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The Tragedy of Trump’s Foreign Policy

The U.S. president had some genuine insights about America’s international problems. Where did it all go wrong?

President Donald J. Trump returns to the White House on Feb. 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Chris Kleponis/Getty Images)
President Donald J. Trump returns to the White House on Feb. 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Chris Kleponis/Getty Images)

In a classic tragedy, the leading figure is usually a person with admirable qualities and even good intentions, drawn inexorably toward disaster by a tragic flaw. Othello is susceptible to jealousy, Macbeth is too ambitious, Hamlet cannot make up his mind, and Faust cannot resist an offer to trade his soul for knowledge and pleasure. In each case, a single flaw overwhelms their positive qualities and places them on the road to destruction.

From that perspective, it’s hard to see Donald Trump as a truly tragic figure. Far from being heroic but flawed, he’s just the spoiled, self-indulgent scion of a wealthy and odious father, with more deficiencies of character than one can count. Apart from a genuine gift for self-promotion, a decent golf game, and a practiced ability to connive on cue, he’s decidedly lacking in other virtues.

Yet there is an undeniably tragic quality to the Trump presidency, even if he manages to avoid impeachment, jail, or permanent disgrace. Why? Because Trump did have some valid and important insights into America’s current problems and he had a chance to do something about them when he got elected. That opportunity has been wasted, however, and Trump’s flaws as a politician, strategist, and human being are the main reason why.

What did Trump get right? In 2016, when he called U.S. foreign policy a “complete and total disaster” and blamed repeated foreign-policy failures on an out-of-touch and unaccountable elite, he was on to something. He was correct to accuse key U.S. allies of spending too little on defense—a complaint many previous presidents had made—and right on the money in denouncing open-ended and costly efforts at nation building in places like Afghanistan. Trump and Bernie Sanders were the only candidates to acknowledge that globalization was not delivering as promised, and his message resonated with lower- and middle-class Americans who were deeply worried about lost jobs, flat income growth, and lax immigration controls. Trump also recognized China as America’s principal long-term competitor and that Beijing would not stop its predatory trade practices if the United States just asked nicely. And Trump was nearly alone in recognizing that demonizing Russia was counterproductive and served only to drive Moscow closer to Beijing.

Moreover, Trump’s expressed views on international affairs suggested he had a more or less realist perspective on foreign policy that might have served him well—if he had really meant it and grasped its implications. Although he was hardly a sophisticated or knowledgeable thinker on such matters, he seemed to understand that 1) international politics were inherently competitive; 2) foreign policy was not about philanthropy; 3) all nations pursue their selfish interests; and 4) foreign adventures whose costs exceed the benefits are dumb.

After his surprising electoral victory, therefore, Trump was in a position to chart a more realistic course for the country, based on some—but not all—of the positions he had taken during the campaign. Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, and much of the public would have been receptive to a foreign policy that corrected the excesses and mistakes of the past quarter-century. Had he assembled an experienced team and insisted that it follow his vision, he might have improved America’s global position and won over many of his early critics. But as in a classic tragedy, Trump’s vanity, stubbornness, poor taste in advisors, and other deficiencies of character have led to repeated disappointments at home and abroad.

Let me count the ways.

With regard to Europe, Trump was correct in saying that Europe should get serious about its own defense and to stop relying on U.S. protection. Europe is wealthier, more populous, and spends a lot more on defense than Russia does, and there is no compelling reason for the United States to commit its own people to its defense. Accordingly, Trump could have proposed a gradual reduction in the U.S. commitment—say, over a period of 5-10 years—while making it clear that the United States wanted friendly relations with Europe and would continue to cooperate on areas of mutual interest. Indeed, Trump might even have tried to recruit Europe into a broader effort to check a rising China.

But that’s not what he has done. Instead, Trump has repeatedly insulted European leaders and embraced some of Europe’s most destructive political forces. He also increased the U.S. defense budget and the U.S. contribution to reassurance efforts in Eastern Europe, thereby giving NATO’s European members additional reason to free-ride some more. To be sure, some NATO members have maintained their Barack Obama-era commitments to increase defense spending but not by enough to lessen their dependence on Washington. With respect to NATO, in short, Trump has managed to weaken ties with key allies without reducing U.S. burdens.

In Asia, Trump understood that China was America’s primary long-term rival and it was time to get tough with Beijing about its economic practices. Unfortunately, he’s pursued that goal in a singularly inept way. He started off by unilaterally abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal that would benefited the U.S. economy in several ways and strengthened its strategic position in Asia. Instead of lining up other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in a united front over China’s trade and investment policy, Trump threatened to launch trade wars with several of them simultaneously. And in recent weeks, Trump’s all-too-public eagerness for a deal with Beijing has undercut his own negotiating team, making meaningful progress on these issues less likely.

Trump is also singlehandedly responsible for the bungled U.S. approach to North Korea. To be sure, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is a problem that would challenge the shrewdest strategist, but Trump’s handling of it has been a textbook case of wishful thinking and the antithesis of hardheaded realism. Experts inside and outside the U.S. government insisted that Pyongyang was not going to give up its hard-won nuclear weapons capability, which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the regime see as the ultimate guarantee of their own survival. Yet Trump deluded himself into thinking that his personal charm and self-proclaimed skills as a “master dealmaker” would somehow persuade Kim to do something that was obviously not in his own interest. Not only did Trump miss an opportunity to make tangible if limited progress on this vexing issue, but his bumbling gave America’s Asian partners yet another reason to question his judgment and competence.

In the Middle East, Trump’s policies have been a far cry from what realism would recommend. Instead of maximizing U.S. influence and leverage by establishing pragmatic working relationships with as many states as possible (as China and Russia do), Trump let himself get bamboozled by local potentates and repeated the same mistakes that have crippled U.S. Middle East policy for a long time. Instead of sticking to the nuclear deal with Iran and working with the P5+1 and other states to curtail Iran’s regional activities, he walked away from the deal and got nothing in return. He handed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process over to his unqualified son-in-law and turned a blind eye to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s increasingly erratic behavior.

Even when his instincts are correct—as when he announced he was going to pull U.S. troops out of Syria—he’s been a Hamlet-like portrait of indecision, and his off-the-cuff remarks about using bases in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran roiled U.S. relations with Baghdad to no good purpose. And having promised to get out of the nation-building business, he sent more troops to Afghanistan (like Obama did), where they are likely to still be fighting when he leaves office.

Then there’s Russia. Back in 2016, Trump recognized that ironing out America’s current differences with Russia would be good for Europe, good for Russia, and good for the United States, too. But instead of confronting Russia over its misdeeds—including its possible interference in U.S. elections—and beginning a serious dialogue to resolve issues like Ukraine, cyberattacks, and arms control, Trump’s conduct as president has reinforced doubts about his own relations with Moscow (and Russian President Vladimir Putin). Ironically, he is just about the last person who could even try to work things out with Russia because any serious effort to do so would lead critics to accuse him of being under Putin’s sway.

Finally, if the essence of realism is to deal with the world “as it really is” (rather than how we would like it to be), then Trump is more of a fabulist. A true realist would acknowledge the scientific reality of climate change and try to develop an effective policy response to it. Indeed, given his own background and prior statements, and the growing deference of the Republican Party itself, Trump was well-positioned to realign the party with the scientific consensus. Instead of continuing to deny the reality of climate change, he could have reversed course, said he now understood it was a serious problem, and called for something better than the Paris climate accord. If it took a Richard Nixon to go to China, maybe Trump could have restored environmental sanity to the Republicans.

It really is a tragedy. Not unlike Obama (whose popularity and dignity Trump clearly envies), Trump entered the Oval Office hoping to liquidate some of America’s counterproductive overseas commitments, pass the buck to local allies in Europe and the Middle East, focus laserlike on China, and do some much-needed nation building at home. Remember when he used to talk about a big infrastructure program, something that would provide jobs for lots of workers and prepare the United States to compete more effectively in the rest of this century? Sadly, the only building he ever talks about now is a pointless wall that most of the country doesn’t want, isn’t going to make the country safer, and probably won’t get built. More than two years into his first term, Trump most visible foreign-policy “achievement” is a steady and sharp decline in America’s global image.

And that’s the real tragedy. For unless Trump is eventually brought down by his legal troubles, he’ll probably live out the rest of life in comfort, surrounded by a retinue of sycophants, supplicants, and other lowlifes of the sort he cultivated throughout his life. It’s the rest of us who will end up footing the bill for this train wreck of a presidency.

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

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