While there is political disagreement over how to express and achieve the foreign policy goals of the United States, there is general agreement over what they are. For example, maintaining the American hegemony is generally seen as good for the stability of the international system. America achieves this through diplomacy, military power, intelligence operations, economic policy, and other similar actions. When and how we intervene in a conflict, what the economic policies are, what stipulations are attached to aid, and so on all may vary dramatically from president to president. Even what parts of the globe to focus on may change considering the differing crises and temperaments of the current president. Foreign policy requires a steady vision of objectives and concerns, and if a government lacks either, then there could be a ineffectual, unfocused approach to how America conducts itself to the world.
President Donald Trump’s vision for foreign policy seems to focus, as most of his visions do, on himself. He evaluates policy decisions on whether they make him look good, look smart, and look strong. If another president made the policy, he may hate it just because it gets someone else’s name in the news as much as his; he has criticized the JCPOA constantly, even though Iran seems to be holding up its end of the bargain. Korea, too, is a good example, where despite the president’s claims, his intelligence advisors publicly informed the Senate at an intelligence hearing that North Korea is probably not going to undertake any sort of denuclearization, although they have for the moment ceased testing missiles and devices. Nor does Trump seem to comprehend the utility of soft power, to the point of musing on whether NATO is actually worth supporting. Fortunately, he claims to value the alliance, on contingency of defense spending levels he continues to seem to think is a payment.
President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy seems to be completely novel for a president. To him, all negotiations are zero-sum. He does not recognize mutual benefit as an advantage, and in fact sees it as a detriment. He prefers bilateral agreements, where he can be an outsize influencing force, to multilateral ones that can be more comprehensive. Even when almost the entire planet has entered into an agreement, such as with the Paris climate accord, Trump shows his contempt for such compacts. Again, Korea is a good example of this, where Kim Jong Un was able to get the president to meet with him, an act which conveyed to Un’s regime a certain legitimacy, without giving up anything concrete in return. At the end of the day, this style of diplomacy reduces American power and global influence, because it turns us from the entity running the meetings to just another nation trying to get by.
Another problem is that President Trump doesn’t seem to understand that in order to be effective, departments must be staffed. During the crisis sparked when the American journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Turkey by Saudi operatives, for example, we did not (and still don’t) have an ambassador with either country. We have other staff, but an ambassador at that level would be immensely effective at ensuring that American interests are represented. This is a problem throughout the administration, and it weakens the ability for government to do as much as it can.
The United States of America has such a large standing on the world stage that there are huge departments that work together to create a continuity of policy, in order to create a coherent platform for American power. Part of this continuity is because of bureaucratic inertia, which helps to maintain a state that President Obama referred to as “The Blob”, which is the foreign policy tendency for increase of American Power and the status quo. However, a lot of it comes from the political experience of foreign policy itself, which requires effort, cooperation, multilateralism, and the acknowledgement that sometimes, there is never a good outcome for a situation.
Even when Trump does staff positions, he doesn’t choose the best, or most qualified. He chooses those who look good on TV and who have said nice things about him on those TV shows. Heather Nauert, Trump’s pick to succeed Nikki Haley as ambassador to the U.N., has recently withdrawn herself from consideration as it became public that Nauert had employed a nanny who was a legal US resident but did not have a work visa. Nauert, a former State Department spokeswoman and Fox News talking head, was not particularly qualified for such an important position in the first place. Of course, Trump’s disdain for the existence the U.N. in general shows through both his selection of Nauert as well as the fact that she had never been officially nominated. Furthermore, no date had been set for her hearing. (There are many senior State Department positions in similar straits.) Curiously, Nauert had previously mentioned the situation to the State Department, and had been told it would not be a problem for her nomination.
Donald Trump’s view of the world is intensely, almost narcissistically, personal. Presidents often form personal relationships with other world leaders, but they do so in service of national, not personal, goals. From making snap decisions without consulting his cabinet for the sake of his own image, to having meetings with Russian president Vladimir Putin which are kept secret even from Trump’s own staff, from welcoming personal enrichment through foreign diplomats staying at his hotels (Americans looking to curry favor did the same thing, of course) to shoving aside the Prime Minister of Montenegro at a NATO summit, Trump conducts every level of foreign policy for his own private benefit. He also has cozy and comfortable relationships with leaders with dictatorial tendencies, from Filipino President Duterte to Turkish President Erdogan. Trump’s relationship with Putin in particular is so famously cozy that Trump was trying to make a deal with Putin for a Trump Tower Moscow while running for president. The fallout from that relationship is currently under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which has extended into a intricate web of indictments and plea deals whose details remain mostly unknown. At times, it seems as if Trump’s foreign policy meshes most closely with Putin’s own goals for Russian power to the point of a different FBI investigation, such as his interference with and continued disdain for NATO.
These distorted viewpoints and policy failures are no accident. Long before Donald Trump, the Republican party has preferred military adventurism to diplomatic or “soft” power. They were propping up dictators and decrying international agreements before Trump came along. By failing to staff those parts of the government dedicated to non-violent solutions to foreign policy problems, Trump fulfills the long-held Republican desire to shrink the government (hoping to one day “drown it in the bathtub”) while making the military the only viable tool for conducting foreign affairs. We have lost an experienced and continuous bureaucracy in the State department, which was one of the key, if unseen, reasons it was previously so effective. Conducting American foreign policy efforts is much harder with such a dramatically smaller workforce, as will be the task of educating new employees to try and replenish the loss of experience and knowledge under Trump. That is, assuming the next president is not also a Republican, who would likely have similar contempt for the State department’s ongoing functionality.
While there are always pressing issues around the world, such as the various actions of Russia and China, the Trump administration’s foreign policy currently appears to be focused on four main areas: Venezuela, Syria, North Korea, and Afghanistan. These different crises also help to illustrate the many influences on Trump’s foreign policy and why it is so incoherent. The primary agent, of course, is the president himself. Trump’s desire to celebrate his successes and ignore his setbacks to the point of disregarding reality is readily apparent when it comes to negotiations with North Korea. Even though the president claimed success with his talks with Kim Jong Un, the discovery of approximately 20 previously undeclared missile sites show that the North Korean leader most likely has no interest in any sort of nuclear disarmament. Rather than altering his strategy to accommodate this new information, Trump publicly castigated his intelligence advisors for informing the Senate at a public intelligence hearing that, although they have for the moment ceased testing missiles and devices, North Korea is probably not going to undertake any sort of denuclearization. The fact that even this temporary testing halt is probably due to the mountain the testing occurred in collapsing has gone unremarked upon by the president. If it isn’t a personal win for Trump, it doesn’t exist.
Trump’s foreign policy is also influenced by the Pentagon bureaucracy. Afghanistan and Syria are examples of this. Trump has railed against the war in Afghanistan, and although he seems to not have any concrete plans, has said time and time again he wants to withdraw American troops from the nation’s longest war. However, for an extended period of time, Trump went along with recommended troop levels and activity, to the point of approving a massive munitions strike on caves being used by ISIS. He seems to be fed up with that status quo now. Contingent on talks with the Taliban, Trump wants to draw down troop levels, although reports of a deal made have been disputed. Of course, one of the main reasons for Mattis’ resignation is that instead of waiting for the situation in Afghanistan to be less volatile, president Trump wants to begin the withdrawal as soon as possible. All presidents are influenced in their decision-making by the military bureaucracy, but Trump’s incompetence as an administrator means that, when he is not simply deferring to their judgement, Trump is unable to address issues of the military slow-walking or otherwise undermining orders they disagree with, like the proposed transgender ban.
Another significant influence on the president’s decision making process is the same interventionist mindset that has been a part of Republican status quo for a very long time. The years-long developing crisis in Venezuela displays the influence of these more hawkish advisors, such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, who not so subtly signalled a willingness for military intervention in South America. Senator Marco Rubio has become the administration’s point person on the issue, and seems to be involved with how they deal with situations such as recognizing opposition leader Juan Guiado as interim president. An excellent indication of exactly where Trump stands from a foreign policy perspective is his pick for special envoy to Venezuela: Elliott Abrams. America has had a long sordid history of interfering with democratic reforms in Central and South America, usually supporting dictatorial strong men with no qualms about butchering their own people, and Mr. Abrams was in the center of much of that history in the 1980s, including the Iran-Contra scandal. Abrams’ appointment is reminder that even when Trump manages to do the right thing (in recognizing Guiado), his disinterest in removing even the most egregious examples of right wing hawkism from his circle of advisors will always lead him toward repeating some of the worst situations in American history. Between Trump’s mercurial, self-aggrandizing personality, his difficult relationship with his own bureaucracy, and his far right-wing advisors, it’s no wonder the results of this administration’s foreign policy efforts range from ineffective to disastrous. .
But the foundational problem of Donald Trump when it comes to policy, and specifically foreign policy, is twofold: that he views the world through the narrowest of lenses, and that his lens displays a deeply warped version of reality. And despite what that reality tells him, the skills he claims are vital to being successful in this arena are not actually in his possession. Trump has had no reason in his life to develop skills like negotiation or subtle influence, instead preferring to overwhelm the other party through sheer size and exploitation. Unfortunately, in the realm of politics and policy, Trump is not personally outsized enough for this tactic to work, and the nations he can bully are the ones with which we generally have a mutually beneficial relationship in the first place, leaving him with little to show for his efforts but damage and disgrace. Foreign policy is difficult, requires focus, and is often a range of choices on a spectrum ranging from “utterly terrible” to “merely bad”. Trump has neither the focus nor acumen to understand or navigate those decisions. His first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, referred to him as a “fucking moron”, because Trump seemed to have utterly no grasp of how foreign policy worked. It seems that in this case, at least, Secretary Tillerson was a good judge of character.