Mr Trump’s time in office has been controversial, handicapping American foreign-policy goals
President Donald Trump has now been in office for over six months. This is a symbolic milestone at which to look back, so as to gain a better understanding of what lies ahead. The various foreign and domestic challenges facing the new administration have become more clear-cut. Responsibility for the failure to resolve them lies mostly with Mr Trump.
The hysteria that pervades American news media is the product of a fatal symbiosis between them and Mr Trump. The president uses the media as a punchbag to blame them for his own failures and to rally his supporters. This is an effective tactic, since the mere sight of the media establishment being eviscerated is enough to justify the support that many have for Mr Trump. Even if these supporters despise his boorishness, that same boorishness is sometimes exercised as a battering ram against the media. The downside of this approach is that Mr Trump’s flaws are constantly amplified, making him more and more objectionable to both the American electorate and Congress, without whom Mr Trump will not score any important legislative victories. Mr Trump is only appealing to his electoral base, which comprises about a third of the entire voting populace—too little to hold any political sway.
The left-wing media have made the excoriation of Mr Trump a winning business model. Reports about the president’s scandals, real and imagined, are the hottest commodity on the market. It was no coincidence that the media gave Mr Trump many billions of dollars’-worth of free airtime.1 The downside of this is that the media’s own flaws are also amplified, given that by overplaying their hand the media undermine the credibility of their own reports on Mr Trump’s scandals.
The right-wing media, on the other hand, tend to turn a blind eye to Mr Trump’s intransigent crassness and incompetence, and suggest that the woes visited upon him are simply the fantastical delusions of their left-wing counterparts. The entire media establishment exacerbates the political and cultural polarisation that laid the groundwork not only for Mr Trump’s electoral triumph but also for the violence that has broken out in Berkeley, Charlottesville and other cities. The media, likewise, appeal to the core of their audience, not the country as a whole, which is not a sustainable approach either.
The never-ending series of crises surrounding Mr Trump has diminished his support. To increase it he must engage congressional Democrats and draw in the Hillary Clinton coalition, but this is becoming increasingly futile after each successive controversy. The Democrats have no reasons to work with Mr Trump. Besides, he is a toxic figure among left-wingers, spelling political suicide for anyone who even tried. This is why Mr Trump should have started off with his infrastructure plan—which is similar to what the Democrats have proposed in the past—not the ill-fated endeavour to reform healthcare, which only hardened Democratic opposition.
Enough time has now passed for the Republican-dominated Congress to start thinking about next year’s midterms. It is unclear whether Mr Trump and his low approval ratings would help the campaigns of his fellow Republicans. Mr Trump is left with two options to increase his support: first, to abandon the campaign-mode aggressiveness and to act in a manner appropriate to his office, and second, to hope that the economy improves enough to visibly raise people’s standard of living. The former seems unlikely, and in the case of the latter the US appears closer to a currency crisis than any sort of economic renaissance. The state of the economy greatly impacts presidential approval ratings, even though presidents have relatively little and primarily indirect influence over the economy. Since Mr Trump has now embraced the very same economy that he justly denigrated during the campaign, the next recession will be deemed part of his legacy.
The rest of the world is keeping a close eye on Mr Trump and the dynamics of American domestic politics. If the American president is weak, the use of American soft and hard power is impeded, potentially altering regional balances of power. The American political system, namely the three branches of government, prevents drastic breaks in established domestic and foreign policy. Thus, American foreign relations and the problems the country faces have largely remained the same. Only appearances have changed.
Foreign policy is an interplay between interests and ideals. Mr Trump only seems to be interested in the former, causing concern over the general direction of US policy. One challenge the Trump administration faces is its own hostility towards diplomacy, exemplified by the appointment of the neophyte Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and by the systematic contraction of the State Department through budget cuts and the ousting of diplomats. Another way to think of this is as an abdication of American global leadership—take quitting the Paris climate change accord as one example. No issue on the international level can be resolved solely by flexing one’s military muscle, meaning that the Trump administration has deliberately undermined its own position. Was this the type of cunning that Mr Trump talked about when he promised to make only the best deals?
Europe. The Baltics can breathe a sigh of relief, since Mr Trump’s irresoluteness has been supplanted by resolute guarantees to support this region. In addition to a handful of Congressmen, Vice President Mike Pence also visited Estonia, carrying much symbolic significance. Mr Pence asserted that the Trump administration is also committed to the other states that border Russia. Besides, there is a definite plan to increase the number of American and NATO troops in Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, Mr Trump’s budget plan calls for boosting spending on the European Reassurance Initiative by 40%.2
Mr Trump’s general anti-European attitude is based on the view that the US spends too much money on European security. The US has gently broached the subject before, letting the Europeans know that they should fulfil their defence spending obligations, but this time the US has not relented. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that Germany and Europe must take their fate into their “own hands”,3 one may have heard a death knell for the post-war world order. But it is not preposterous to demand that Europeans assume greater responsibility for their security. Questions over defence spending actually reveal a much more important question: what is NATO’s purpose in the post-Cold War world? Have not NATO missions in Kosovo, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as its eastward expansion, actually decreased European security? Perhaps Eastern and Central European countries should form their own military alliance, with the option of lobbying the US for assistance, together or individually.
Given that American foreign-policy and economic interests now tend more towards Asia and the Middle East, it is becoming unclear what use a military alliance with Europe in the long-term is. And if the European economy is more than 12 times, its population more than three times, and its defence spending more than four times4 larger than Russia’s, then Europe surely fulfils the prerequisites for managing its defence on its own. We should not forget, however, that Europe and Russia have strong energy ties, which are now strained due to US-imposed sanctions, also putting relations between the US and Germany under strain. This is why Mr Trump’s visit to Poland was so significant—it indicates that the US is leaning away from its traditional allies towards new ones. Keeping Russia in line would probably be more cost-effective and less conflictual than through some other military configuration.
Russia. To consider everything Russia-related—from the hackings and the disinformation campaign to allegations of collusion—would require an in-depth look at many issues, and more space that this article permits. It should be noted, however, that even if deliberate collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government seems a matter of doubt,5 all kinds of other interactions between the two have an ominous stench of corruption and ineptitude which Mr Trump will be hard-pressed to wash off during his time in office, even if whatever he and his subordinates engaged in does not end up justifying impeachment. It is also possible that Mr Trump will become a Nixonian figure by prompting political reforms.
Russia’s plan to influence American domestic politics by making overtures to Mr Trump and by spreading disinformation proved a tremendous setback. Mr Putin made a long-shot attempt to cajole Mr Trump into doing his bidding over the economic sanctions and on Syria. Instead, he succeeded in uniting Congress—which is otherwise too preoccupied with partisan bickering—in its unanimous decision to impose new sanctions on Russia. Mr Trump is being forced to oppose Russia, even if begrudgingly. President Trump—just like presidents Bush and Obama before him—truly hoped to improve relations with Russia, but he too was ensnared by political reality and institutional pressure. US–Russia relations have deteriorated, especially if you consider Mr Trump’s missile strike in Syria, Montenegro’s accession to NATO and the freeing-up of America’s energy sector. Hillary Clinton was much more adversarial towards Russia but her policies did not include the elimination of all sorts of environmental regulations (including limits on the use of toxic pesticides),6 which means that Mr Putin bet on the wrong candidate. The Russian economy is the energy sector, and the reinvigoration of American oil and gas production is keeping the price of mineral resources unsustainably low for Russia. Russia’s plan to raise oil prices by curbing production together with Saudi Arabia did not succeed. It is probable that Russia will try to draw attention away from its domestic issues by fanning the flames of conflicts elsewhere in the world, but this will not remedy the fundamental weakness at the heart of the Russian economy, which in turn hamstrings its political and territorial claims. Then again, a cornered animal is said to be the most dangerous, and an endangered regime is prone to behaving unpredictably.
South-East Asia. Presidents are mostly remembered for and evaluated according to wars and the state of the economy, not according to embarrassing tweets—although Mr Trump might prove an exception. Relations between the US and North Korea fluctuate between shows of aggression and spells of negotiation. Aggression serves to improve one’s standing. But in the end, only two options remain: either attack North Korea or accept it into the nuclear club. Rhetoric matters in foreign policy. This means that Mr Trump’s spiteful and loutish tweets can have serious ramifications. He has threatened to rain “fire and fury” on Kim Jong-un’s regime,7 so let us keep in mind that backing off from such warnings would only erode America’s authority further, like when President Barack Obama backtracked on enforcing the “red line” he drew for President Bashar al-Assad.8
The mercurial character of Kim Jong-un means that the US can by no means rest assured that North Korea would employ its nuclear arsenal for deterrence only. Diplomacy is unlikely to help because the two sides have issued mutually unacceptable demands: in exchange for ending its nuclear programme, North Korea demands the withdrawal of the US from the South-East Asia region—which the US finds unfeasible due to its alliance structure and its own interests9—while the US demands that North Korea permit American inspectors to confirm the cessation of the nuclear programme—which North Korea cannot accept due to the threat such a political capitulation would pose to Kim Jong-un’s regime.10 North Korea is likely to be the major conflict by which history will remember Mr Trump’s presidency.
North Korea greatly impacts relations between the US and China. The latter has often used North Korea as a bargaining chip with which to cut a better deal with the US. Mr Trump even attempted to follow the same path with President Xi Jinping, but it turned out that China either could not or would not use its modest influence over Pyongyang to keep it in check. Instead, it increased trade with North Korea.11 But the two countries are divided by historic distrust.
China has its own interests to pursue in South-East Asia. If the US appears weak, China will be emboldened to continue land reclamation in the surrounding seas in its effort to safeguard the essential sea lanes against a possible naval blockade by the US and its allies. If the US appears strong and begins military operations against North Korea, China can quell its social problems by portraying the US as an intrusive enemy. In that case, it would be easier to negotiate with countries in the East and South China Seas about keeping the maritime routes open.
China has chosen to remain on hold because of the North Korea situation, looking for opportunities to profit from the conflict. But its impassiveness while waiting for a decisive break has already led to a failed trade deal with the US and to sanctions against North Korea that are also exacting a cost on China. After a brief lull, Mr Trump has put tariffs and other measures against China back on the table.12 China needs foreign investment and access to the American market, while the US clamours for cheap Chinese imports. The deterioration of trade relations between the two countries places them in an uncomfortable bind but does not necessarily compel them to find ways to improve their relationship. Invective and protectionism will surely not do any good.
The Middle East. There are several conflicts in the Middle East that have lasted through multiple administrations. In terms of foreign policy, the new administration has taken a more specific approach to Afghanistan. Mr Trump has elected to continue the longest war in American history. America’s options were summarised well by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens: “When it comes to Afghanistan, we’ve tried everything. The lesson is: Nothing works.”13 Others hold that Afghanistan is not really a war but rather a “policing operation”, which is in a wholly separate category from conventional war and whose success cannot be measured in terms of “winning”.14 The US is unable to oust the Taliban and vice versa, therefore there is no military solution to the conflict.
What is called for is a diplomatic solution, one that would reconcile the warring parties and would involve the neighbouring states in supporting the new coalition government. Diplomacy is also necessary to dissuade Pakistan and Iran from supporting the Taliban. All things considered, Mr Trump probably made the right call, because leaving the troops in Afghanistan avoids creating a power vacuum—like the one ISIS filled in Iraq—and might force the Taliban to the negotiating table. However, a similar approach did not yield a positive result in Vietnam. The situation in Afghanistan is so complicated that even Mr Trump, generally inclined to stubbornness, admitted that he was forced to change his mind.15
In the case of Iran, Mr Trump has to make a decision on the nuclear deal. John Bolton, George W. Bush’s ambassador to the UN, wrote a piece16 to Mr Trump in which he urges the president to abandon the deal because Iran is in violation of its terms, is continuing to fund terrorism, and is barring UN inspectors from its military sites.17 The nuclear deal stipulates that the US president has to certify every 90 days that Iran remains in compliance with it. Mr Trump has certified the deal twice, reluctantly, but even he thinks that the US will have to pull out of the deal due to Iranian violations.18 This would be followed by an attempt to reimpose sanctions on Iran, but this necessitates first convincing the other parties—the European Union, Russia, China, etc.—to pull out as well. Russia and China have forged their own ties with Iran and they could easily veto any attempts by the UN Security Council to impose new sanctions. Convincing other countries is a task that requires patience and perseverance. This is not exactly the type of diplomacy in which the Trump administration seems to engage. If the US forced itself out of the deal, flawed or not, it would merely alienate its allies further and leave Iran holding all the aces. The nuclear deal was not meant to halt Iran’s nuclear programme but to decelerate it. The bigger issue is, therefore, when Iran will become a nuclear power and what the US can even do about it. Pulling out of the deal at this point would only encourage Iran to continue with its nuclear and missile programmes, advanced as they already are. If dealing with North Korea alone is difficult enough, what capacity does the US suppose it has to deal with North Korea and Iran simultaneously? As long as the US and Iran are allied in fighting against ISIS, the situation might not escalate out of control.
In Syria, the focus of the conflict has shifted from the civil war between the government and the rebels towards defeating ISIS, introducing a host of different issues. With the defeat of ISIS, the ethnic and sectarian conflict between the supporters of President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents would resume. The US meanwhile opposes both the Sunni (ISIS) and Shia (Iran and Assad) factions. Both persuasions consider the US their adversary, so there is no playing the sides off against each other. But leaving the region is also essentially impossible since this would increase the threat of terrorism. Hence it only makes sense to include Russia, the only other major power involved in the conflict, in efforts to resolve it. But the interests and capabilities of the Russians are not absolute: making trouble for the US is one thing, but is Russia willing to help rebuild Syria with Assad still at the helm, knowing that his regime will not endure without its support? Considering all the irreconcilable interests at play in the conflict, the only solution might be to divide Syria into pieces. This naturally calls for more diplomacy, the success of which is not guaranteed with the Trump administration.
The sound and fury of Mr Trump proved a great asset on the campaign trail, but it signifies a severe detriment to his presidency. His character flaws, especially his petty rudeness and recklessness, and his incompetence prevent him from fulfilling his campaign promises. Even a mildly competent president would have checked his personality at the door, enabling his political instincts to flourish. This seems too tall an order for the current president. The worse America’s reputation is, the harder it is for the country to realise its foreign-policy aims—to the extent that the new administration even has any. As a result, both the Americans and their allies lose.
1 Emily Stewart, “Donald Trump Rode $5 Billion in Free Media to the White House”, The Street, 20 November 2016, https://www.thestreet.com/story/13896916/1/donald-trump-rode-5-billion-in-free-media-to-the-white-house.html.
2 Nolan Peterson, “Trump’s Move to Deter Russian Aggression”, The Daily Signal, 25 May 2017, http://dailysignal.com/2017/05/25/trumps-move-deter-russian-aggression.
3 Giulia Paravicini, “Angela Merkel: Europe must take ‘our fate’ into own hands”, Politico, 28 May 2017, http://www.politico.eu/article/angela-merkel-europe-cdu-must-take-its-fate-into-its-own-hands-elections-2017.
4 “Military expenditure by country, 1988–1996”, Stockholm Peace Research Institute, N/d, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Milex-constant-2015-USD.pdf.
5 Willis Krumholz, “We Still Have Zero Evidence that Trump Colluded with Russia”, The Federalist, 29 July 2017, http://thefederalist.com/2017/08/29/still-zero-evidence-trump-colluded-russia.
6 Jenny Luna, “6 Ways Trump’s Administration Could Literally Make America More Toxic”, Mother Jones, 17 April 2017, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2017/04/pesticides-chemicals-atrazine-asbestos-neonics-bees-chuck-schumer-shampoo-trump-epa.
7 Jacob Pramuk, “Trump: Maybe ‘fire and fury’ statement on North Korea wasn’t tough enough”, CNBC, 10 August 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/10/trump-maybe-fire-and-fury-statement-on-north-korea-wasnt-tough-enough.html.
8 Nahal Toosi, “U.N. report: Assad again used chemical weapons, defying Obama”, Politico, 24 August 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/08/syria-assad-obama-united-nations-227385.
9 The US cannot take the chance of creating a precedent by departing from the region for fear of countries like Iran using it against them.
10 George Friedman, “Why Diplomacy Is Unlikely to Solve the Korean Crisis”, Geopolitical Futures, 5 June 2017, https://geopoliticalfutures.com/diplomacy-unlikely-solve-korean-crisis.
11 “Chinese trade with North Korea jumped 10.5% in the first half of this year, according to China Customs data”, CNBC, 12 July 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/07/12/chinese-trade-with-north-korea-jumped-10-point-5-percent-in-the-first-half-of-this-year-according-to-china-customs-data.html.
12 Jonathan Swan, “Exclusive: Trump vents in Oval Office, ‘I want tariffs. Bring me some tariffs!’”, Axios, 28 August 2017, https://www.axios.com/exclusive-trump-vents-in-oval-office-i-want-tariffs-bring-me-some-tariffs-2478121273.html.
13 Bret Stephens, “On Afghanistan, There’s No Way Out”, The New York Times, 24 August 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/24/opinion/on-afghanistan-theres-no-way-out.html.
14 Emile Simpson, “There Is No War in Afghanistan”, Foreign Policy, 29 August 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/29/there-is-no-war-in-afghanistan.
15 Maxwell Tani, “TRUMP: My instinct was to pull out of Afghanistan — here’s why I changed my mind”, Business Insider, 21 August 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-speech-afganistan-2017-8.
16 John Bolton, “How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal”, National Review, 28 August 2017, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/450890/iran-nuclear-deal-exit-strategy-john-bolton-memo-trump.
17 Parisa Hafezi, “Iran rejects U.S. demand for U.N. visit to military sites”, Reuters, 29 August 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-nuclear-usa-idUSKCN1B918E.
18 Josh Dawsey and Hadas Gold, “Full transcript: Trump’s Wall Street Journal interview”, Politico, 1 August 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/08/01/trump-wall-street-journal-interview-full-transcript-241214.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.