Image credit: Marco Verch
Following the 2016 Presidential election many were concerned that Donald Trump’s victory would herald a spectacular shift in US foreign policy. At his inauguration, Trump first touted his ‘America First’ slogan, this applied both to business (“bringing back our jobs“) and militarily (“NATO countries must pay MORE, the United States must pay LESS”). He made sweeping attacks on America’s allies and enemies in equal amounts.
But how far has the idea of America First actually gone? What exactly is the Trump administration’s foreign policy? Indeed, is there an overarching strategic direction at all?
Defying initial expectations?
From the outset, there were deep concerns that Trump’s ‘America First’ slogan would translate into a foreign policy that would lead to an isolationist America, a trade war which would do more harm than good, and the rise of America’s foes.
But initially, it appeared that Trump was sticking to conventional foreign policy wisdom. Despite irritating Beijing by accepting a congratulatory call from the Taiwanese president, he did not immediately slap tariffs on Chinese goods, instead he sought to discuss important economic issues with Xi Jingping, and even got a good deal for his family business out of it.
When it came to Syria, Trump took a hostile stance towards Assad, even reacting with a missile attack when footage emerged appearing to show the regime gassing its own civilians.
This irritated Russia, a nation whom many accused of interfering on Trump’s side in the US election. Indeed, the Syrian missile attack came in the wake of Congress acting imposing stronger sanctions on Russia in July 2017, which further strained relations between the two nations.
Best buddies with Vladimir
However, more recently, Trump appears to have completely diverged the US foreign policy playbook. This is particularly true in the case of Russia.
Stories of the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to the Kremlin are never far from the headlines. His son in law and sons are accused of having murky connections with Russian officials and former national security advisor Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the FBI about his dealings with Moscow.
In January 2018 Trump got into a headstrong match with Congress over re-imposing sanctions on Russia over its actions in Crimea and the Donbas. His Twitter attacks against the intelligence agencies in the US and his calls of a witch hunt have all served to create the image of a man who is in some way indebted to Russia.
All that was before the conference in Helsinki, where Trump contradicted his own intelligence agencies by stating that he “saw no reason” to believe claims of Russian meddling in the US election (a statement he later revoked). In Finland he held a rare private meeting with Putin at which just the two of them and interpreters were present. Putin also openly admitted he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election.
This combination of mixed messages towards Putin appears not only to be emboldening the Kremlin, but is also damaging the US government’s reputation at home and with its allies, a problem made even more acute by Trump’s evident scorn for the EU and NATO.
During the campaign trail Trump repeatedly slammed NATO, claiming that the US was the country keeping that organisation alive, and that funding the the organisation at current levels represented a bad deal for the US unless other member states increased their military spending.
This is a theme he has maintained throughout the first eighteen months of his presidency, including at a summit in Brussels, where he demanded that allied nations pay more into their military budgets or risk facing the US reducing its commitment, or simply pulling out of the organisation.
This has not dissuaded Trump from continuing his attacks on NATO members, demanding they increase spending to four percent – which is more than the US itself currently spends. At the same time he also significantly undermined the credibility of the institution by warning that defending NATO’s newest member, Montenegro, from possible attack would simply start World War Three.
It remains unclear whether Trump is employing these tactics in order to completely withdraw the US from what he sees as a wasteful commitment in Europe, or if he is trying to use his muscle to lessen the burden on the US budget, fitting in with his America First promise.
NATO is not alone in earning Trump’s scorn. The same lack of faith in multilateral institutions has been demonstrated by his distain for the G7 at the 2018 summit in Quebec, as well as his hasty withdrawal from both the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accords, both of which the Obama administration had worked very hard to promote.
Trump is on record as saying that, while he “love[s] the countries of the European Union. … the European Union was set up to take advantage of the United States”. Trump has repeatedly demanded that nations within the EU sort out the trade surplus they have with the US, even in cases where it does not exist. In March 2018, the US imposed a 25% tariff on steel and a 10% tariff on aluminium imported into the US, sparking a trade war with both the EU and China.
The head of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, flew to Washington in late July to meet with Trump to in an attempt avert an escalation in the trade war, especially a 25% tariff on EU car imports into the United States. Whilst this may have been successful in the short term, the advantage in this trade war is clearly in favour of America. That too is the case in Trump’s dealings with China.
Trump’s relationship with Beijing was initially cordial: Xi Jingping’s visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort was reciprocated by a lavish “state visit-plus” when Air Force One touched down in China. However, as things have progressed, Trump’s long promised economic war with China has began to materialise.
The continuing devaluation of the Yuan, and what Trump has always seen as an unfair trading relationship, has led to the imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the US, which has led to Chinese retaliation on US goods – on August 3, China threatened to impose tariffs on up to $60bn of US products.
The latest Chinese sanctions on soya beans have seen the US government draw up a $12 billion aid plan for US farmers affected by the trade war. Whilst data on China is perennially difficult to obtain, signs are that the 25% tariffs on USD$34bn of goods, imposed by Washington on July 6, are affecting both business sentiment and growth.
In his dealings with both the EU and China, Trump has employed blunt, bullying tactics which may well pay off – he knows that the US has a strong hand to play. However, it may serve to isolate the United States: a meeting of 51 heads of European and Asian states is planned in Brussels this October in order to coordinate a response to Trump’s economic belligerence.
North Korea and Iran
Trump has also carved out his own unique path in his treatment of the United States’ traditional foes. With North Korea, after a series of successful missile tests, Trump stated that Pyongyang would face ‘fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen’, drawing fear and criticism from Japan, South Korea and China.
Trump then changed his approach, and it appeared that North Korea was open to this change as well; a summit was planned, promptly cancelled and then rearranged for Singapore. Much like Trump’s dealings with Putin, it is hard to ascertain what was achieved from the meeting.
However, in the wake meeting, Pyongyang appears to view the meeting as having legitimised its regime, neither has it taken particular trouble to halt its nuclear testing.
Similar patterns are also evident with Trump’s discourse towards Hasan Rouhani, the President of Iran. Increasingly sour and threatening words were traded, only for Trump to change tack and offer a meeting with his Iranian counterpart.
Trump on the front foot
To conclude, Trump’s undiplomatic and at times forceful approach relies on America’s dominant position in the global economy. He has calculated that he can bully countries into compliance and carve out a stronger trading position without losing too many allies. They need America more than America needs them.
It is a policy not without risk. Trump’s trade wars also risk damaging the US economy and harming his core voters. But thus far these concerns appear unfounded – the economy has recently noted 4.1% growth, it’s fastest rate in nearly a decade.
But foreign policy has other uses: more than in any other area, Trump has instrumentalised foreign policy in order to set the media agenda. Whether it’s through high profile meetings with Kim and Vladimir, recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, insisting that Mexico pays for his mythical border wall, or simply calling nations “shithole countries”, Trump’s bold foreign policy plays serve to knock the press off balance, keeping himself on the front foot.