Donald Trump’s successful 2016 road to the White House was paved with irreverent campaign rhetoric and a world of good intentions regarding American foreign policy. Like Barack Obama before him, he called the Iraq War a mistake and recognized China as a rising global competitor. Where Trump differs with his predecessor on foreign-policy goals is mostly reflected in an approach toward personnel and a highly personal style that forswears process and favors disruption.
The president’s critics should realize, however, that when it comes to both Trump’s instincts and intentions, his desired foreign-policy outcomes are mostly aligned with those of past presidents and in sync with longstanding American goals.
Trump, in many ways, has pursued a rigorous global re-ordering to keep the United States on top of its game in leading the world. Unfortunately, he has also been his own worst enemy at executing strategy, closing deals or putting in the extra hours of work required to manifest even the simplest solutions or to strengthen the closest alliances. One need look no further than his erratic series of disjointed, on-again, off-again 140-character policy pronouncements, threats, enticements, love letters, rebukes and imperious rants that has kept both Congress and other nations in the global commons allergic to supporting an otherwise agreeable global agenda.
Regardless, POTUS has achieved some remarkable success in a few areas, most notably in North Korea. The Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un was a true historic breakthrough moment when the head of the Hermit Kingdom was on the big stage and a leader-to-leader dialogue followed 45’s “fire and fury” ultimatum. Trump’s bold and risky — yes, dangerous — action broke an ongoing diplomatic logjam that had blocked progress over several U.S. administrations.
The world awaits the next step of Pyongyang’s “complete, verifiable, irreversible” denuclearization. It’s been over a year since the Singapore summit, however, and Kim is still shooting off rockets. Why? What’s lacking has been the hard yeoman’s work of American diplomacy required to achieve no nukes. If anything, North Korea appears to be flaunting its disregard and disdain for Trump’s overtures, actions and openness. The jury is still out, but time only helps Kim improve both his weapons systems and negotiating position.
Good intentions and failed execution continue throughout the Indo-Pacific and in Central Asia. It’s time to get out of Afghanistan, for sure, and Trump hopes his 2020 re-election campaign will highlight a resolution to the Afghan adventure. Talks with the Taliban seem headed toward a negotiated withdrawal of American troops. Trump might get it done. Any illusion that this will be a lasting peace, however, will certainly be quickly dispelled, though not before the extraction of the political value of images of U.S. troops coming home. Meanwhile, Taliban bombings and brazen Kabul attacks are only a preview of al Qaida and ISIS’ coming horror show.
Instincts and intentions are only going to get the president so far in foreign policy, whether in Russia, China, Ukraine or Turkey, or with NATO burden-sharing allies. His repeated desire for regime change in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua are laudable goals, but require sustained attention, multilateral action, analytic understanding, consistent pressure, backchannel negotiation, coordinated intergovernmental process and a little bit of luck. Needless to say, the president has talked a good game, but can’t walk the talk to deliver necessary outcomes. Nicolás Maduro, for example, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and Juan Guiadó looks increasingly like the incredible shrinking man. In Latin America, Trump’s track record is abysmal.
Bullying instead of bargaining has become the negotiating style of the man who would be king. Treaties are torn up, allies are alienated, policies are pronounced without a plan and tariffs are the big hammer used to smash global trade’s status quo. Tariffs, in fact, are seen by the president as the only tool in a policy toolbox full of more appropriate diplomatic, defense and development instruments. Relying on a more subtle and complex combination of policy tools could get the American trade or treaty job done less traumatically.
Using traditional policy tools, however, requires patience, which is not seen as a virtue in this president’s Twitterocracy. When faced with an impossible task, like shutting down the U.S.-Mexico border, his response is often as simple as it is ridiculous: “I want it done at noon tomorrow.”
High noon has come and gone, and the border challenge is as critical today as it will be tomorrow . . . and the day after, and every day that follows until America’s leadership can unify this country, help shape and define its collective interests and legitimately speak on its behalf with one voice in foreign affairs. It’s been done before and it can happen again.
Until then, the road to foreign-policy hell is being paved with good intentions.
Markos Kounalakis is a part-time, small cog of a public servant in a big national wheel. Otherwise he’s a Hoover Institution visiting fellow.