Elephants in the Room
Trump Deserves More Credit for His Foreign Policies
Obscured by chaos and dysfunction, the White House is pursuing approaches that are better than they seem.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s actions over the course of his first two years in office have often been rash, ignorant, and chaotic. But pundits too often concentrate on his deeply flawed personality and his proclivity to announce policies on Twitter, at the expense of examining analytically the substance of his foreign policy. In fact, as I argue in a new Council on Foreign Relations report, some of his individual foreign policies are substantially better than many of his opponents assert.
Critics typically show no sympathy for the challenges the president faces in trying to deal with the deteriorating world order that he inherited. China rises in disagreeable ways. Europe withdraws, for the first time in five centuries, from a leadership role in global affairs. Russia revives, which has destabilized its neighbors. NATO debates its role. The Middle East revisits ancient enmities—and witnesses newer ones. India equivocates over its international responsibilities. Global governance falls short. Autocrats on several continents successfully disparage democratic values. Technology outstrips our ability to manage it. The United States moves in perceived retreat. Not a single U.S. politician has a coherent and convincing set of policies to cope with this eroding world order, but Trump receives nearly all the blame and virtually no credit for his policies, except from his most ardent political admirers.
For example, long before Trump took office, successive U.S. administrations pursued approaches to China that misread Beijing’s strategic intentions. While U.S. presidents crafted optimistic statements about the relationship over a nearly 20-year period, Beijing implemented a grand strategy designed to undermine U.S.-Asian alliances. China used geoeconomic tools to coerce its neighbors and others into its sway, most recently through the Belt and Road Initiative. It violated international commercial practices, including by committing massive theft of U.S. intellectual property. It manipulated its currency for trade benefits, threatened Taiwan, built up its military forces to push the United States beyond Japan and the Philippines, constructed and militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea in violation of international law, systemically and brutally violated the human rights of its own people, and patiently and incrementally built its power and influence with the strategic goal of replacing the United States as the primary power in Asia.
This U.S. misunderstanding of China’s objectives over nearly two decades ranks as one of the three most damaging U.S. foreign-policy errors since the end of World War II, along with the 1965 military escalation in Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Indeed, this prolonged failure in China policy could turn out to be the biggest U.S. policy deficiency in the past seven decades, given the accumulating dangerous strategic consequences of the rise of Chinese power for world order as well as for the United States and its allies and friends.
To its credit, the Trump administration has adopted a much more clear-eyed approach to China that breaks with many of the errors of the past. The president’s confrontational trade policy could lead to concessions from the Chinese government that his immediate predecessors sought but could not get through traditional diplomatic means. And on Oct. 4, 2018, Vice President Mike Pence delivered the toughest speech on U.S.-China relations by a U.S. administration since former U.S. President Richard Nixon opened up the relationship. “China now spends as much on its military as the rest of Asia combined, and Beijing has prioritized capabilities to erode America’s military advantages on land, at sea, in the air, and in space,” Pence said. “China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies.” Although his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and constant confrontations with U.S. allies have weakened his administration’s China policy, Trump’s political push to address the increasing dangers of Chinese power is more important—because his successor can remedy these mistakes. Without the president’s initiative, Washington might well have continued sleepwalking as Beijing drew large parts of Asia into its orbit and away from the United States
Trump should also be given credit for his policies toward North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, India, and Venezuela, among others.
Regarding North Korea, Trump’s strategy to this point has calmed the situation and reinvigorated the negotiating track through the first meetings at the highest level in the history of the relationship. He has addressed, at least temporarily, what matters most to vital U.S. national interests: the suspension of North Korea’s nuclear and intercontinental missile tests, which represent direct threats to the U.S. mainland. At a minimum, he has delayed the moment when a U.S. president would have to either stand by while North Korea progressively expanded its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capabilities or attack its nuclear and missile sites, which could lead to a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.
Moreover, after the killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a flood of U.S. criticism called for sanctions against Riyadh, an end to U.S.-Saudi military cooperation with the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, an end to arms sales, and an overall rupture of the intensity and substance of the bilateral relationship. As the Washington Post editorial page put it, “Who needs Saudi Arabia?” Trump’s answer is that the United States does, and he is right.
The murder of Khashoggi was as abhorrent as it was stupid. But Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is accused of ordering the murder, is the most powerful man in Saudi Arabia and its likely future king. He is 33 years old and could easily rule the kingdom for the next four decades and beyond. Making an enemy of him now is not a good idea, especially given the many other challenges the United States faces in the region.
In addition, Mohammed bin Salman, though authoritarian, espouses a moderate and modern message (in Saudi terms) and is the leader most likely to keep extremist forces from gaining power and influence in the kingdom. An unstable Saudi Arabia would be a preeminent source of potential terrorists and radical ideology. Further, without Saudi Arabia, the United States cannot have a coherent and effective policy to counter Iran’s hegemonic activities in the Middle East. And although the United States has dramatically reduced its dependence on Saudi oil, the global economy and the economies of U.S. treaty allies depend on energy from the kingdom.
At the same time, some of the president’s foreign policies—including those on Russia, European security, U.S. alliances, climate change, and the expression of American values—have been seriously destructive to U.S. national interests. That said, in order to assess his performance, it is necessary to separate his chaotic policy processes and his loathsome character from the policies themselves. Such an approach is far from easy in the political cauldron of today’s Washington.
This article is adapted from Robert D. Blackwill’s report for the Council on Foreign Relations, “Trump’s Foreign Policies Are Better Than They Seem.”