Reviewing Trump's Foreign Policy Moves

[ Posted Tuesday, May 15th, 2018 – 17:19 UTC ]

Quixotic. Peripatetic. Mercurial. These are all ten-dollar words which could describe Donald Trump's approach to foreign policy matters. A less-fancy term might be "totally incoherent." Trump stands for nothing, has a situational approach to any individual foreign policy issue, and doesn't seem all that conversant with important details -- all of which add up to a foreign policy that his own foreign policy advisors can't predict. They are continually being caught by surprise by some off-the-cuff Trump tweet or statement, and regularly scramble to provide some sort of backup to whatever bee Trump currently has in his bonnet. It's Nixon's madman theory writ large, because even Trump's own White House has no earthly idea what he'll do or say next. At least Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were on the same page in their madman gambit, but Trump doesn't seem to be sharing his thoughts with anyone within his administration.

Trump has bragged for decades about his supposed mastery of "the art of the deal." He pitched himself as the king of dealmakers on the campaign trail. He and he alone could force everyone to the table, knock heads until he got a fantastic deal for America, and thus show up all the pointy-headed so-called "experts" who said it couldn't be done. His actual record falls far short of this. In fact, rather than Dealmaker-in-Chief, Trump has proven to be nothing short of Dealbreaker-in-Chief. His biggest foreign policy moves to date have been deals which he has either pulled out of, violated, or otherwise broken. So far, this list includes pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, pulling out of the Paris accords on climate change, unilaterally violating the Iran nuclear deal, unilaterally starting (or threatening) a trade war with China, Japan, and Europe, and, for good measure, ending the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program for immigrant children. Trump has also threatened (but, so far, has not followed through) to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement and perhaps even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He has reversed decades of U.S. policy towards Israel and all but abandoned the "two-state solution" we were supposed to be working towards, while moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in exchange for precisely nothing from Israel's government in return.

The list of deals he has achieved during the same time period is a short one: a new bilateral trade deal with South Korea which they agreed to in order to be exempted from Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs. That's pretty much it, unless I've forgotten something.

Whether by design or by a coincidental confluence of events on the calendar, Trump has been engaged in foreign policy in the past two weeks in a big way. American presidents, in the past, have turned to foreign policy in times of their own political trouble in order to change the subject in the news, so this could indeed be by design, as both Michael Avenatti and Bob Mueller have been creating more and more scandal-based headaches for Trump on a weekly basis. But then again it could be just coincidence, especially seeing as how none of these foreign policy moves seems designed to build on any other. A quick overview of Trump's moves on the world stage clearly shows this disconnect, in fact.


Moving the embassy to Jerusalem

Donald Trump, before he became interested in politics, probably could not have found either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem on a map if his life depended on it. But once Trump did transform into a politician, he supported a goal long sought by Israel and their supporters in the U.S. -- moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. This was an action that Trump could take without the benefit of Congress weighing in, so it was even more tempting.

Previous to Trump, America had been holding out on this move for decades for a very good reason: it was supposed to be a prize for Israel that would be awarded by America after peace was reached with the Palestinians (or, at the very least, after significant moves towards that goal had been taken). It may have been symbolic, but it was used as leverage during negotiations.

By awarding this diplomatic prize to Israel without a single concession in return, Trump has thrown away a huge bargaining chip in the dealmaking process. By doing so, he has enraged much of the rest of the world, and astonished those countries that aren't fully enraged. This is Bad Dealmaking 101: giving away the store before the dealmaking even begins.

Trump has also walked away from even the appearance of America being a neutral good-faith third party in any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. We've always maintained the fiction that we're not really on either party's side, but instead are merely a broker between the two -- an umpire calling strikes and balls rather than a cheerleader for either team. But now it is impossible to even pretend to be such an honest broker, as we're now obviously in Israel's corner while almost completely ignoring Palestinian concerns and largely refusing to even talk to them.

In all of this, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu has played Trump like a fiddle, offering him the praise and obsequiousness he so desperately craves, while getting pretty much everything he asks for from Trump in return. This is the only thing Israel has offered America in this dealmaking, in fact -- fawning love for Trump. Which seems to be working out quite well for them, so far.


Iran nuclear deal

This was a major campaign promise Trump made, so it really came as no surprise when Trump decided to unilaterally violate the Iran nuclear deal. But, as with most of Trump's foreign policy moves, he did so with absolutely no "Plan B" in place for what would happen the day afterward. So we went from supporting and complying with a deal that would have kept Iran from any moves towards nuclear weapons for years to come to having no deal with them at all, which means they could start enriching uranium again tomorrow and achieve a nuclear weapon in a very short period of time -- the exact thing the deal was designed to prevent.

Europe is now considering how it might salvage the deal, so there may be some hope for it after all. To do so, they would join with China and Russia to verify the deal, while moving away from America diplomatically. They are reportedly considering how they could avoid the sanctions Trump is threatening, which they've done before. America's Cuba policy was totally ignored by Europe for decades -- you could buy Cuban cigars and rum anywhere in Europe, and Cuba was actually a vacation destination for Europeans, even while Americans were barred from any contact with the island for over half a century.

All of this diminishes America's standing on the world stage, even further than when Trump pulled out of the Paris accords. It sends a very clear message to the world that America is in retreat, only interested in itself, and doesn't care that much about its allies any more. China and Russia would likely be delighted to fill in this diplomatic void, it bears mentioning. If Trump had truly had a "Plan B" that Europe could have gotten behind, this might have been different, but since Trump obviously has no clue about what to do next, Europe is left to its own devices.

Violating the Iran nuclear deal also sends a very strong signal to North Korea's Kim Jong Un: America's word cannot be trusted any longer. At least as long as Trump is president, anything we agree to can be taken with a grain of salt, because Trump could just change his mind tomorrow. That's not exactly the best message to be sending ahead of talks to denuclearize North Korea, obviously.

Trump didn't get anything for violating the deal. Our allies are against the move, Iran is against the move, and there was no better deal negotiated at all. This leaves America short on leverage to negotiate such a better deal in the future. It also leaves us rather isolated on the issue, as Europe is already trying to work around Trump's abdication of American world leadership. The one thing Trump did get from all this was to be able to tell his supporters that he had followed through on a campaign promise, but that doesn't buy him much on the world stage.


China and trade

Trump and China have a rather strange love/hate relationship. China wasn't just a major campaign issue for Trump, it was one of a handful of core issues he ran on -- China is eating our lunch on trade, they're stealing all our jobs, and they're a bad actor all around. Trump was the guy who was going to stand up to all of this and turn things around. He'd bring all the jobs back, he'd reverse the trade deficit with China, and he would make them kowtow to America rather than the other way around.

So far, Trump's got a mixed record, at best, with China. He vacillates from talking tough on China to bragging about what good friends they are and how he's got a wonderful relationship with the Chinese leader. Trump praises China for helping out with North Korean sanctions, but then flips to saying they aren't doing enough at a moment's notice. Trump threatens tariffs as leverage against China in trade talks, but so far has not followed through on the most severe tariffs he's proposed.

China is one country where Trump can actually claim at least partial success, though. They have indeed helped out with the North Korean sanctions, which may be why Kim Jong Un is attempting diplomacy now rather than calling Trump a "dotard." Even with all the tit-for-tat tariff talk from both sides, China has actually come to the table to negotiate changes in trade policy. Trump has actually followed his own "art of the deal" blueprint, and has opened these negotiations by asking for the moon, the sun, and the stars. China has responded with its own rather outrageous demands. This could be a starting point which might actually bear some fruit in the end.

However, in the last few days, Trump threw a rather large hand grenade into these talks. The extraordinary thing is that he threw it towards the American negotiators, not towards the Chinese. In two absolutely bizarre tweets, Trump championed a Chinese company that builds cell phones and other electronic devices. This company is considered a national security threat to America, for two reasons. The first is that they ignored sanctions by selling equipment to both North Korea and Iran. The second is that their devices are considered nothing short of spy equipment for the Chinese government, which is why the U.S. military has banned their use on military bases (fearful they can be used to track U.S. troops' movements, among other things). The company is obviously a bad actor, which is why Trump championing them is so inexplicable. America had slapped severe punishments on the company -- so severe, in fact, that it likely would have driven them out of business. But Trump is now openly stating that he wants to save all the Chinese jobs that would be lost if the company went under.

Contemplate just how big a change this is for him for just a moment -- Trump went from campaigning that he'd bring back American jobs from China because of his "America First" policy to now suddenly championing saving Chinese jobs from being lost. That is a nothing short of a jaw-dropping turnaround. And it has taken the rest of his administration by complete surprise. Nobody in the Commerce Department or the State Department has any idea what Trump is up to, there were no policy discussions on the matter, and they are all now scrambling to figure out how to react and move forward in response to the bizarre presidential tweets standing up for jobs in China for a company the Pentagon considers a national security threat.

Reportedly, Trump is willing to trade away any sanctions on the company for China keeping the status quo on American agriculture. Also reportedly, a company in Indonesia that uses the Trump brand for a resort and golf course just got half a billion dollars from China -- mere days before Trump's astonishing turnaround on the Chinese company. This has all thrown a rather large monkey wrench into the ongoing trade talks with China, obviously, as both sides try to figure out what position Trump will take next.


North Korea

Up until today, this was the one bright spot in Trump's recent foreign policy moves. Trump was so convinced that he was going to be the president who ended the Korean War and removed all nuclear weapons from North Korea that he had already awarded himself the Nobel Peace Prize (in his own mind).

Trump had agreed to sit down with North Korea's leader, which is historic in its own right since it is unprecedented. Even if he didn't achieve any agreement at all, the fact that Trump and Chairman Kim met would have been seen as a milestone of diplomacy. Trump, with China's help, had ratcheted up economic sanctions against North Korea to such a high level that he could reasonably claim to have driven Kim Jong Un to the bargaining table. An agreement was seen as within reach to not only denuclearize North Korea, but also to formally end the Korean War. Either would be a very big deal, if it happened.

Of course, throughout all of this, nobody was ever really sure what sort of game Kim Jong Un was playing. North Korea has, in the past, agreed to almost exactly the same thing (denuclearization) on multiple occasions, only to later cheat and back out of the deals. So that was always a concern. For Kim Jong Un, being treated as an equal to the United States would have been his own diplomatic coup, because much like moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, a one-on-one meeting with a U.S. president was always held out as a diplomatic prize that would only be achieved after a whole lot of concrete progress had been made. Trump jumping into negotiations at the very start (rather than the end) of the process was, in itself, something for North Korea to brag about.

If it had worked, though, Trump would still have been seen as (to put it in Trumpian terms) winning. If an agreement had been reached, Trump could have called all the naysayers needlessly timid and bragged that his own brash brand of negotiation had achieved what others had tried and failed to achieve.

But today's news puts everything up in the air once again. Kim Jong Un just abruptly pulled out of a meeting with the South Korean government (within 24 hours of agreeing to the meeting in the first place), to protest a joint military exercise between the South Korean military and the U.S. Air Force. This is an annual event, and had been planned for a while, but Kim Jong Un's position is that holding this exercise amounts to bad faith right before the negotiations begin. It is now uncertain whether the Trump-Un summit is even going to happen. If it doesn't, it will be rather embarrassing for Trump, because it would prove right the experts who had warned against the meeting all along.

Again, nobody has ever been sure exactly what Kim Jong Un has been up to in this whole diplomatic dance. His openness since the Winter Olympics has been a complete reversal of his previous belligerent posturing. So perhaps it was too much to hope for that it would continue. Or perhaps he's just jockeying for a better bargaining position in advance of the talks. He may even be somewhat justified in taking this new position, as he alone has unilaterally made good-faith moves in advance of the negotiations, while America has not. North Korea stopped testing nuclear weapons, stopped testing their ballistic missiles, and appears to be in the process of dismantling their nuclear weapons test site. Other more minor concessions have been made to South Korea, as well. Meanwhile, America has not made any such good-faith concessions in advance of the talks, beyond promising not to hold joint military exercises during the Olympics themselves. Since the games are long over, this concession has ended, so there's really no reason why we shouldn't be running a joint military exercise that has been long-planned. Trump can reasonably argue that there were no preconditions set for the meeting by America, so North Korea now demanding such concessions is itself an act of bad faith.

Perhaps Kim Jong Un is merely proving that he can be even more quixotic than Trump when it comes to foreign policy moves. Perhaps he's just proving the point that he can be just as (if not more) unpredictable than Trump. With Trump lurching from foreign policy stance to complete reversals of his previous positions on an almost daily basis these days, that's pretty hard to do, but if anyone can pull such a feat off it is definitely Kim Jong Un.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


12 Comments on “Reviewing Trump's Foreign Policy Moves”

  1. [1] 
    Kick wrote:

    Donald Trump, before he became interested in politics, probably could not have found either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem on a map if his life depended on it.

    Yes, sir... and he undoubtedly still cannot unless somebody made him a special map whereon it was labeled "JERU$ALEM."

  2. [2] 
    Paula wrote:

    The China deal in conjunction with the Indonesian loan is looking like a straight-up quid pro quo done specifically so Blotus would make money.

  3. [3] 
    jay wrote:

    Ain't it supposed to be 'Chairman Kim", not 'Chairman Un'?

  4. [4] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    CW uses "Ted dollar worlds" for Trumpsforeign policy descriptors. Not being in his income bracket, I tend toward far less expensive terminology. I'd go with something in the ten-cent bracket, perhaps "Shit-for-brains".

  5. [5] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Oops - make that read '$10 WORDS', NOT "worlds".

  6. [6] 
    ardis wrote:

    I wish everyone would stop saying Kim has made concessions. He's stopped testing for two reasons: his test sites are in ruin and the rockets work. In addition, he planned on tearing down his main test site because it is rubble and totally useless.

    Also, Bolton's recent comments that we might have to use the Libya option on NK, sent a very strong message to Kim...regime change.

  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:


    Well done!

    You got out of the gates quickly with Quixotic. Peripatetic. Mercurial.

    I would have added: Arsenical. and Plutoniumistic.

    Maybe bullshitter in a China shop as well.

    Paula-2 It's beginning to look like cash flow is a bit of a problem for President. So is the Emoluments Clause, if anybody in Congress really cares to enforce it.

  8. [8] 
    Paula wrote:

    [6] TS: "It's beginning to look like cash flow is a bit of a problem for President."

    Michael Cohen claims he took out a 2nd Mortgage to front the $130,000 to Stormy Daniels then it took some months for Blotus to reimburse him. Blotus the self-proclaimed billionaire couldn't come up with $130,000?

    "So is the Emoluments Clause, if anybody in Congress really cares to enforce it."


  9. [9] 
    Paula wrote:

    Senate votes to keep Net Neutrality! All Dems on board, 3 GOP. Let it be hung around the neck of every Republican serving or running for Congress.

  10. [10] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    the senate's vote is largely symbolic. a better bet would be states refusing contracts to any isp that doesn't abide by neutrality rules.

  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    jay [3] -

    Damn, you're right. Lemme fix it...

    and thanks for the eagle eye...


  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    C. R. Stucki [4] -

    OK, now THAT was funny!


    "Say, buddy, can you spare a dime?"


    ardis [6] -

    I hear you, although I did omit one other one -- Kim released the three prisoners. Just forgot about it when writing this, but it was indeed a concession, I have to admit.

    TheStig [7] -

    OK, now I'm going to have to look up "Arsenical" and "Plutoniumistic." Never heard either one before, I gotta admit!


    Learn something new every day...

    (I have to admit I learned the word "peripatetic" from Calvin and Hobbes...)


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