Trump and the Rise of Sadistic Diplomacy
His administration spent four years mostly failing to reach diplomatic agreements. What it did instead was far more disturbing.
If there was one skill Donald Trump touted when he ran for president in 2016, it was his alleged ability to make good deals. The United States, Trump argued, had for decades gotten “ripped off” by allies and adversaries alike, who consistently got the best of the United States in negotiation after negotiation. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was the “worst trade deal ever,” the nuclear deal with Iran was “disastrous,” and treaty allies in Europe and Asia were trying to “steal the wealth” of the United States by running trade surpluses and failing to pay enough for the U.S. troops on their soil. As the author of The Art of the Deal, Trump claimed he would put an end to free-riding, renegotiate bad deals, and strike new diplomatic agreements in areas where all his predecessors had failed.
After nearly four years in office, Trump has strikingly little to show for his efforts. For the past week, the administration has been making much of an agreement by the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize relations, a largely positive step but far more of an exception than a rule. In many more cases—such as the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Open Skies Treaty—Trump has torn up or abandoned existing agreements but not managed to put anything in their place. In other cases—including Israeli-Palestinian peace, North Korea, and Afghanistan—he has launched negotiations with great fanfare but failed to conclude any new deals. And in other cases—such as Libya, Ukraine, and Syria—the Trump administration has not really tried at all, often leaving the diplomacy to competing diplomatic powers such as Russia or Turkey.
On trade, Trump did manage to make marginal adjustments to NAFTA and struck a “phase one” deal with China that lowered U.S. tariffs in exchange for (unfulfilled) Chinese promises to purchase more American goods. But those deals hardly amounted to examples of the masterful deal-making on which Trump had campaigned. Only in the sycophantic atmosphere of the current White House would it be possible to look back at this overall diplomatic track record and conclude, as National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien put it, that Trump should be considered “a front-runner for the Nobel Prize.”
Despite these failures, Trump has modified neither his negotiating tactics nor his objectives. Instead, the administration has simply resorted to a scorched-earth policy apparently designed to destroy what it cannot save. Punishment of adversaries—and sometimes even allies—is no longer part of a diplomatic strategy to achieve specific policy goals; it has become the objective itself. In many cases, the administration appears to be no longer even trying to produce new deals but simply declaring the pain inflicted the measure of success. The means to an end—economic damage and instability in a target country to build diplomatic leverage for a deal—has apparently become the end itself.
The most obvious example of scorched-earth tactics replacing strategy is the “maximum pressure” policy on Iran. When Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, he claimed the purpose of doing so was to negotiate a better one. Predictably, however, Iran didn’t play along and instead restarted its frozen nuclear program and escalated its provocative actions in the Persian Gulf. Of the 12 demands that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made of Iran at the time, zero have been met, and Tehran has ruled out new negotiations with Trump. On Aug. 14 at the UN Security Council, the administration suffered a humiliating defeat when a U.S.-sponsored resolution imposing an arms embargo on Iran only attracted the support of the Dominican Republic on the 15-member council. America’s historic allies including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany all abstained, while Russia and China voted against it. Similar isolation is likely if and when the administration tries to invoke the “snap-back” of UN sanctions, since Washington abandoned the tools available to do so when it left the Iran deal in 2018.
Yet administration officials and their supporters somehow continue to tout the “astonishing” effectiveness of sanctions, even while calling for more pressure because Iran, they admit, is still “violating its nuclear commitments and attacking its neighbors.” Pompeo regularly asserts that the sanctions are achieving “historic results” while simultaneously claiming that Iran’s behavior is getting worse. Trump himself has boasted that Iran was “having riots every week, in every city—bigger than they’ve ever had before. Their currency is under siege thanks to us. A lot of bad things are happening.” Unable to even get new talks started with Iran, let alone negotiate a new agreement, the departing special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, insisted on Aug. 5 that “deal or no deal, we have been very successful.” It is certainly true that the United States has managed to inflict severe economic pain. But inflicting pain was never going to be the hard part, given the size and power of the U.S. economy. “A lot of bad things happening”—while the nuclear program expands and Iran attacks its neighbors—is not success; it is the definition of failure for a policy whose entire point is to promote stability and prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Trump has embraced a similar approach in Syria. Having essentially abandoned a policy of seeking to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, U.S. policy now seems to consist of “promoting accountability” of the Assad regime in theory while punishing the Syrian people in practice. The main tool of this approach is the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which imposes sanctions on anyone investing in or providing reconstruction assistance to Syria. The act punishes individuals and corporations that deal with the Syrian energy, military, engineering, or construction businesses operating in government-held regions. The aims of the act are admirable, and no one could be more deserving of harsh punishment than Assad and his enablers. The problem, however, is that the most likely result of the policy will be more suffering for the Syrian people, and spillover effects such as the further destruction of Lebanon’s economy, while Assad and his cronies remain in power.
Still, a recent article in Foreign Policy called “Trump’s Syria Policy Is Working” cited as evidence of success a “mini-insurgency” in Daraa, “stormy demonstrations” in Suwayda, and an economy “hurtling toward the abyss.” It was an odd definition of success, particularly in a country that had been facing far worse upheaval for nearly a decade, with results that few would consider successful. In the same vein, in May the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, James Jeffrey, claimed that the maximum pressure policy on Syria was paying dividends and added that his job in Syria was to “make it a quagmire for the Russians.” Jeffrey did not make it clear how a quagmire—fueling further civil war, refugees, extremism, and suffering—would serve the interests of the United States, much less those of the Syrian people. Pompeo says the United States will not reduce the sanctions until Assad agrees to a process for his transition out of power, while Joel Rayburn, another Syria envoy, says sanctions will remain “until the Syrian regime and its allies accede.” If the administration believed such pressure was likely to lead to Assad’s departure and replacement by a more palatable regime, the approach might make sense. But the idea that Assad will give up under economic pressure what he clung to so fiercely through nearly 10 years of brutal civil war defies common sense. So the pain is all that remains.
Trump’s China policy appears headed in a similar direction. As in other cases, Trump initially outlined a long list of policy goals that economic pressure was meant to achieve, including modification of China’s nefarious trade practices. By hitting China increasingly hard with tariffs, Trump claimed, Beijing would finally be forced to reduce its trade deficit with the United States and end illegal dumping, intellectual property theft, and alleged currency manipulation. Two years after those tariffs were imposed, however, the costs to the United States have been extremely high, while the so-called benefits came only in the form of a narrow trade deal that left fundamental problems unresolved. Now Trump seems to have given up on getting a more comprehensive trade deal and admits he no longer thinks about it.
Instead, Trump gloats that “China is doing very poorly” as if that were itself the original goal. In an Axios on HBO interview aired on Aug. 3, Trump claimed enormous “progress” on China because “before the pandemic they had the worst year … that they’ve had in 67 years.” It was a puzzling claim about a country that lost tens of millions of people to economic collapse and famine from 1958 to 1962, but it was also an odd definition of success. The goal of a trade war that had cost the American economy some 300,000 jobs and over $40 billion in tariffs was supposed to be the modification of China’s trade practices, not the suffering of the Chinese people. And with a trade deal out of reach, the administration seems to have pivoted to blaming China for the coronavirus, demonizing the Chinese leadership and hoping for regime change, as Pompeo articulated it in a July 23 speech at the Nixon Library. Pompeo did not spell out a realistic plan to change China’s regime but suggested that was now the only way U.S. objectives could be achieved. Trump supporter Hugh Hewitt, who accompanied Pompeo to the speech, immediately followed up with a column pronouncing the new approach on China as an “accomplishment” for Trump, as if harsh rhetoric, as opposed to a deal, had become the goal.
These are not isolated cases. Scorched-earth tactics have substituted for failed negotiations across a broad swath of U.S. foreign policy. When Palestinians refused to buy in to Trump’s proposed “deal of the century,” he retaliated by ending all financial assistance to the West Bank, Gaza, and Palestinian refugees and cutting off diplomatic channels; with prospects for negotiations now almost nonexistent, Trump is simply backing Israeli policies while leaving Palestinians to their fate. In Venezuela, Trump imposed heavy sanctions in early 2019 as part of a plan to dislodge Nicolás Maduro but over time seemed to lose patience and interest, settling for a policy of punishing the Venezuelan people with no real prospects for change. That would at least bring it in line with U.S. policy on Cuba, where Trump reversed former President Barack Obama’s modest economic opening to double down on a policy of sanctions and punishment that has failed for 60 years. Even close allies such as Germany have not been spared. On July 29, Trump announced that he was unilaterally withdrawing nearly 12,000 troops from Germany, not in pursuit of U.S. strategic objectives in Europe but to punish a partner that he believed had defied him.
Imposing pain through sanctions and other measures obviously has an important role to play in foreign policy, and there are many examples where U.S. administrations have translated pressure into diplomatic gains. Ronald Reagan would never have achieved the INF Treaty had he not been willing to deploy U.S. missiles in Europe. Bill Clinton would not have achieved peace agreements in the Balkans had he not been willing to threaten and even use military force. Obama could not have coerced Iran to accept verifiable restrictions on its nuclear program had he not been willing to rally the world behind painful international sanctions.
But the point of punishment is to create the conditions for successful diplomacy. Leaders need to show strength and resolve, but they also need to show a willingness to compromise. Wars rarely end in unconditional surrender, and diplomacy never does. Successful diplomacy requires picking battles carefully, understanding adversaries’ politics, and putting together coalitions to achieve carefully determined priorities. Simply punishing international adversaries might make Trump or his supporters feel good in the same way cruelty toward his domestic adversaries does, but that approach does little to advance U.S. interests or well-being.
A long-term strategy for better outcomes can inspire Americans to sacrifice and American allies to lend their support to punishment. By failing to define strategies for how such punishment might support U.S. interests rather than his own fragile ego, Trump has condemned U.S. foreign policy to an unending cycle of scorched-earth tactics and sentenced populations in a growing number of countries to a permanent condition of war, instability, or poverty. The Trump administration may consider that a success, but the American people should not.
Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and the author of Losing the Long Game: the False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.