The tragedy of Trump's foreign policy

The tragedy of Trump's foreign policy
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE’s impulsive decision to remove nearly 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany illuminates the tragedy of Trump’s misbegotten foreign policy: For all the chaos, incoherence and counter-productive results, he was right to question basic assumptions.

After all, Trump was propelled into the White House because of his insights that the endless Middle East wars and the 2008 financial crisis had dissolved the public’s trust in elites. An irate, frustrated public, having to live with the costs of such painful mistakes, were ready to start with a clean slate.  

Questioning first principles – NATO, Asian alliances, China policy, trade agreements, offshoring, global institutions – can be a healthy exercise. But the absence of sound alternatives can lead to troubling unintended consequences.

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Repeated threats to impose tariffs and sanctions on European allies while embracing authoritarians such as Russia’s Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDemocrats fear Russia interference could spoil bid to retake Senate Putin is about to turn his attention to the American way of life Putin critic Navalny posts photo of himself walking: 'Long' path to recovery MORE and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan has gotten their attention. But it has also torn the fabric of transatlantic relations at a time when coping with Russia and China requires all the like-minded partners the U.S. can get. That said, calling out their freeriding has, ironically, led Europeans to focus more on bolstering their own defenses.

One reason Trump’s tactics have proved counter-productive is the hubris of overestimating American power and global leverage in a multipolar world. Imposing “maximum pressure” on Iran, Venezuela and North Korea has produced only stalemates. And tariffs and sanctions have yet to alter China’s or Russia’s abhorrent behavior. 

Trump was right at the start to call out China’s predatory mercantilist economic practices and, in effect, to say, we can’t do business this way anymore. But, with a flurry of unilateral tariffs and sanctions that have done more harm than good, Trump made it a U.S. vs. China issue, when, as is becoming more obvious, it is a China versus the world problem.

That is increasingly obvious from the growing global backlash to Beijing’s imperious behavior. Had Trump immediately mobilized a coalition of like-minded partners – the EU, Japan, Australia, Canada – and pushed back to press Beijing to play by the rules it signed on to, U.S. goals might be closer to being realized. 

Instead, we have an incomplete bilateral trade deal that’s not delivering the goods, and a U.S.-China relationship unraveling in a downward tit-for-tat death spiral, stumbling toward conflict.  

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To be fair, the source of the problem is Xi Jinping’s radical techno-totalitarian revolution that took China off the path of his predecessors, and his leap into full spectrum belligerence from the Himalayas to the East and South China Seas. But there is simply no way to obtain the leverage to deal with China as an economic and geopolitical force absent a broad coalition of partners.

Trade is a signature Trump issue. And while every trade deal not made by the Great Deal-Maker is derided as the “worst deal ever,” Trump was right to ask whether it was time to revisit them. Though his economics-defying zero-sum notion of trade is deeply flawed, and his trade policies hardly covered in glory, changing circumstances – new technologies, changing economic dynamics – can require revisions to agreements. NAFTA, for example, was a pre-digital age accord at a time when services and digital commerce are the fastest growing areas of trade.

Among favorite Trump targets of nefarious “globalism” are multilateral institutions, particularly the World Trade Organization (WHO) and World Health Organization (WHO). Here again, Trump had a point. Thanks in part to strident criticism from the U.S., there is now a broad consensus – and efforts underway – to reform the WTO. But like the proverbial dog chasing the car, the U.S. has been unclear about whether or how to fix it. And with regard to the WHO, Trump left the U.S. executive board seat vacant for two years and withdrew 30 CDC staffers, some of whom were on the ground in China.

Withdrawing from the global health agency in the midst of a pandemic throws out the baby with the bathwater. It is imperfect yet imminently reformable, and has mostly benefited the U.S. and, especially, the developing world. 

Perhaps most ironically, U.S. withdrawals from international institutions and agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paris Climate Accord and Iran nuclear deal, only reduce U.S. influence and credibility. 

As policy abhors a vacuum. Beijing has simply filled the vacuum at U.S. expense. It should be obvious that you can’t beat something with nothing. And in too many instances, Trump knew what he was against, but not what a viable alternative would be.

Surveying the wreckage, what are the key takeaways of Trump’s wild foreign policy ride? The world is already awash in books excoriating Trump and his administration, and, doubtless, many more will follow. The long-term cost of Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy will reveal itself as this decade unfolds. But, not discounting the flawed policies that flowed from it, his questioning of basic assumptions, a zero-sum approach, especially at a time of global upheaval and change, is something that might benefit the next administration.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the under-secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.