Donald Trump's Foreign Policy is a Disaster and it Will Take Years to Undue the Damage
As the recent G20 again highlighted, there are no overarching principals driving foreign policy in the Trump administration except, perhaps, that America should relinquish its leadership role on issues such as human rights, the rule of law and the environment. The rest is a hodgepodge of America first, neo-isolationist blather that has made the President a laughingstock, weakened ties with our closest allies, and undermined the nation's standing in the world.
Mason Richey, a professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, Korea may have said it best, "Donald Trump does not have a foreign policy; he has moods regarding international affairs."
As you scan the horizon you can observe the wreckage the President has made of US foreign policy and the administration's chaotic response to the current Iran crisis is just another example. The only thing which links one policy with the next is a desire to one-up President Obama and the lack of a viable, coherent strategy to achieve their goals. Six examples, In no particular order:
1. North Korea - Kim Jong Un hit the American Presidential Lottery when Donald Trump was elected. We have written quite a bit about Trump's failures in negotiating with N. Korea.
Illuminate: President Trump ended his G20 summit with a side-trip to the Korean demilitarized zone [DMZ]. He stepped into N. Korea and made history as the first sitting President to visit what is essentially a gigantic prison colony. Kim Jong-un appeared gleeful that Trump was again raising his international profile by treating him as an equal rather than a human rights nightmare and mass murderer.
Illuminate: "President Trump's current negotiating strategy with North Korea consists of fawning over its leader Kim Jong-un and promising that if Kim gives up his nukes, his impoverished nation can look forward to a rosy economic future. Kim knows BS when he hears it but is willing to play along because he realizes that Trump is far too invested in their special friendship and needs a foreign policy success. And, if the US President is willing to elevate his status as a world leader, end America's war games with South Korea and let him off the hook for Otto Warmbier's death, why shouldn't he. So far Kim has gotten far more than he could have ever hoped for without giving up anything."
Kim also doesn't seem to fear that Trump will revert to his "fire and fury" rhetoric. After the first summit with Trump he continued to build out his nuclear arsenal and now seems to be restoring a portion of a facility used to test long-range missiles. The North Korean leader is applying additional pressure to get a deal which would reduce sanctions while giving up little of his nuclear arsenal. That has always been Kim's strategy and he doesn't believe that President Trump will risk a bloody war on the Korean Peninsula.
2. Syria - After taking office, Trump embraced President Obama's strategy to defeat ISIS in Syria, but shocked even his own Defense Secretary with his decision in December to withdraw our forces, abandoning our Kurdish allies, even before the job was completed. Trump walked back that decision after Secretary Mattis resigned in protest and numerous Republican Senators criticized his decision. Several hundred troops will now remain, but the diplomatic damage was already done.
Prof. Mason Richey at the Foreign Policy Research Institute: .... "Trump botched the withdrawal decision. The announcement was precipitous and made without either U.S. inter-agency review or meaningful consultation with U.S. allies. Nor was the decision supported by sound strategic or political reasoning; rather, it was sold on the basis of patent lies about the status of defeat of the Islamic State. Indeed, ISIS carried out a lethal attack shortly after Trump’s announcement of the organization’s defeat. As if these self-inflicted wounds to Washington’s reliability and credibility weren’t bad enough, Trump apparently reached the decision after being dubiously convinced by discussions over the phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose ulterior motive is clearly not to finish off elements of remaining terrorist groups in the region (thereby aiding the U.S. in the war on terror), and much less to provide for regional stability, but rather to weaken, and, if possible, destroy the U.S.’s Kurdish allies. To boot, Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria cost him his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, for whom the policy changes were the last straw."
And to make matters worse, the Trump administration has not outlined a viable strategy for America's remaining troops, and hasn't developed an attainable blueprint for Syria's future. Iran, Russia and Turkey, among others, will be sure to fill the vacuum America is leaving.
Dr. Christopher J. Bolan, Foreign Policy Research Institute: "Since this unexpected announcement of U.S. withdrawal, however, his administration’s strategy has been dangerously adrift, struggling to define clear objectives and failing to design a plan for sensibly employing the nation’s instruments of power to achieve these goals. In essence, the intellectual process of strategy formulation has been operating in reverse. Instead of identifying achievable objectives at the outset and then formulating a sensible plan for orchestrating diplomatic, informational, military and economic power to accomplish these objectives, senior U.S. officials have been reverse engineering a strategic justification for maintaining a U.S. military presence in Syria while steadfastly refusing to consider the employment of economic or humanitarian assistance, or other non-military instruments of power."
3. Iran - As with N. Korea, we have written quite a bit about President Trump's Iran policy. After Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [Iran nuclear deal] and reimposed sanctions, tensions swelled as the economic pain increased in Tehran. Iran's response was perfectly predictable, except, perhaps to the foreign policy team at the White House.
Illuminate: "Welcome to the Iranian crisis that the President and his national security adviser, John Bolton, have long sought and that critics and allies warned was coming. After Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [Iran nuclear deal] and he set out to destroy Iran's economy with sanctions and an oil embargo in May, the President must have realized that Iran would punch back at some point. The question, of course, is whether the President and his national security team have a plan to use the crisis to achieve America's goals....
Well, perhaps the first question is what goals the White House has for Iran. If its regime change, we are in for a very bumpy ride. The administration claims that they want Iran to negotiate a new deal to give up their nuclear program, stop producing ballistic missiles and terminate support for groups like Hezbollah. The leadership of Iran will never agree to all those demands willingly, so regime change seems to be the only solution that Trump and his foreign policy team would accept.
So, as Iran ramps its nuclear enrichment program back up, conflict seems inevitable unless Trump scales back his demands and accepts a new nuclear deal that is essentially Obama's Iran deal with new Trump branding. As bizarre as that seems, it may the President's only face-saving way out of this mess without embroiling America in another Middle East quagmire.
4. Trade/China - The President's on-again, off again trade war with China is costing Americans billions and was never the most effective way to change China's international trade practices. Trump made a strategic mistake in abandoning the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement that had been negotiated with 11 other pacific rim nations. The participants had taken eight years to negotiate a trade pact that would have greatly expanded trade while also reining in China's trade abuses.
In a paper released late last year, Ian Sheldon, Chair of Agricultural Marketing, Policy and Trade at Ohio State explains how the TPP was created to "push China to play by the rules and stop stealing intellectual property, stop forcing American firms to hand over technology through joint ventures and put an end to China’s practice of sponsoring firms that are state owned enterprises.” In other words, it would have facilitated everything that President Trump seeks from his trade war.
OSU Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics: "According to conclusions drawn from a large body of economic studies analyzed in the article, the U.S. plan to complete TPP without China was strategic. China would have been forced to choose between either rejecting TPP and losing the trade benefits that would have come with membership, or joining TPP and being subjected to tough new standards that addressed U.S. concerns regarding China’s most controversial trade practices.
“The strategy of the Obama Administration was to box China in through the use of the TPP and force China to make some tough choices,” said Chow. “It looked to be an effective approach and could have laid the foundation for a new way to limit China’s distortions of international trade.”
TPP got caught up in Trump's anti-globalism, anti-Obama prattle during the 2016 election even though it was widely supported by Republicans and Democrats in Congress as wise economic policy, and as a way curtail China's predatory trade practices. Trump's China trade war has been anything but a wise replacement.
5. Israel and the Palestinians - President Obama tried to balance our long alliance with Israel with real concern about the future of the Palestinian people. Donald Trump is not even trying to be an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians and, as a result, his administration's efforts to craft a peace deal will fail.
Since his election, the President has relocated the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognized Israel's illegal annexation of the Golan Heights, and cut off aide to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. When Jared Kushner finally delivers the Trump Middle East peace plan in the Fall, it will land with a thud unless it is reworked to include a two-state political solution. Even the "carrot" Kushner delivered in Bahrain last week in the form of an economic development plan for the Palestinians was met with "a mixture of derision and exasperation." The economic assistance would be appreciated but not as a replacement for an independent Palestinian state.
Its true that other presidential administrations have also failed to solve the Palestinian question, but Trump's wide-ranging tilt toward Israel will undermine America's ability to mediate as a neutral party in the future and further erode our status in the region.
5. Cuba - Despite comments to the contrary, the Trump administration's announcement recently of new travel restrictions to Cuba is driven by domestic politics, Florida politics to be specific. Trump can't win in 2020 without Florida, and he can't win the state without a good turn-out of the older "anti-Castro" Cuban voters in S. Florida. Cuba hardliners Sen. Marco Rubio and Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart convinced the President that older Cuban-Americans still favored a tougher line with the island nation.
So, to get those votes and keep Marco Rubio off his back, Trump is willing to forego the benefits Americans have garnered from Obama's "Cuba Thaw," further erode US respect in Latin America, which sees his action as just more interference in Cuba's domestic affairs, and undermine the economic prospects of another generation of Cubans.
Washington Post: "The tourism sanctions, Cuban authorities and business owners say, have caused particular harm to the island’s burgeoning private sector. That includes civilian owners of restaurants, Airbnb rental apartments and cultural tours that since 2016 have geared their businesses to American travelers, bringing a dose of the free market to one of its last frontiers.
“The U.S. wants to attack the Cuban government and destroy the revolution and make socialism fall,” said Deborah Rivas Saavedra, director of foreign investments at Cuba’s Foreign Trade Ministry. “But the ones being affected are these business-people that [the United States] supposedly wants to see benefit. The ones who don’t support socialism.”
US sanctions haven't changed Cuba in 70 years, but Obama's thaw was having a positive impact on the lives of the people. Abandoning that will harm them without reforming the government.
6. Venezuela - President Trump has made a hash of US Venezuelan policy and that nation's people are paying the price.
Trump apparently was led to believe by his advisers that the socialist strongman, Nicolás Maduro, was hanging on by a thread and that he could get a quick, easy, feel-good foreign policy victory by pushing him out of office and rescuing the Venezuelan people from a tyrant. So, since the beginning of the year the President has tweeted threats, employed sanctions, banned Venezuelan oil purchases, and publicly backed an uprising led by opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Thus far, the Venezuelan President has hung on even as a humanitarian crisis unfolded.
When Maduro didn't leave, the White House supported a coup by Guaido at the end of April but it too was an embarrassing flop. Then, in June, Senior administration officials leaked to the Washington Post that the President was "losing both patience and interest in Venezuela." The President has said that all options, including military intervention, are still on the table, but it seems much more likely now that he will simply wait for Maduro to wear out his welcome with the Venezuelan people. Eventually he will, but expect a humanitarian nightmare before this is over.
Trump's ban on Venezuelan oil purchases didn't unseat Maduro but it has devastated that nation's economy and left it unable to pay for the food needed to feed the population.
Washington Post: "Venezuela had already experienced a historic economic collapse by the end of last year, with severe shortages of food, medicine, power and water. Oil exports, virtually the only source of the dollars Venezuela needs to import 95 percent of its food, had fallen by half. But the plunge since the U.S. oil ban went into effect has been stunning. In the first half of this month, according to Russ Dallen of Miami-based Caracas Capital, loadings of ships for oil exports had dropped below 600,000 barrels a day — compared to average exports in 2018 of 1.2 million barrels a day. "
Millions of Venezuelans have already migrated to Columbia and other neighboring countries and another million are expected to leave by December. Those that stay can look forward to a worsening famine in the coming months. US officials don't seem to worry about being blamed for the growing crisis and point to Maduro's stubborn insistence on remaining in office. That might be true, but is starving Venezuela's population in order to rescue them from a tyrant a wise policy prescription? Unified opposition to Trump's meddling in their nation's internal affairs might be the only thing that Maduro has going for him in the coming months.
So, what are the results of Trump's foreign policy initiatives thus far? The world has few illusions about the President's priorities. He said that he would always consider America's interests first. That's laudable and most leaders say the same. However, the quandary so far for Donald Trump is figuring out policies which achieve the "national Interest" in any given situation. The problem for the White House isn't so much philosophical as it is just simple incompetence combined with a rather unhealthy desire to undo President Obama's achievements.
By Don Lam & Curated Content