Trump’s Sound and Fury Has Signified Nothing

The president’s style has been unique, but the substance of his foreign policy is surprisingly familiar.

U.S. President Donald Trump in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ve been on hiatus here at Foreign Policy for the past two months, working overtime to finish a book. I’m happy to report that the manuscript is done, and the book — The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy — will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux next fall. Regular readers here will not be surprised to learn that the book is an extended critique of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, focusing primarily on the pathologies of the foreign-policy establishment and its misguided commitment to a failed strategy of liberal hegemony. I’ll have more to say about the subject as the publication date approaches, but start saving your pennies now.

My break coincided with the first anniversary of U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and my return is an opportune moment for a few reflections on his first year in office. It certainly hasn’t been dull. Who could have predicted that a real estate developer and reality show host whose personal life was tabloid fodder and whose business career was filled with bankruptcies, lawsuits, and a parade of unhappy former partners and customers would end up presiding over a White House whose defining feature thus far has been backstabbings, betrayals, and bumbling?

Answer: Just about anybody.

Even so, the most striking thing about Trump’s impact on U.S. foreign policy is how little has actually changed. During the campaign, he described U.S. foreign policy as a “complete and total disaster” and promised to “shake the rust off.” He was going to tear up various “bad trade deals,” get the country out of the “nation-building business,” and get tough with adversaries and free-riding allies alike. Since he took the oath of office, however, it’s been pretty much business as usual when it comes to U.S. policy. Trump’s style is certainly different (and not in a good way), but the substance of U.S. foreign policy is surprisingly familiar.

Having once called NATO “obsolete,” for example, Trump and his top aides have repeatedly reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the alliance and actually increased U.S. funding for improved defenses in Eastern Europe. Moreover, his vocal complaints that NATO’S European members aren’t pulling their weight are nothing new. Disputes about burden-sharing are as old as the alliance itself, and former President Barack Obama, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and plenty of other U.S. officials have minced no words in criticizing America’s European allies for not spending enough.

Similarly, instead of cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the White House continues to see Russia and especially China as major power adversaries, just as it did under Obama and George W. Bush. That is the central takeaway of the White House’s National Security Strategy and the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy, and it is hardly a significant departure from past U.S. policy. I warned a few years ago that “great power politics” is back, and Trump (or more precisely, the broader national security establishment) has figured this out too.

U.S. policy in the Middle East hasn’t changed that much either. The United States is still giving more or less unconditional support to the same local allies — Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia — so there’s not much new there. The war against the Islamic State continued under the battle plan the Obama administration developed, and Trump is now trying to figure out how to handle the complex relations among Kurds, Iraqis, Syrians, Turks, and other local actors. How is this different from Obama’s policy? The answer: It’s not.

Trump has been chipping away at the nuclear deal with Iran — which he has repeatedly called the “worst deal ever” — but he hasn’t torn it up. Why? Because the alternatives are worse, and his advisors know it. In any case, skepticism about the Iran deal is hardly a sea change in U.S. policy. The Obama administration had to work overtime to get Congress to lift sanctions in the first place, and there are plenty of people and organizations in D.C. that are still lobbying to get rid of the agreement. More importantly, Trump’s broader hostility toward Iran is firmly within the Beltway consensus, where demonizing the Islamic Republic is a well-established art. Trump’s approach to Iran may be short-sighted, but it’s certainly not a significant departure from his predecessors’.

Even Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital isn’t as big a shift as critics maintain. As Thomas Friedman noted in the New York Times, this move was a stupid and unnecessary giveaway that brought Washington nothing but criticism, but it is not exactly headline news to discover that the United States is firmly in Israel’s corner when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Critics complain that this move will hurt the so-called peace process, to which one can only reply, “What peace process?” The two-state solution that America supposedly favors is on life support at this point — if not completely dead and buried — and in the unlikely event it ever gets revived, Trump’s decision would not preclude the Palestinians putting their capital in whatever portion of Jerusalem Israel was willing to let them have. All Trump did was strip away the pretense that the United States was even-handed, a sham that no longer fooled anyone, and make it abundantly clear the United States was never going to use its considerable leverage to bring about a just or lasting settlement. If you’ve paid even modest attention to America’s repeated failures to broker a final status agreement, this is not a revelation.

Similarly, Trump ran for office railing against globalization and supposed “bad trade deals,” and he threatened to tear them all up once in office. He did abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his third day in office — a move that still ranks as his single biggest blunder — and he’s approved a few minor protectionist gestures largely for show, but it turns out that breaking up the global trading order is harder (and dumber) than he thought. In the meantime, those “beautiful” trade deals he promised to negotiate have yet to materialize, and by the end of his first year the trade deficit he had vowed to reverse had reached its highest level since 2012. No wonder he made nice when he visited Davos last week. We can’t rule out additional protectionist moves in the future, but thus far he’s proceeded far more cautiously than one might have expected from his campaign rhetoric.

Trump’s handling of North Korea reminds me of Macbeth: It is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury (“fire and fury?”) signifying nothing.” After a lot of irresponsible tweeting and saber-rattling, Trump has ended up in the same places his predecessors did. He naively thought he could persuade China to solve the problem for him, and then he and his advisors starting threatening military action, which just gave Kim Jong Un more reason to keep and strengthen North Korea’s nuclear deterrent. The problem for Trump, as for all of his predecessors, is that there aren’t any attractive military options here. So Trump is relying on the usual combination of sanctions and diplomacy, just as former Presidents Bill Clinton, Bush, and Obama did.

Finally, Trump’s impact on America’s far-flung military commitments has been modest. The United States is still obligated to defend allies and partners all over the world, still has substantial forces deployed in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and is still using drones, airstrikes, and special operations forces to chase terrorists in distant lands. Regarding terrorism, Trump is doing pretty much what Obama and Bush did, albeit at a slightly higher pace of operations. As Bill Roggio, editor of Long War Journal, recently put it, “[Trump] has basically done what President Obama has done, maybe just a little bit more forcefully.” There has also been a modest increase in U.S. defense spending, but Trump’s buildup is smaller than many previous hikes and won’t change the global balance of power to any significant degree.

And despite having promised to “get out of the nation-building business,” Trump caved to military pressure and agreed to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. Even more remarkably, Trump used exactly the same rationale Obama had invoked in 2009, saying we had to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a “safe haven” for terrorists. This rationale didn’t make sense in 2009 and doesn’t make sense now, and Trump’s insistence that the United States wasn’t doing nation-building didn’t add up either. As Shadi Hamid of Brookings noted, “It’s fine to oppose ‘nation-building,’ but you can’t have it both ways: There’s no way to ‘defeat’ Taliban [without] much improved governance.” Like it or not, nation-building is still happening on Trump’s watch.

Even Trump’s apparent lack of interest in human rights and democracy promotion is not as radical a shift as many think. Granted, Trump seems more comfortable with dictators and strongmen than with defenders of liberal values such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and his own attacks on “fake news” and the rule of law have given foreign autocrats new ammunition to use against their domestic opponents. Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have also made it clear that they believe human rights should be handled “selectively,” meaning that the United States will use human rights as an issue with which to bash U.S. rivals, while America’s friends get cut a lot more slack. And that’s exactly what Trump has done: tweeting his support for the recent demonstrators in Iran and deriding the clerical regime for its denials of human rights. Meanwhile, U.S. allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Philippines get a free pass.

But on the other hand, is this really any different from past U.S. practice? Previous presidents have talked more favorably and convincingly about the importance of human rights and democracy than Trump has, but they rarely, if ever, devoted much blood or treasure to advancing these goals, and they routinely looked the other way when strategic interests were involved. Even on this issue, in short, Trump is less radical than his critics suppose.

The bottom line: Trump may have promised to “shake the rust off of U.S. foreign policy,” but he has for the most part stuck with the status quo. So, should everyone heave a sigh of relief and be grateful the foreign-policy “Blob” was there to rein Trump in?

Sadly, no.

Here’s the problem: The United States is still pursuing a remarkably ambitious grand strategy — the same one it has fruitlessly pursued since 1993 — but it is doing so under the leadership of the least competent president in modern memory. His White House is described by senior Republican officials as a “snake pit” and has the highest rate of staff turnover among modern presidents. No wonder his administration has trouble getting the names and titles of foreign leaders right, even in official communiqués, and has made all sorts of other rookie mistakes.

Not surprisingly, this ill-informed, undisciplined, and impulsive president has also made his own share of bigger strategic blunders. If China is a major rival, for example, then abandoning TPP was a huge error that undercut the U.S. position in Asia at a critical historical juncture. Similarly, if Trump really believes Iran is threatening to dominate the Middle East (a mistaken view I dissect here), then jeopardizing the deal that keeps it from getting nuclear weapons makes no sense. Trump’s unqualified embrace of Saudi Arabia’s headstrong but error-prone Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is yet another mistake, because Mohammed bin Salman’s handling of foreign affairs has been one misstep after another. And if North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are as serious a danger as Trump seems to think, why pick fights with South Korea over trade and the cost of the missile defense, and then tweet out a bunch of juvenile gibes at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un? Needless to say, this is not the kind of sober, sensible, and effective statecraft that an ambitious foreign policy requires.

And then there is what might charitably be called Trump’s loose relationship with the truth. Nobody expects politicians to tell the whole truth all the time, but how can other states rely on the word of a president who lies with such frequency and facility? There’s also his penchant for undercutting his own aides with ill-timed tweets (as he did when he said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to conduct diplomacy with North Korea), or insulting foreign leaders such as Theresa May of the United Kingdom, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Trump’s tweets might bolster support with his base back home, but they make it even harder to conduct an effective foreign policy.

To be fair, Trump has yet to make a mistake as big as Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, and one could even argue he hasn’t erred as much as Clinton did when he pushed NATO expansion or as Obama did when he helped topple Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya. What Trump has done, however, is diminish foreign confidence in American competence, judgment, and trustworthiness. If this trend continues, other states will be less and less likely to heed U.S. advice or take U.S. interests into account.

And worrisome signs are already piling up. Near the end of Obama’s second term, a survey of 37 countries found that roughly 64 percent of respondents still had confidence in U.S. leadership. After less than six months under Donald Trump, the percentage with “confidence” had fallen to 22 percent, and countries like Japan and South Korea showed especially sharp declines. Even more remarkably, more people around the world believed Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin were more likely to “do the right thing regarding world affairs” than the current president of the United States. A Gallup poll of 134 countries released in January 2018 showed that global “approval of U.S. leadership” had dropped from an average of 48 percent in 2016 to only 30 percent in 2017 — a historic low — with some of the biggest declines occurring in longtime U.S. allies.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already tired of winning this much. And it has only been a year.



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

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