as a fancy resort like Mar-a-Lago where members have to pay dues to belong. His problem was the ham-fisted way he has gone about trying to get Europe to do more.

In particular, if he wanted NATO’s European members to contribute more to the collective defense effort, it might not have been wise to announce a big increase in the U.S. defense budget. Second, if he wanted Europe to be more capable militarily and remain politically stable, he wouldn’t have endorsed the Brexit decision or expressed support for divisive politicians like Marine Le Pen in France. Third, Trump’s initial reluctance to openly endorse Article 5 of the NATO treaty (the mutual defense provision) could be viewed as a clever bargaining tactic designed to show the Europeans he was serious, but the treaty was signed and ratified decades ago, and the U.S. commitment doesn’t depend on what any particular president says (or doesn’t say) in a speech. Trump has now endorsed Article 5 on several subsequent occasions, so any leverage he might have gained from that little tactic is gone. Instead of looking like a tough and clever bargainer, in short, Trump mostly sounded confused and erratic.

Finally, if he wanted the United States to spend fewer defense dollars protecting Europe, he would try to get the Europeans to spend their euros more efficiently, which in turn means fostering European security cooperation instead of impeding it. But sensible steps such as these would require a more sophisticated understanding of European security issues and alliance dynamics than Trump possesses.

“The two-state solution is dead” 

The past three U.S. presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — were all publicly committed to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and both Clinton and Obama worked hard to bring it about. To their credit, so did a few officials in the Bush administration, such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

There’s just one problem: That ship has now sailed, but without anyone on board. While publicly committed to a two-state outcome, none of three previous presidents did anything meaningful to halt the steady growth of Israeli settlements or slow the rightward drift in Israeli domestic politics. (To be fair, they would have faced potent opposition from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and others had they tried.) Nor did they do much to bolster the status and legitimacy of moderate Palestinians. The end result is that a two-state solution is probably impossible at this point.

To Trump’s credit, he seems to have realized that the clock has run out on this idea. As he said while visiting Israel in February, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.” This remark was hardly a bold statement of principle, but it was a refreshing acknowledgement of the emerging reality on the ground. And it probably has the merit of being true: I doubt Trump cares a fig about either alternative or even understands their respective pros and cons. Indeed, giving his unqualified son-in-law, Jared Kushner, responsibility for the problem may even be a subtle signal that Trump sees the whole issue as a distraction that isn’t worth his own time or attention.

Unfortunately, recognizing that a two-state solution isn’t in the cards doesn’t take us very far, as it leaves the question of what outcome the United States will now support unanswered and fails to address what the implications for the country might be. Will Washington continue to give Israel unconditional diplomatic and military backing even as it becomes an apartheid state? If it does, jihadis of all stripes will use that support as a potent recruiting tool and as another reason to target the United States on occasion. Trump may not be very interested in the long and tragic conflict between the Palestinians and their Israeli occupiers, but the conflict may still be interested in us.

The futility of nation-building 

Finally, Trump’s long-standing criticisms of America’s futile efforts at “nation-building” in places like Iraq, Libya, Yemen, South Sudan, and especially Afghanistan were right on the money. There is little reason to believe these efforts will ever succeed and certainly not at an acceptable cost in lives and dollars. And don’t leave out the opportunity costs and sheer distraction: Every dollar spent on these crusades is a dollar that cannot be used at home or left in taxpayers’ pockets, and every minute the president and his advisors spend trying to roll this stone uphill is time they cannot spend addressing other challenges.

Which is why Trump’s speech on Afghanistan last week was so disappointing. Though he insisted that U.S. forces would focus on killing terrorists rather than on nation-building, his bobbing and weaving could not disguise his 180-degree shift. He even invoked the same rationale that Obama used back in 2009, saying the United States had to keep Afghanistan from becoming a “safe haven” for terrorists. The problem: That rationale made no sense in 2009, and it makes no sense now, because al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other anti-American extremists have plenty of better safe havens from which to operate today.

More importantly, the only way to keep Afghanistan from being a safe haven is to create an effective Afghan state that can keep order after the United States leaves, and that means — yep, you guessed it — nation-building! If we take Trump seriously (and, in this case, literally), he was in effect saying the United States must stay there forever. I’ll bet people all over Beijing were high-fiving while watching Trump give that speech last Monday.

Taken together, these (and other) missteps add up to a tragic missed opportunity. Trump ran by criticizing the Beltway view of the United States as the “indispensable power”: a benevolent hegemon with the right, responsibility, wisdom, and know-how to spread liberal values just about anywhere it chose. That experiment was in tatters by the time Trump took office, and his criticisms of that approach and his disdain for the foreign-policy establishment that clung to it helped propel him to the Oval Office. And, as noted, some of his instincts were on the money, at least in general terms. But instead of moving U.S. foreign policy onto a sounder footing in a calm, systematic, and sensible way, Trump has handled even his signature issues in the least effective way possible. Even when he’s right, alas, he has found a way to get it wrong.

If only someone had warned us.

Photo credit: RALPH FRESO/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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