- Critics of President Donald Trump’s unwieldy and often impetuous handling of foreign policy are looking forward to him leaving office.
- But aspects of the way Trump has engaged with the wider world are worth keeping, as long as the next president uses them more skillfully, writes World Politics Review editor-in-chief Judah Grunstein.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Should the four-year-long polar night of Donald Trump’s presidency come to a definitive end this November, most observers of his catastrophic handling of US foreign policy will rejoice.
After all, Trump has done significant damage to America’s national interests — and has done so in a uniquely corrosive way. He has undermined America’s alliances and partnerships while emboldening its adversaries, all in pursuit of an ad hoc, incoherent and personalized foreign policy devoid of strategic planning. Meanwhile, he has overseen domestic shifts that leave the US more closely resembling the foreign nations it has long criticized, backsliding on democratic norms and the rule of law at home, while retreating as an advocate of human rights abroad.
But amid the rejoicing, would there be anything at all about Trump’s handling of foreign policy worth saving? The answer is yes, although not without major adjustments.
Four aspects, in particular, stand out, all of which require a more skillful leader to put them to good use. But in its eagerness to close the book on the Trump era, the next administration would do well to avoid the temptation of throwing them out with the rest of the Trump playbook.
Increased tolerance for friction: This tendency has been evident from the first days of Trump’s presidency and applies to adversaries and allies alike. It’s been on display in Trump’s trade war with China, his pressure campaigns against Iran and Venezuela, and the fiery rhetoric he used in the early months of his presidency with regard to North Korea.
But it can also be seen in his rhetorical attacks on US allies and alliances, as well as his decisions to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Paris climate agreement and Iran nuclear deal, all moves that Trump made over significant opposition from US allies and partners.
This greater willingness to bump elbows and twist arms is in large part due to Trump’s temperament, and has been mainly deployed in the service of poorly conceived and ill-advised policies. But the consequences have not been entirely negative. While its appetite for confrontation has not helped achieve the Trump administration’s desired ends, it has made allies less complacent and adversaries less confident about what they can expect from the US.
That increased freedom of action can be an advantage for Trump’s successor if it is used to pursue a more strategically sound foreign policy, especially in an environment where allies have been jolted into doing more and adversaries cowed into doing less.
Increased tolerance for risk: This aspect of Trump’s foreign policy goes hand-in-hand with his increased tolerance for friction. After all, friction creates sparks, and sparks can ignite both fires and explosions, which status quo powers like the US tend to try to avoid.
But Trump has gone a step further, taking direct actions that can be qualified as downright reckless. His authorization of the assassination of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, in January, raised the real prospect of open military conflict with Tehran. His one-sided approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict has crossed every red line that the conventional wisdom has assumed would lead to a return to open violence. And the recent revelation that he granted the CIA a blanket authorization in 2018 to conduct offensive cyber operations against a wide range of targets raises real concerns over a lack of adequate planning and oversight leading to overreach and blowback.
Trump’s tolerance for risk is also not limited to poorly conceived and reckless uses of force. It extends to poorly conceived and reckless uses of diplomacy, in the case of North Korea.
This shift is alarming mainly because of Trump’s lack of experience and sophistication upon taking office, and his demonstrated imperviousness to learning anything of relevance to the management of US foreign policy since then. But in many ways, it is a salutary corrective to the overly risk-averse approach of the Obama administration.
That was understandable, given Barack Obama’s task of cleaning up the mess of the George W. Bush administration’s catastrophic adventurism. But Obama’s cerebral nature seemed to have predisposed him to overlearning the lessons of precaution, resulting in a self-deterred reticence that often sacrificed the strategic advantage of initiative.
The next president will perhaps need to recalibrate what Robert Chesney, in reference to Trump’s expansion of the CIA’s remit on cyber operations, calls the “balance between risk and reward.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean returning to an overly risk-averse posture that imposes real limits on the use of power and force to advance US interests.
Heightened skepticism of military engagement: At the same time that he has increased America’s tolerance for friction and risk, Trump has also demonstrated a deep skepticism toward not only America’s lengthy military deployments in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, but also the logic behind those operations.
In practice, again because of Trump’s temperament, his ad hoc attempts to rein in America’s costly military interventions have lacked planning and follow-through, creating general confusion among the US national security community as well as its counterparts among allied and partner nations. There are also real concerns that his “armistice” agreement with the Taliban is shaping up to be face-saving window-dressing for an unconditional US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But the truth is that 19 years of American military operations in Afghanistan have yet to create the conditions for a more responsible withdrawal. Ending the US military involvement there is long overdue.
More generally, Trump’s resentment of the burden of America’s global security role and his hostility to the logic that leads to costly interventions resonates with the American electorate and is strategically sound. His successor would do well to embrace a more thoughtfully considered approach to restraint, while applying it more coherently.
Bringing foreign policy home: Say what you will about Trump’s communication style, but he has managed to do what many foreign policy pundits considered impossible: Make foreign policy relevant to a domestic audience.
Unfortunately, he has done so with a combination of false and misleading characterizations, grievance-based resentment and a carnival barker’s penchant for hucksterism and self-aggrandizement.
Repairing the damage Trump has done to American diplomacy and foreign policy will be an enormous undertaking. But it is a dangerous mistake to frame it as a task to be accomplished only abroad, in terms of America’s relationships with its allies and partners, and not at home, in terms of the US foreign policy community’s relationship to the American electorate.
It will require not only finding a new way to talk about America’s role in the world, but also listening to Americans’ expectations about how that role should affect their lives. Trump has demonstrated that it is possible to make what is happening in the world a compelling subject of domestic political debate. His successor should do the same, while finding a more responsible way to do so.
Trump’s handling of US foreign policy has been a disaster, and it is a small miracle that it has so far not caused one. But guided by restraint, his successor can benefit from the increased freedom of action and initiative that Trump will leave behind in the effort to repair the damage Trump has otherwise done.