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A nation must think before it acts.
Donald Trump does not have a foreign policy; he has moods regarding international affairs. Underneath the volatility of his moods, however, are some convictions: namely that other countries are robbing the U.S. through trade; U.S. allies are at best incapable of defending themselves and unwilling to spend resources in order to do so; multilateralism is for the weak; and widespread application of U.S. military power to underpin the prevailing international order is a wasted and failed endeavor. In many respects, these convictions are fundamentally wrong: over the long term, the U.S. has benefited enormously from commitment to open trade, alliances beyond immediate transactional quid-pro-quo, multilateral international order, and U.S. global power projection.
The real tragedy of Trump’s inability to recognize these facts is the negative consequences that his failed foreign affairs beliefs and choices frequently have for those affected by them. Trump simply makes a lot of bad foreign policy decisions that hurt everyone from U.S. domestic consumers to businesses with international supply chains to leaders of U.S. allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. And for some foreign policy decisions—such as the abrogation of the Iran deal, or engagement with North Korea—the jury is still out. Nonetheless, occasionally, Trump’s convictions feed instincts leading him to decisions that are fundamentally right. Ironically, however, even when Trump makes ostensibly good foreign policy choices, he executes them so badly, or approaches them from such a chaotic and skewed vantage point, that even those who normally would support the policy in question end up obliged to reject it. A cursory examination of three of Trump’s major international priorities—relationships with allies, the war in Syria, and U.S.-China trade relations—is indicative of this incongruous dynamic.
Arguably, the most enduring of Trump’s foreign policy blunders will be his alienation of U.S. allies, particularly in Europe. His rhetorical antagonism and extortionate attempts to compel their increased defense spending (both on burden-sharing and purchases of U.S. technology) portend a change to less cohesion and more conflict between the U.S. and its allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. This behavior is pushing forward a new normal in which the U.S. and its allies consider themselves to have different approaches to international affairs and fewer overlapping interests. This is dangerous for U.S. security, as the U.S. National Defense Strategy identifies the U.S. alliance network as an asymmetric strategic advantage vis-à-vis competitors such as China or Russia.
If abandonment fears on the part of the U.S.’s European and Indo-Pacific allies could be leveraged for greater alliance investment and strengthening in the long run, then some pressure would make sense. But Trump has undermined this potential outcome by going too far: stoking right-wing, illiberal nationalism in European states’ domestic politics; fundamentally calling into question NATO, the EU, and U.S. commitment to Indo-Pacific hub-and-spoke allies; and browbeating and humiliating European and Asian allies while failing to acknowledge the strategic advantages that U.S. basing rights overseas represent for U.S. global power projection. Moreover, Trump seems to misunderstand basic facts about alliance burden-sharing (both multilateral and bilateral) and couples his distaste for alliances with a general destabilization of the international order.
Yet, for all that, his instinct that U.S. allies—particularly in NATO—should meet their defense funding obligations (such as the 2% of GDP threshold for NATO countries) is a good one supported by many defense and security experts both in the U.S. and internationally. The open hostility of his rhetoric and the malformed reasoning behind extortionate demands (such as the recently unveiled “Cost plus 50” concept) weaken the persuasiveness of the serious voices who have pushed (and continue to push) for greater commitment from U.S. allies. At the very least, it makes allied advocates for greater defense spending seem aligned with a U.S. president who apparently does not care about the interests of allied states. This dynamic hurts their public credibility. At worst, it undermines these voices’ ability to broker political deals necessary to overcome headwinds on an issue that is sensitive throughout Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
There are many good arguments for why the U.S. should not have an armed forces presence in Syria, and thus why Trump should withdraw U.S. troops from that war-ravaged land. To begin with, Trump campaigned on the promise to leave Syria, and a (small) majority of the U.S. population supports the withdrawal policy. There is also little evidence that the U.S. military role in the country has led to better security outcomes for Syria. Moreover, as many have argued from the political right, left, and center (as well as from both realist and institutionalist perspectives), U.S. military participation in the Syrian conflict arguably violates international law, is unconstitutional under U.S. law, remains hampered by undefined goals, and has not successfully advanced core U.S. strategic interests (indeed there are legitimate arguments that it undermines U.S. security). A cynic might even argue that the best strategy for the U.S. in Syria would simply be to let U.S.’s enemies—Iran, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, Islamic State and sundry terrorist organizations, Russia, etc.—kill each other.
And yet, despite there being a relatively sizable group against the U.S. presence in Syria, Trump botched the withdrawal decision. The announcement was precipitous and made without either U.S. inter-agency review or meaningful consultation with U.S. allies. Nor was the decision supported by sound strategic or political reasoning; rather, it was sold on the basis of patent lies about the status of defeat of the Islamic State. Indeed, ISIS carried out a lethal attack shortly after Trump’s announcement of the organization’s defeat. As if these self-inflicted wounds to Washington’s reliability and credibility weren’t bad enough, Trump apparently reached the decision after being dubiously convinced by discussions over the phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose ulterior motive is clearly not to finish off elements of remaining terrorist groups in the region (thereby aiding the U.S. in the war on terror), and much less to provide for regional stability, but rather to weaken, and, if possible, destroy the U.S.’s Kurdish allies. To boot, Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria cost him his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, for whom the policy changes were the last straw.
Given their deteriorated relationship, Trump probably considered Mattis’s resignation a blessing. But for most experts and allied governments, it was unsettling to see him leave, not only because of his reputation as the last, preeminent “adult at the table” in Trump’s cabinet, but also because, of all things, Mattis left in protest of a failed policy, thus slightly tarnishing his sterling image as the wise warrior-monk. This is not how those opposed to the U.S. role in Syria want to see withdrawal take place, if for no other reason than it has strengthened the hand of the established Washington foreign policy interventionists. In the end, this group even undermined partially the withdrawal decision, as both National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walked back parts of the withdrawal commitment during their visits to the Middle East in early 2019.
As for China, Trump’s instinct to confront it as a strategic competitor is an overdue corrective to the West’s general negligence in realizing and addressing the fact that China is a revisionist power, not a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. This welcome step has been met with belated approval across the U.S. political spectrum, as well as in many quarters of the business world. Beyond issues such as the South China Sea, commercial relations are a legitimate complaint vis-à-vis Beijing, which has constructed predatory trade and economic policies that protect domestic enterprises, allow intellectual property right theft, promote dumping practices, steal technology from partners, block foreign market access, and require joint-venture tie-ups with Chinese firms that force technology transfers or later reverse-engineer technology and strategies from the foreign half of the joint enterprise. These abuses represent not only economic problems, but are also major security challenges for U.S.-led alliances.
Yet, a trade war, which Trump imagines will solve the U.S.-China trade imbalance, is not the right answer to these issues. Quite apart from the fact that many economists do not believe the U.S. trade deficit with China is a problem per se in the first place, trade wars to repair trade deficits do not easily lead to progress on structural issues. Economists disagree about many items of their discipline, but they are almost uniformly united in the belief that trade wars cause deadweight losses that make all belligerents poorer. The tariff-based trade war with China not only acts as a tax on U.S. businesses and consumers, but has also caused disruption in global supply and production chains, instability in markets more generally, and a weakening of the free trade norm that underpinned U.S. economic strength. And so far, China has hardly budged on structural reform, as U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer recently conceded.
In addition, Trump is a poor, untrustworthy messenger, despite the fact that the U.S. is targeting a legitimate set of abuses by China. Consequently, the optics of the trade war rollout—such as using dubious national security grounds to justify tariffs—have allowed China to plausibly appear a victim of U.S. economic aggression in general and Trump’s bad faith in particular. As with the other examples above, the whole U.S.-China trade war situation undermines the voices of those who advocate dealing with the problem through more targeted and effective measures. Indeed, as many of these figures have argued, it is clearly preferable to confront Beijing’s predatory trade and economic practices through World Trade Organization dispute settlement mechanisms, heightened regulation of Chinese investments into the U.S., Treasury Department sanctions, restrictions on the listing of Chinese firms on U.S. equities markets, curtailed scientific and education cooperation, international coordination with like-minded countries, and other means. Ironically, remaining locked into a trade war with negative spillover effects to other countries, especially allies, potentially pushes them away from the U.S.’s position. Indeed, the U.S. is having difficulty convincing allies—including France and Germany—not to purchase Huawei’s 5G technology, despite the inherent cyber risks.
In the end, the consequences of Trump’s poor foreign policy choices go beyond the irony that analysts, pundits, and policymakers are compelled to abjure policy directions that they otherwise support. Good policy choices need solid execution and messaging to have their intended effects. Unfortunately, even Trump’s good ideas—increased allied financial commitment to security and defense burden-sharing, extricating the U.S. from some of the messiest and most hopeless aspects of Middle East conflict, and pushing back against Beijing’s violations of trade norms—are undermined by his approach to concretizing policy. Trump is the anti-Midas—even the gold he accidentally touches turns to dirt. This warps debate about future policy choices and will restrict future options because we will have “tried that before.”