Blessing for Trump: a campaign devoid of foreign policy
With Americans’ focus squarely at home with the ongoing pandemic and economic collapse, foreign policy has been virtually absent from this year’s presidential campaign. Donald Trump should be grateful.
To the global question of whether America’s interests are better off than four years ago — from China and North Korea to the Atlantic alliance and the Middle East — the answer is No.
A Pew Research Center survey of 13 major countries, from Canada to Europe to Asia, found public attitudes about the U.S. have plummeted, and it’s even worse about Trump. Remarkably, when asked about handling of the Coronavirus, respondents give the U.S. lower marks than China, where the virus originated. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin get bad marks on trust — but better than the American president.
Trump and allies claim his toughness has China on the run, like the Soviet Union was decades ago; the North Korea threat has subsided; the president, they say, has forged an Arab-Israeli peace in the Middle East and he’s demonstrated that “America First,” or go-it-alone, works.
That isn’t a serious case.
“The United States certainly is not better off around the world than four years ago,” Frank Wisner, a former top diplomat and ambassador to Egypt and India under both Republican and Democratic presidents, told me. “Our alliances are shattered or badly scratched, and we’re out of step dealing with big issues like China or the Middle East.”
China is hardly the Soviets circa 1980s. For all this administration’s bluster on trade and economic inequities, almost nothing has been accomplished; China has made no structural changes. It avoided the humiliation it deserved for its mishandling and deception about the Coronavirus, as Trump failed to enlist allies — and he botched the challenge.
China has real domestic problems, but Xi Jinping and the Communist Party have been emboldened over the past four years and are cracking down on dissent — from Hong Kong to Tibet. Externally, the regime also is more aggressive on the Indian border, in the South China Sea and rhetorically on Taiwan.
Graham Allison, a Harvard scholar and China expert, tells me it’s easy to determine which of these superpowers has been advantaged over the past four years: China’s economy is doing better. It has 190 million school children and 40 million college students attending classes in person. Allison said: “A Chinese friend asked me: ‘Could they conceivably, in their wildest dreams, have undermined the U.S. alliance system to the extent Trump has?’”
Take a look at the current Atlantic piece by Anne Applebaum on how Trump’s disdain for alliances — such as pulling out of the World Health Organization in the middle of a global pandemic — is a gift to China: “How China Outsmarted the Trump Administration.”
There is no foreign policy arena about which Trump has made more noise than North Korea — from threatening all-out war, to several summits with dictator Kim Jong Un, to an exchange of diplomatic love letters, a bromance.
The upshot: The U.S. has gotten nothing, while Kim “is doing ok on foreign policy,” an understatement, notes Jung Pak, the former top CIA analyst on North Korea and now a Brookings Institution scholar.
Kim, she notes, hasn’t relinquished any of his nuclear weapons, and has reestablished better ties with China; the sanctions against the regime are weakening, and U.S. relations with South Korea have been strained.
In the Middle East, Israel — with the administration’s unwavering support — has improved its position from four years ago. That won’t change much with a Democratic administration, though the Palestinian tensions aren’t going away.
Saudi Arabia also is doing better with the Trump family’s closeness to the thuggish crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. If Democrats take over, however, he will be persona non grata in Washington.
The prime threat in the region — Iran — hasn’t diminished.
Trump tore up the Obama deal that froze Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and ratcheted up economic sanctions to make them buckle. They didn’t.
“The Iranian people suffered but the government didn’t bend or falter,” said Wisner. “The nuclear issue is greater, and Iran is an undiminished regional power.”
Iran and China are developing an economic and oil strategic alliance. Trump’s great achievement seems to have been getting together the two powers he considers the greatest enemies of the U.S.
The enhanced role of Turkey and Russia in the region is not to the benefit of America. Of course, Russia’s Vladimir Putin paid no price for interfering in the 2016 American election — and is at it again.
By the way, Mexico has yet to pay for that wall (what there is of it).
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.