Trump’s Foreign-Policy Adventures Haven’t All Flopped
For all the chaos, the Trump administration has notched some notable victories abroad. The question is whether they outweigh everything else Trump brought to Washington—and the world.
President Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House stunned Washington’s national security establishment and unleashed frantic debates over the fate of the liberal international order, U.S. hegemony, and the future of democracy. Nervous allies wondered if Trump would abandon NATO, start a war with North Korea, or demolish the international trading system.
Four years on, how do those early predictions and worries hold up? Alliances are still standing (if frayed), America’s hard power remains unrivaled (for now), and Trump steered well clear of any costly new military blunders like the war in Iraq or the 2011 intervention in Libya. Even some of Trump’s fiercest critics acknowledge that the administration has notched some important foreign-policy successes—most notably on China and in the Middle East.
Interviews with a dozen seasoned foreign-policy experts show that there’s actually no clear verdict on Trump’s foreign policy. To many on the left—and even some conservatives—none of the administration’s victories outweighs the damage that Trump has done to the office of the presidency or his response to the pandemic that has killed over 221,000 Americans so far.
But many Trump supporters and conservative policy experts argue that, setting aside the president’s Twitter feed and a bitter partisan climate in Washington, his administration has done what mattered most: strengthened U.S. hard power and better positioned the country for what lies ahead.
With Trump’s first—and perhaps only—term in office ending soon, his foreign-policy successes can be grouped into three broad categories: big victories, partisan victories, and technocratic victories.
The big victories. For starters, there is China. The Trump administration has systematically turned the U.S. national security apparatus away from decades of focus on the Middle East toward an era of renewed great-power competition, rousing Washington to the view that Beijing represents the greatest existential threat to the United States in coming decades.
The administration has pushed back against Chinese influence operations and raised global awareness of the threat posed by China’s fast-developing technology, especially in next-generation mobile communications. It has taken steps to reduce U.S. reliance on China for critical materials needed for economic and national security. The administration has redoubled support for Taiwan—including several pending arms sales—and taken a harder line on Beijing’s land grab in the South China Sea. And working through the Indo-Pacific “Quad” group, the Trump administration has coordinated regional policy with India, Japan, and Australia. The administration has also laid the groundwork for ambitious plans to dramatically bulk up the U.S. Navy to over 350 ships—or possibly even 500—a long-term plan that some defense hawks have cheered as the military threat from China grows.
“Getting the United States on sounder footing to confront and compete with the [Chinese Communist Party] is the most significant achievement of this administration,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute. “Even if this was their one and only term, they’ve done the country a great service by moving the ball down the field on China.”
Then there’s Israel. Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem drew warnings of uprisings in the region and conflict with Palestinians—but neither came to pass. In the United States, the embassy move has enjoyed broad bipartisan backing and is now largely seen as irreversible; Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden said he would keep the embassy in Jerusalem if elected, even as historic bipartisan support for Israel looks to be eroding in Democratic circles.
The Trump administration also claimed credit for normalizing relations between Israel and two of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The move, which the White House heralded as “the dawn of a new Middle East,” was praised by Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike as a rare spot of good news. Still, some experts questioned whether Trump was claiming credit for diplomatic dealings that were long in the works; the UAE and Israel, for example, had been cooperating on security matters behind the scenes for years.
“You’ve got to give them some credit for the Abraham Accords,” said Emma Ashford, a foreign-policy expert with the Atlantic Council, referring to the deal by its official name. “This isn’t an earth-shattering change in foreign policy, but getting some of the Gulf states to come out and admit they were actually more friendly with Israel, that’s something that’s an achievement.”
And then there’s the Islamic State. Under the Trump administration, the United States rolled back the terrorist group’s physical caliphate and, in October 2019, killed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. At its peak in 2014, the Islamic State controlled over 41,000 square miles of territory between Iraq and Syria—roughly the size of Pennsylvania—and had more than 7 million people under its control. The defeat of the group was a significant military achievement for the Trump administration, even if it was due in part to the military strategy set in motion late in the Obama administration. The one big caveat: The Islamic State’s ideology lives on, and groups operating under its banner continue to stage attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and West Africa.
The partisan victories. Trump fulfilled his campaign promise to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Barack Obama’s hallmark diplomatic achievement. Paired with the so-called “maximum pressure campaign,” perhaps no other Trump foreign-policy priority has drawn higher praise from Republicans—and sharper rebukes from Democrats—than Iran. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal was cheered by conservatives who saw it as a grave foreign-policy misstep that would strengthen the hand of Washington’s archfoe in the region. They also praised the president for ordering the killing of a top Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, seen as an architect of Iran’s network of dangerous militias across the Middle East that targeted U.S. and allied troops.
Critics counter that, thanks to the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iran has restarted its nuclear program and is a lot closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon than when Trump took office.
Meanwhile, conservative foreign-policy experts also cheer the Trump administration for withdrawing from Cold War-era arms treaties that they say hamstrung America’s ability to counter powers like China and Russia. Trump’s abandonment of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, after years of Russian violations, won the universal backing of all NATO members. “That was a huge diplomatic achievement in and of itself,” Heinrichs said.
But the effort to reshape arms control has had its misses, too. Efforts to broaden the decade-old New START agreement with Russia to include China floundered, and the treaty looks set to expire early next year, which critics say raises the specter of another arms race.
Finally, under Trump, the United States has also paired back its funding for international organizations and withdrawn from institutions like the World Health Organization, the U.N. Human Rights Council, and UNESCO, the institution’s cultural and education organization. His supporters say such moves at the United Nations were sorely needed course corrections to draw attention to the institutions’ anti-Israel bias and, in the case of the Human Rights Council, its hypocrisy for allowing some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, like China and Venezuela, to join. Critics on the left counter that the moves undercut U.S. international standing and gave China space to increase its influence in the United Nations.
The technocratic victories. Overshadowed by the big foreign-policy moves and frequent Trump scandals, the administration made important strides that never made national news but could have important impacts on U.S. foreign policy in the future. Some of these changes could last through a drastically different Democratic administration.
Apart from Trump’s repeated effort to decimate the foreign aid budget, and spurred on by Congress, his administration also carried out important reforms of U.S. foreign aid machinery, overhauling the U.S. Agency for International Development and bolstering America’s ability to compete with China’s checkbook diplomacy with the creation of the International Development Finance Corp.
Though it went unnoticed due to the abrupt departure of John Bolton, Trump’s third national security advisor, last year the president unveiled new counterterrorism sanctions powers for the federal government that one State Department official described as “the most significant update to our terrorism sanctions authorities since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.” The new authorities allow government agencies to go directly after leaders of terrorist groups and target groups’ financiers and accountants, as well as individuals who participated in training to commit acts of terrorism. Prior authorities were more limited.
When countries began locking down their borders in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Americans abroad were trapped and scrambling for ways to get home. After a very rough start, the State Department undertook an unprecedented campaign to repatriate Americans and by June had coordinated the return of over 100,000 Americans abroad—a significant logistical feat. A lion’s share of the credit goes to the rank and file in the diplomatic corps, but some experts pointed to this as an underappreciated achievement of the Trump administration nonetheless—and perhaps the only bright spot in the administration’s pandemic response.
Misfires and missed opportunities. Of course, apart from all these achievements, Trump orchestrated or stumbled through some significant foreign-policy misfires: an impasse on North Korea denuclearization negotiations; a long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that stumbled out of the gate; a fiery impeachment trial; an absence of any action on climate change; and unfulfilled promises to fully extricate U.S. troops from costly wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
“If you consider things like the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. troop presence in Syria or Iraq, Trump came into office promising he would end these conflicts and end nation-building, and he hasn’t done that,” Ashford said. “The missed opportunities is a category you really can’t discount.”
And hanging over everything is the coronavirus pandemic, which several senior U.S. diplomatic and defense officials referred to as the biggest national security failure in modern U.S. history. The United States accounts for 4 percent of the world’s population but 20 percent of the total COVID-19-related deaths, and it has spurned an international campaign to coordinate developing a vaccine.
“The COVID crisis is the first international crisis since pre-World War II days where there’s been zero U.S. international leadership,” said Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. “In fact, the president in particular has actively impaired efforts of cooperation. We’ve seen the consequences of that pretty dramatically.”
For all the victories that Trump and his supporters can point to, some experts insist that the losses, missed opportunities, and collateral damage weigh much heavier in the balance.
“The losses far outweigh the gains,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “Moreover, the gains were possible without the losses.”