Trump’s foreign policy failures, analysed

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Donald Trump is heading into the 2020 elections with no clearcut foreign policy successes and a string of looming crises around the world that could undermine his bid for re-election.

writes on The Guardian, that “Many expect the president to try to reverse the trend with dramatic interventions around the globe with uncertain outcomes – making the next 16 months even more volatile.”

Trump has pulled out of nuclear agreements with Iran and Russia, the better deals he predicted seem remote, and nuclear proliferation looks likely to accelerate.

An effort to oust Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela in April was a fiasco, and subsequent efforts to strangle the economy have failed in their political objective. Last week, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned that the measures were likely to exacerbate conditions for millions of ordinary Venezuelans.

Trump’s proudest diplomatic achievement, becoming the first sitting US president to meet a North Korean leader, looks increasingly hollow as Kim Jong-un builds his arsenal and resumes missile tests.

The eradication of the Islamic State “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, too, was tarnished by a Pentagon report last week saying that Isis had “solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria”.

In Afghanistan, the government says it is close to agreement with the Taliban, clearing the way for a major withdrawal of US forces by the end of Trump’s first term, but with 1,500 civilian casualties last month alone, such negotiations are tenuous.

Foreign policy rarely plays a leading role in US presidential elections, but Trump has portrayed himself as uniquely able to strike deals with foreign leaders and bring troops home. And some foreign crises have a direct domestic result, such as the prospect of a worsening trade war with China.

Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s foreign policy adviser, said: “Trump saw a domestic political benefit: getting tough on China, Iran, on Venezuela with voters in Florida in mind, the spectacle of meeting Kim Jong-un. But whatever short-term benefit there was has been more than eclipsed by the long-term mess he has created.”

Trump appears aware of his foreign policy deficit, and in the short term, is redefining success.

In relation to North Korea, that means playing down the original claim that diplomacy with Kim would lead to nuclear disarmament. When North Korea stepped up short-range missile launches, the red line was shifted to a block on intercontinental missiles.

The “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran was intended to change its behaviour in the region and force it into new negotiations with the US, outside the multilateral 2015 deal that Trump abandoned.

By those measures, so far the strategy is backfiring. Iran is stepping up its nuclear programme beyond the limits of the 2015 deal. It is more aggressive in the Gulf and has rejected talks. However, the Trump administration argues it is making gains by cutting down Tehran’s disposable cash.

“We have denied the regime tens of billions of dollars in revenue they would otherwise spend on strengthening the regime and strengthening their proxies,” said Brian Hook, the US Iran envoy, adding that the Iranian 2020 defence budget was 28% down on 2019.

It is unclear if lowering the success threshold will carry Trump through to 2020, as North Korea fires off more missiles, and Iran breaks free of nuclear constraints. The other option is bold action. A new conflict would be disastrous, electorally and otherwise. The president was “cocked and loaded” to strike Iran in June but called it off when he was warned it could cost his second term.

His instinct is for an eyecatching deal. He is interested in another summit with Kim – jubilantly announcing another “very beautiful” letter from the North Korean dictator – where he could offer an easing of sanctions for the destruction of some nuclear weapons infrastructure.

Trump’s attempts to talk to Iran have thus far been rebuffed, but the UN general assembly in September offers another chance for a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani, at the likely cost of easing economic pressure. Trump may just think it is worth the risk, even if entails the exit of his ultra-hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton.

A deal might also be possible with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in which Beijing restarts imports of US agricultural products in return for the US easing its ban on Huawei.

Trump could seize any such agreement and proclaim it as the deal of the century. The question would be whether Pyongyang, Tehran or Beijing will play along.

“It is remarkable how much agency these countries have,” Rhodes said. “Certainly, Iran, China and North Korea will be aware that anything they do will have an impact on the elections … they have a vote.”

North Korea has good reason to assist a president who has showered praise on its leader, while Tehran would like to see him gone. Beijing is also showing signs it would rather not face a second Trump term. In the faces of such challenges, Trump has pushed ever closer to the edge of an all-out trade war – or a shooting war.

“Trump will be trying to grab the headlines and portray himself as a leader,” said Julianne Smith, a former senior national security adviser to Obama. “We will see a series of rash and reckless moves and a lot more drama in the next 18 months. So hold on to your hats.”

Donald Trump is heading into the 2020 elections with no clearcut foreign policy successes and a string of looming crises around the world that could undermine his bid for re-election.

Once you're here...