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Elephants in the Room

Trump’s Foreign Policy Is a Work in Progress

His successes and failures defy simplistic, partisan assessment.

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping leave an event in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping leave an event in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

After two years in office, the story of U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is not a straightforward one.

Last month, my home base, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, released a midterm assessment of Trump’s foreign policy. I was one of the volume’s co-editors. It’s a collection of 21 essays, written by 27 authors and co-authors, evaluating the administration’s performance. No doubt to the consternation of Trump haters and lovers alike, the project steers away from efforts to make sweeping generalizations about the totality of the president’s national security policy. Instead, it sticks to a more focused and empirical approach, looking issue by issue at what the administration has done, what’s worked and what hasn’t, and what adjustments might be made.

Perhaps inevitably, that kind of effort tends to produce a complicated picture of reality that may not satisfy political partisans on either side. But it’s probably a more accurate reflection of the actual state of affairs. One, for example, that can account for President Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, acknowledging in an interview that while he loathes Trump’s fawning posture toward Vladimir Putin, he also thinks that apart from the president, “the Trump administration’s policy toward Russia is pretty good, and in many ways better than the Obama administration.” Or that finds Obama’s right-hand man, Ben Rhodes, co-authoring an op-ed warning Democrats not to let their anger at Trump blind them to the significant merits of a tough approach toward Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro

In his conclusion to the midterm project, my colleague Clifford May sums up the mixed picture that characterizes the administration’s foreign policy at the two-year mark: “I think it is clear,” he writes, “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.” That strikes me as fair—recognizing, of course, that depending on worldview and political outlook, different people will legitimately reach different conclusions about Trump’s overall balance sheet and the extent to which the good outweighs the bad, or vice versa.

Several reporters have asked me what I thought were the best and worst elements of Trump’s foreign policy so far. While there are no doubt several possible candidates on both sides of the ledger, I’ve settled on two that I think could end up being particularly consequential, with lasting effects on U.S. policy that will likely extend beyond Trump’s presidency.

Perhaps the administration’s most important national security contribution to date has been its unabashed willingness to identify China as the central threat to long-term U.S. interests. The decision to elevate great-power competition, especially with Beijing, to the top of the U.S. national security agenda is a very significant development, and long overdue. For nearly two decades, vast amounts of U.S. resources have been devoted to fighting terrorism, largely against sub-state actors, in an increasingly dysfunctional Middle East—at the cost of paying insufficient attention to the gathering danger posed by a rapidly strengthening, nuclear-armed, geostrategic rival determined to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. The administration’s success in smashing the “responsible stakeholder” consensus that has dominated America’s China policy for decades and replacing it with a new paradigm of “strategic competition” is an extraordinarily important conceptual shift in U.S. strategic thought that will almost certainly have profound political, economic, and security ramifications for both the United States and the world. And in contrast to so much of the rest of Trump’s agenda, the imperative to adopt a more confrontational strategy toward China has very quickly won broad bipartisan support—increasing the odds that history will see it as an important moment of change that will shape U.S. foreign policy long after Trump departs the White House.

Of course, skepticism abounds as to the president’s ability to sustain and manage such a comprehensive reorientation in U.S. strategy. Conceiving policy is one thing. Executing it another. In the first instance, there’s a concern that the notoriously impulsive Trump might preemptively abandon a get-tough approach that seeks systemic changes in Beijing’s bad behaviors in exchange for little more than narrow progress on the trade deficit, allowing him to claim a short-term political victory. Even more worrisome, however, is the question of whether Trump has the strategic competence to navigate what amounts to a new cold war with China—to keep it from turning hot while securing vital U.S. interests. History suggests that periods of power transition in international politics are notoriously risky under the best of circumstances. Adding an erratic and inexperienced president to the mix could well make it even more so. Nevertheless, valid as these concerns may be, they don’t negate the overriding importance of the administration’s clear-eyed prioritization of the China threat as the foremost challenge to U.S. national security in the 21st century.

I’m less confident of my choice for the worst aspect of Trumpism abroad, but I’m going with Trump’s systematic denigration of the United States’ most important alliances. This unique network of close partnerships in both Europe and Asia with the world’s richest, most powerful liberal democracies has been an absolutely essential pillar of U.S. foreign-policy success for nearly eight decades—and the country’s most dangerous adversaries, particularly China and Russia, are not remotely capable of matching it.

It’s not at all clear that Trump appreciates any of this. He instinctually sees traditional allies as competitors, rivals, and moochers, which blurs the distinction between friends and adversaries. One gets the sense that, for Trump, the post-World War II liberal international order has been one big con job—an epic swindle of U.S. wealth and power. He’s identified the European Union as one of his country’s greatest foes, a dangerous multilateral collective that’s taking advantage of the United States on trade and undermining the principle of national sovereignty—rather than one of the foundational building blocks of a democratic, capitalist West. For Trump, European unity is more a threat to be opposed than a strategic asset to be nurtured. When it comes to Europe, Trump’s goal seems to be divide and rule, fracturing the continent into competing states with which the United can negotiate one by one to get better trade deals—thus his enthusiasm for the populist wave now roiling many EU countries. The problem, of course, is that fatally weakening Europe’s most important institutions of collective action also happens to be among Russian President Vladimir Putin’s highest aspirations.

Ditto the situation with NATO. Trump’s underlying antipathy toward the alliance has been fairly relentless. On more than one occasion, he’s raised doubts about his commitment to Article 5, NATO’s core obligation of collective defense. At several points in 2018, he reportedly expressed his desire to withdraw from the alliance altogether, telling top national security aides that he did not see NATO’s purpose while complaining that it was a drain on U.S. resources. Only slightly less barbed criticisms have also regularly been directed at the United States’ most important military alliances in Asia: those with Japan and South Korea.

Trump’s defenders insist that all this hand-wringing over the fate of the U.S. alliance system is much ado about nothing. Trump’s harsh attacks on allies are only a negotiating tactic, they claim—a necessary shock to the system, to compel them to pick up a greater share of the burden. They correctly point out that several of Trump’s predecessors tried using more gentle tactics but largely failed. Trump’s hardball approach, in contrast, has been accompanied by important new increases in allied defense budgets and capabilities. And all the while, despite Trump’s rhetoric, his administration has systematically worked to bolster NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank. From this vantage point, Trump’s supporters argue, rather than dangerously undermining the United States’ system of alliances, Trump’s badgering over burden-sharing is actually an essential part of saving them—a long-overdue effort to ensure their continued viability in a world that is radically different from the one that existed at the time they were forged, when U.S. military and economic primacy went unchallenged and the American public was far more willing to subsidize global security.

I hope that’s right. But I worry (as did Trump’s former defense secretary, James Mattis) that it may not be the case. It’s true U.S. alliances continue to operate without obvious degradation in function. But, like termites slowly but surely eating away at a house’s support structures, I wonder about the unseen, long-term damage that Trump’s hostility may be doing to the institutions that have underpinned U.S. security and prosperity since World War II. I worry about the impact on deterrence and the growing risk that Russia or China will conclude that Trump lacks the will to respond if they threaten U.S. allies. And I’m concerned that intra-alliance tensions over relatively minor issues are distracting the West from mobilizing the full weight of its collective power to counter what Trump has so correctly identified as the overriding strategic challenge of a rising China.

By definition, Trump’s foreign policy at midterm remains a work in progress. As I’ve tried to argue, he’s gotten some very big things right but is running major risks in other areas that could prove extremely detrimental to U.S. interests. The question now is whether he has the competence, maturity, and depth to build on and effectively execute those parts of his agenda that are working, while appropriately modifying those that aren’t. For Trump’s detractors, the question answers itself. Let’s hope that they’re wrong.


John Hannah is a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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