He considers himself to be a President who delivers on his promises, but in the international arena, Donald Trump is struggling to notch up meaningful gains.
Trump has turned his back on plenty of things: The US is leaving the Paris Agreement, out of the Iran nuclear deal, out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and more.
But that was the easy bit. Where diplomacy should lead to long-term benefits, Trump is still on the starting line.
North Korea has yet to get rid of its nukes, China to cement a new trade deal, Iran to forswear terrorism, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro to step down, US troops to depart Afghanistan, the Taliban to sue for peace, Saudi Arabia to come clean about journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder, and the Middle East to catch even a whiff of a peace plan.
Trump’s confident, possibly calculated bully bluster — threatening first, then climbing down later — has produced little proof that he is the master dealmaker he claims to be.
Indeed, the opposite may be true; his repeated reversals have revealed him to be a diplomatic novice, outsmarted in the international arena by more experienced rivals. The apparent sageness of Trump’s foreign policy is to be taken on trust, it seems.
Shunning allies and picking fights
For many of America’s traditional friends, Trump appears to hold global opinion in contempt. He has isolated himself and alienated the US by shunning allies, picking fights with NATO and G7 partners, turning his back on a Pacific trade alliance, declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and — most shockingly in the court of international opinion — withdrawing from the landmark global climate agreement.
And his timing, though no fault of his own, could not have been worse. Even before he became president, the US confounded the world with its contradictions: liberal gun laws and outlandish gun crime; incredible wealth and disproportionate poverty; moonshot innovations and basic literacy issues.
The election of a real estate businessman with no political experience and an outsized reality TV ego only elevated suspicion that the country was not functioning at its best. Trump’s style has been to elbow aside anyone who disagrees with him and ignore the obvious disconnects in his own thinking.
America’s allies have tried to head off the hawks circling the White House, while enemies have been quick to grasp opportunities.
Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron was one of the boldest, offering Trump a European bromance and an alternate world view, though both attempts came to nothing.
North Korea’s leader ran rings around him, agreeing to almost nothing at their two much-hyped summits, yet winning the trust of Trump, who insisted this weekend that “Kim Jong Un knows that I am with him and does not want to break his promise to me.”
Meanwhile, few employees can tell Trump his wrongs. He has fired more senior officials than any other US President in recent history.
Last week, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Russia for encouraging Venezuela’s Maduro to stay in power, Trump swiftly contradicted him with the prompting of a phone call from Putin himself. If America’s top diplomat can get his legs cut so callously out from underneath him, then what hope is there of course correction?
On foreign policy, as much else, Pompeo has mostly been reduced to a loyal megaphone, amplifying Trump’s claims to an increasingly incredulous audience. Explaining the administration’s decision to send a strike force towards Iran, Pompeo said, “It is absolutely the case that we have seen escalatory actions from the Iranians, and it is equally the case that we will hold the Iranians accountable for attacks on American interests.”
What those “escalatory actions” were he declined to specify, although two US sources told CNN the threats included “specific and credible” intelligence that Iranian forces and proxies were targeting US forces in Syria, Iraq and at sea.” The move — announced not by the Pentagon but by National Security Advisor John Bolton — comes a month after the US designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.
Days after that, Iran’s Ambassador to the UK, Hamid Baeidinejad, warned America, “If they dare to implement those instructions that IRGC is a terrorist organization, if they move to counter the IRGC, they would see how forcefully they would be retaliated on the ground.”
A strain on European relations
Western allies have yet to respond to the US military uptick, but relations with Europe over US policy on Iran have been straining ever since Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the multinational nuclear deal.
The gaps increased this past weekend after the US decided not to extend waivers to countries wishing to trade in oil with Iran, prompting an unusually strong joint letter by EU, UK, French and German Foreign Ministers taking “note with regret and concern of the decision by the United States.” Any cracks emerging in US-European relations will be a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Could Iran be a rare case where Trump’s threats don’t give way to a climb-down? Could tensions even escalate to the point of conflict, whether by accident or design? Trump is entering an election cycle at home, the pressure to deliver overseas is growing, and enemies and allies alike are watching with cynical apprehension.
Trump is spending down his limited foreign policy credibility as a gambler squanders his last chips at the roulette wheel. If he overplays his hand, America’s foreign policy tab could be in the red for some time.