What was Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy? What did his “America First” policy really entail?
According to the anonymous author of A Warning, a book on the behind-of-scenes of Trump’s presidency, there were several problems with Donald Trump’s foreign policy. No one even knew what “America First” really meant. He didn’t listen to foreign policy experts and changed important policy positions at a whim.
Let’s take a closer look at Trump’s foreign policy problems and their implications.
Donald Trump’s Approach to Foreign Policy
The primary way our leaders keep America safe and secure is through foreign policy. The president must have a well-considered strategy, implemented in conjunction with close allies, for distancing ourselves from adversaries and keeping them from harming us or our interests.
There are three main problems with Donald Trump’s foreign policy:
1) He has retreated from America’s role as the leader of the free world.
2) He lacks a coherent strategy.
3) He’s “flipped the script” by distancing us from our friends and cozying up to enemies.
America’s Role in the World
For much of our history, regardless of which party has occupied the White House, Americans have seen our country’s role as spreading democracy around the world. Our nation’s Founders believed America would one day to create a global “empire of liberty.” As the nation grew, we began spreading democratic ideals abroad. Over the last century, almost every president has advanced this view. Except for Trump.
After being sworn in, he advocated stepping back from the global leadership and turning inward. He criticized foreign involvement. He contended the U.S. was spending trillions subsidizing other countries’ armies and defending their borders, while our infrastructure fell apart at home and past administrations refused to defend our own borders.
These are mostly false and shortsighted claims. We’re better off for having helped our allies get stronger—these financial investments mean we don’t face hostile nations without support. They’ve also improved our economic status. As the world has become more democratic, more markets have opened for our goods.
However, we’re at a pivotal moment. America’s dominant role is threatened as growing nations aim to compete against us. While competition is a fact of global life, it’s cause for concern if the new rivals don’t share our values and undermine efforts toward a more democratic world. We should be strengthening our alliances and promoting democratic principles. If we step back, our foes will step up with their own agendas. Rather than strengthening the “empire of liberty,” Trump is opening the way for ambitious competitors.
Unpredictable Foreign Policy
Trump announced his “America First” foreign policy theme in April 2016, resurrecting the old isolationist slogan, intentionally or not, of those who opposed U.S. involvement in World War II. He also argued that we needed to become more “unpredictable” and stop alerting other nations to what we plan to do. Although his meaning wasn’t clear, the word unpredictable does sum up Trump’s foreign policy.
Partly for lack of direction, Trump’s national security team was slow in coming together. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis had international experience, but they weren’t on board with Trump’s isolationist views. Trump fired his national security advisor Mike Flynn after a few weeks for lying to the FBI about his contacts with high-ranking Russians. For a while, no one seemed to be in charge until Gen. H.R. McMaster replaced Flynn and tried to get everyone on the same page.
The problem was that no one knew what to expect from Trump. He might try to end a trade agreement with Canada after getting angry over a phone call with the prime minister. Or he might want to cut funding to an ally. His actions created a sense of policy whiplash on his foreign policy team at home and abroad. His calls with foreign leaders were an embarrassment—he would make strange pronouncements, brag about himself, or fly off the handle.
The president is required by law to produce a national security strategy. Since Trump couldn’t articulate his goals, McMaster’s staff put together a proposal supporting NATO and other U.S. alliances and taking stronger action to counter foes like Russia and North Korea. However, Trump didn’t read it. Consequently, not only are Trump’s advisors in the dark on our country’s direction, so are our allies, who can’t coordinate with us.
While our unpredictability can keep enemies off guard at first, it means they eventually stop taking us seriously. Trump is the boy who cried “wolf!”—our friends and enemies are shrugging him off. As one foreign official said, “…we do our best not to pay attention.”
Admiration for Dictators
As a candidate, Trump decried Obama’s overtures to dictators in China, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba; he criticized Obama for letting Putin gain influence. However, as president, Trump has gone far beyond that, lavishing praise and admiration on some of the worst “strongmen.”
After the brutal murder by Saudi hitmen of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Trump refused to criticize crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, although the evidence indicated he was behind it.
“I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good,” Trump said. Also, he said he believed bin Salman’s denial of involvement. He vented to staff: “Oil is at fifty dollars a barrel. Do you know how stupid it would be to pick this fight? Oil would go up to one hundred fifty dollars a barrel. Jesus. How f—ing stupid would I be?”
Making matters worse, he publicly thanked bin Salman for keeping oil prices low and told reporters it was a reason he wouldn’t criticize bin Salman. Trump may have been influenced by Jared Kushner, who’d become friends with the crown prince. Kushner urged administration officials to go easy, arguing that the Saudis were surrounded by enemies and we should put ourselves in their shoes—which implied that under those circumstances, we’d murder journalists, too.
Most people in the administration wanted to punish the Russians for interfering in the 2016 election. But Trump had cheered them on when he urged them at a campaign event to find the Clinton emails. For a U.S. presidential candidate to urge a foreign power to spy on his opponent was a first for this country. That same day, Russians hackers attempted to access to Hillary Clinton’s personal office. In subsequent weeks, Trump delighted in Russia’s leaks of stolen emails. Even though Russia was trying to manipulate the election, Trump had only praise for Putin: “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” he told reporters.
Trump was furious when Congress sanctioned Russia in summer 2017 because he felt Congress was getting in the way of his warm relationship with Putin. When Russia responded by kicking out hundreds of U.S. embassy staff and seizing U.S. diplomatic compounds, Trump thanked him for helping to “cut down on payroll.”
Trump’s admiration for Putin mystifies members of the Steady State. Some have likened it to Trump being the skinny kid on the playground groveling to the bully. Commentators have speculated that Putin has some sort of leverage over Trump, but no evidence of that has surfaced. Whatever is behind Trump’s infatuation for Putin, it’s resulted in his biggest foreign policy misstep: America’s failure to respond to a blatant Russian attack on our democracy.
This naivete makes Trump’s secretive interactions with Putin and other foreign leaders all the more alarming.
Trump’s insistence on meeting privately with Putin in Helsinki was especially disturbing: 1) It was foolish in light of the allegations Trump had colluded with Russia in the election interference, and 2) His refusal to give any reason for the meeting and his insistence on hiding the details from his own staff were unprecedented. We should be concerned about what secret promises Trump is making to countries like Russia and why he wants to hide them.
If he’s reelected, it’s guaranteed that he’ll make more dishonorable requests of foreign leaders that we’re unlikely to learn about.
“Willful ignorance” best characterizes Trump’s attitude toward our enemies.
According to a former FBI official, Trump once dismissed U.S. intelligence information about a rogue country’s missile capability. He said Putin had told him something different, and that’s what he was going with. “I don’t care. I believe Putin,” the official quoted Trump as saying.
Meanwhile, Trump’s lax attitude toward Russia’s election interference has emboldened it to expand its attacks on American interests. Former national intelligence director Dan Coats testified in January 2019 that Russia is still spreading discord in the U.S. through operations designed to influence public opinion. A few months later, Robert Mueller told Congress the same thing. This should provoke national outrage and demands for action against the Russian government, yet our president ignores it.
Love in North Korea
North Korea is another example of Trump becoming infatuated with a dictator. For instance, Trump has said admiringly of Kim Jong Un’s ascension to power: “He goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. He wiped out his uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games.”
He wanted to meet with Kim during the presidential campaign, but North Korea rejected the idea as a propaganda ploy. Once elected, though, he reversed course, announcing a policy of “maximum pressure” and punishing aggression. But Trump couldn’t stand firm. The dealmaker desperately wanted a deal with Kim, whom he called “a pretty smart cookie.”
When South Korean officials, who were visiting Washington, conveyed a message that Kim wanted to meet personally, Trump agreed immediately. While White House officials painted it as a breakthrough, they felt North Korea should have made concessions to earn a meeting. Trump ruled otherwise. He was immediately caught up in the drama rather than substance. He wasn’t concerned about details but about the chemistry he wanted to create with Kim.
The summit didn’t produce anything meaningful, yet Trump considered it a great success. “I like him. He likes me,” he said later at a rally. He described the talks this way: “We went back and forth, then we fell in love. He wrote me beautiful letters and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”
When disarmament talks stalled, U.S. negotiators decided to put pressure on North Korea. In late 2018, the U.S. sanctioned three North Korean officials for human rights abuses. Trump furiously demanded, “Who did this? Kim is my friend!”
Attracted to Autocrats
Senior White House officials are mystified by Trump’s attraction to autocrats. One suggested that dictators have what Trump wants: “total power, no term limits, enforced popularity, the ability to silence critics for good.” It sounded about right.
Of Kim Jong Un, Trump said admiringly: “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”
He complained to Putin about his troubles with a free press: “You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.”
Trump doesn’t see our adversaries as threats to our security. To him, they’re trading partners with whom we just need to haggle until we get a good deal. He doesn’t understand that governments like China, Russia, and North Korea are organized to oppose us. Their values are the opposite of ours. We can’t paper over that with a deal.
While Trump claims that U.S policy should be unpredictable, it’s a cover for not having a plan. Our enemies realize he’s a pushover—they aren’t afraid of his chest-thumping. They know he’s easily swayed by flattery and he’ll take any deal that he thinks will make him look good. They see him as someone they can take advantage of or just ignore.
While Trump cozies up to dictators, he has no qualms about alienating our closest allies and personally insulting their leaders.
An example was his behavior at the 2018 G7 summit in Canada. To begin with, Trump had a bad attitude about the summit because he wasn’t getting star treatment, he’d have to interact with other leaders who disagreed with him, and he wasn’t interested in many of the issues on the table. Also, he’d alienated many of the allies by imposing new tariffs. He was getting criticism for implementing new trade barriers while G7 leaders had long worked to eliminate barriers.
Instead of mending fences or focusing on mutual interests, Trump went on the attack:
- He arrived late and scolded other leaders for “unfair trade practices.”
- He sniped at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, volunteering to send him 25 million Mexicans, since Japan didn’t seem to have an immigration problem.
- He threw a Starburst candy at German chancellor Angela Merkel, saying, “Don’t say I never give you anything.”
- He called for Russia to be readmitted to G7 meetings—it had been ousted over Putin’s invasion of Crimea.
- Before leaving the summit early, Trump went on a Twitter rant blasting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “very dishonest and weak.”
We pay a price for Trump’s behavior—American officials get a cold shoulder when we need a foreign partner’s help on something.
Besides his insults, Trump is damaging our relationships with allies and our long-term security with threats and punitive actions. For instance,
- He’s imposed trade penalties, invoking “national security.”
- He threatened to discard a defense treaty with Japan.
- He regularly threatens to withdraw from agreements to get partners to do what he wants, including showing loyalty to him.
Some of our allies have learned how to play Trump, rather than waiting for an attack. For instance, after watching dictators flatter Trump, Israel’s leaders have similarly stroked his ego to get what they want. They’ve named settlements after him and found other ways to appeal to his vanity to get concessions. This shouldn’t become the norm for U.S. foreign relations any more than Trump’s insults should.
Remember that our foreign policy—the relationships we build and the actions we take to deter countries out to harm us—is the way we ensure our security. Contrary to what Trump says, our friends aren’t taking advantage of us. And we need them. Unfortunately, however, they no longer trust us, thanks to Trump’s insults, lies, bullying, and erratic conduct. Many are planning to either live without us or deal with us as a rival.
We Have a Choice
In the past, the United States has shaped world history. Winston Churchill recognized this in appealing for America’s help to turn the tide of World War II. He wrote: “How heavily do the destinies of this generation hang upon the government and the people of the United States… Will the United States throw their weight into the scales of peace and law and freedom while time remains…?”
The question is whether we’re still willing to weigh in for the cause of freedom or be spectators instead. Would we rather be in “a small club of thugs” than “a big club of free nations”? The world doesn’t know which way we’ll go. Surveys show our international reputation has taken a nosedive under Trump. Others believe we’re failing to step up to address global concerns. Positive views of the U.S. are at a record low, according to the Pew Research center.
Henry Kissenger said that “the goals of America’s past—peace, stability, progress and freedom—will have to be sought in a journey that has no end.” We and our leaders have to choose clearly between right and wrong, friend and foe. In that, Trump has failed us.
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- An inside look at the chaotic Trump administration written by a senior Trump administration official
- An examination of Trump's authoritarianism and threats to democracy
- The three options that existed for removing Trump from office